Only within the last century were chocolate eggs exchanged as Easter gifts. But the springtime exchanging of real eggs—white, coloured, and gold-leafed—is an ancient custom, predating Easter by many centuries. From earliest times, and in most cultures, the egg signified birth and resurrection.
The Egyptians buried eggs in their tombs. The Greeks placed eggs on top of graves. The Romans coined a proverb: Omne vivum ex ovo,“All life comes from an egg.” And legend has it that Simon of Cyrene, who helped carry Christ’s cross to Calvary, was by trade an egg merchant. (Upon returning from the crucifixion to his hens, he allegedly discovered that all his hens’ eggs had miraculously turned a rainbow of colors; substantive evidence for this legend is weak.)
Thus, when the Church started to celebrate the Resurrection, in the second century, it did not have to search far for a popular and easily recognizable symbol. In those days, wealthy people would cover a gift egg with gilt or gold leaf, while peasants often dyed their eggs. The tinting was achieved by boiling the eggs with certain flowers, leaves, logwood chips, or the cochineal insect. Spinach leaves or anemone petals were considered best for green; the bristly gorse blossom for yellow; logwood for rich purple; and the body fluid of the cochineal produced scarlet.
In parts of Germany during the early 1880s, Easter eggs substituted for birth certificates. An egg was dyed a solid color, then a design, which included the recipient’s name and birth date, was etched into the shell with a needle or sharp tool. Such Easter eggs were honoured in law courts as evidence of identity and age.
Easter’s most valuable eggs were hand crafted in the 1880s. Made by the great goldsmith Peter Carl Fabergé, they were commissioned by Czar Alexander III of Russia as gifts for his wife, Czarina Maria Feodorovna. The first Fabergé egg, presented in 1886, measured two and a half inches long and had a deceptively simple exterior. Inside the white enamel shell, though, was a golden yolk, which when opened revealed a gold hen with ruby eyes. The hen itself could be opened, by lifting the beak, to expose a tiny diamond replica of the imperial crown. A still smaller ruby pendant hung from the crown. The Fabergé treasures today are collectively valued at over four million dollars. Forty-three of the fifty-three eggs known to have been made by Fabergé are now in museums and private collections.