Easter is a true moveable feast. The First Council of Nicaea in 325CE established the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon following the March equinox. Consequently it can be as early as March 22nd and as late as 25th April. The Eastern Orthodox church bases its calculations on the Julian calendar in which April 3rd corresponds to March 21st. The range of possible dates for Easter for the Orthodox church runs from 4th April to 8th May.
The early Christians were past masters at adopting pagan festivals for their own use. Their Christian festival of Easter celebrating the resurrection of Christ is timed to coincide with early spring, the period of rebirth and renewal. Many pagan societies marked the start of spring with festivals celebrating the renewal of life and the promotion of fertility. Northern European communities celebrated a festival named after a goddess of spring, dawn and fertility, Eostre. Two prominent images associated with the festival were the hare and the egg. As Christian missionaries moved north they saw the sense in appropriating some of the (presumably) popular features of Eostre into their celebration of Christ’s resurrection and the rest is history, as they say.
Over time the hare became a rabbit but the furry pest has become firmly associated with Easter time. In around the 1600s we have the first literary reference to a rabbit in the context of Easter, the German Oschter Haws who was believed to lay a nest of coloured eggs for good children.
Eggs themselves are, naturally, a symbol of rebirth. In the Orthodox church eggs were dyed red to represent the blood of Christ shed on the cross and the hard shell symbolised his entombment, the cracking of which signified his resurrection. In 1610 Pope Paul V associated eggs with the resurrection in a prayer, “Bless, O Lord, we beseech thee, this thy creature of eggs, that it may become a wholesome sustenance to thy faithful servants, eating it in thankfulness to thee on account of the resurrection of the Lord”.
The first chocolate Easter eggs were made in France and Germany in the 19th century. A type of eating chocolate had only just been invented and the first eggs were solid. John Cadbury first made his French eating chocolate in 1842 but it was not until 1875 that he made his first Easter egg. Modern eggs owe their existence to two major developments in the production of chocolate – the invention of a press to separate cocoa butter from the bean (1828, Van Houten) and the introduction of pure cocoa butter (1866, Cadbury brothers). The earliest Cadbury eggs were made of dark chocolate and the earliest decorated eggs were plain shells enhanced with chocolate piping and marzipan flowers. The introduction of the more popular dairy milk chocolate in 1905 was the stimulus the easter egg trade needed.
So now we know!