Only within the last century were
chocolate and candy eggs exchanged as Easter gifts. But the springtime exchanging of real
eggs-white, colored, and gold-leafed-is an ancient custom, predating Easter by many
From earliest times, and in most cultures, the egg signified birth and
resurrection. The Egyptians buried eggs in their tombs. The Greeks placed eggs atop
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 Christs cross to
Calvary, was by trade an egg merchant. (Upon returning from the crucifixion to his produce
farm, 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, log wood chips, or the cochineal insect. Spinach leaves or anemone petals
were considered best for green; the bristly gorse blossom for yellow; log wood 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
recipients name and birth date, was etched into the shell with a needle or sharp
tool. Such Easter eggs were honored in law courts as evidence of identity and age.
Easters most valuable eggs were hand crafted in the 1880s. Made by the great
goldsmith Peter Carl Faberge, they were commissioned by Czar Alexander III of Russia as
gifts for his wife, Czarina Maria Feodorovna. The first Faberge 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. The Faberge treasures today are collectively valued at over
four million dollars. Forty-three of the fifty-three eggs, known to have been made by
Faberge, are now in museums and private collections.