The Easter Egg: Its History and Cultural Significance

In Switzerland, Easter (or 'Oschtere' in German) is widely celebrated and marks the onset of spring season, which is celebrated with much fanfare. A common and beloved Swiss Easter tradition is painting your own Easter eggs ("Eier dekorieren").

What are Easter Eggs?

Easter eggs, also called Paschal eggs, are decorated eggs (as above) that are usually used as gifts on the occasion of Easter or springtime celebration. As such, Easter eggs are common during the season of Eastertide (Easter season). The oldest tradition is to use dyed and painted chicken eggs, but a modern custom is to substitute chocolate eggs wrapped in colourful foil, or plastic eggs filled with confectionery such as chocolate. Although eggs, in general, were a traditional symbol of fertility and rebirth for the celebration of Eastertide.

Origins of the Easter Egg

It is commonly thought that the word Easter comes from a pagan figure called Eastre (or Eostre) who was celebrated as the goddess of spring by the Saxons of Northern Europe. The only problem with this theory is that it has no basis in history. The existence of a goddess named Ēastre or a spring festival in her honour is based on pure conjecture. The same is true of the origin of the Easter bunny and Easter eggs—no one knows for sure how these things became a part of Easter observances. The most we can say is that the word Easter is probably related to the word east (ost in German) and that the Saxons had a month they called Eosturmononath.

The practice of decorating eggshells as part of spring rituals is ancient, with decorated, engraved ostrich eggs found in Africa which are 60,000 years old. In the pre-dynastic period of Egypt and the early cultures of Mesopotamia and Crete, eggs were associated with death and rebirth, as well as with kingship, with decorated ostrich eggs, and representations of ostrich eggs in gold and silver, were commonly placed in graves of the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians as early as 5,000 years ago. These cultural relationships may have influenced early Christian and Islamic cultures in those areas, as well as through mercantile, religious, and political links from those areas around the Mediterranean.

The Neo-Pagan holiday of Ostara occurs at roughly the same time as Easter. While it is often claimed that the use of painted eggs is an ancient, pre-Christian component of the celebration of Ostara there are no historical accounts that the celebration of Ostara included this practice, apart from the Old High German lullaby which is believed by most to be a modern fabrication. Rather, the use of painted eggs has been adopted under the assumption that it might be a pre-Christian survival.

There are good grounds for the association between hares (later termed Easter bunnies) and eggs, through folklore confusion between hares’ forms (where they raise their young) and plovers' nests. In 1873, J.S. Fry & Sons of England introduced the first chocolate Easter egg in Britain. In Western cultures, the giving of chocolate eggs is now commonplace, with 80 million Easter eggs sold in the UK alone.

Cultural Significance

The egg is widely used as a symbol of the start of new life, just as new life emerges from an egg when the chick hatches out.

A specific Easter tradition followed in Switzerland is that the cuckoo brings the Easter eggs. Easter eggs, cuckoo and baskets are a vital part of Easter celebrations in Switzerland, used everywhere to enhance its spirit. Chocolate cuckoos, coloured eggs and special Easter cakes are displayed a week before the festival, to remind people, especially children, about the approaching festival. Another popular Easter game in Switzerland is the ‘Zwanzgerle’, wherein the adults have to break the decorated eggs of their children with a twenty-cent coin. If he/she fails, he loses the twenty-cent coin. In case he/she wins, he gets both the coin and the egg.

The Osterbrunnen (Easter Well or Easter Fountain) is a German tradition of decorating public wells or fountains with Easter eggs for Easter. It began in the early 20th century in the Franconian Switzerland region of Upper Franconia but has spread to other regions. The decoration is usually kept from Good Friday until two weeks after Easter. Decorating a well for Easter honours water, essential for life, and Easter, the feast of renewed life. In addition to eggs (now often artificial, to guard against vandalism), paper ribbons called "Pensala" and garlands of evergreens are woven around well-heads or formed into crowns over them. In several locations flowers are also used

Check out these easy to follow steps on how to make your very own Swiss-Style Easter Eggs and watch a short clip on dyed Easter Eggs.

Sources and Other Material

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