Sunday, 20th June 2021
COVER FEATURE | Food & Drink Article

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Which was first, the chicken or the rabbit?

Which was first, the chicken or the rabbit?

What has all this got to do with Easter?

The English word Easter, though it has come to designate a Christian holiday, actually takes its name from the pagan festival of Eostre, goddess of spring, and has roots deep in Anglo-Saxon mythology. Easter is also timed to coincide with the Jewish feast of Passover. It comes like a breath of spring, marking the return of the planting and lambing seasons.

For the Christian world, Easter is the commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection, observed on the first Sunday after the full moon following the spring equinox, which can fall anywhere between March 22 and April 25 and, this year, Easter Sunday is on the 23rd March. But for those who love food, it is also a holiday associated with chocolate, painted eggs and big family meals. It is customary early on Easter morning for children to get up and search the house for eggs and other treats left by the Easter bunny… the eggs and the rabbit both are ancient symbols of fertility and springtime rebirth.

An egg's shape is fascinating. The tradition of decorated eggs goes back to the furthest reaches of history, because since time immemorial the egg's shape has symbolized fertility, life and renewal. In the Middle Ages great egg processions were held, occasions to celebrate the season of renewal and rebirth as nature awoke from her long sleep.

Other sources say that the egg symbolizes the four elements of life: the shell represents the earth; the membrane, air; the white, water; and the yolk, fire.

In Chinese custom, nothing is as effective in bringing luck to a newborn as numerous egg designs in the baby's cradle. On a more practical note, however, the use of eggs for Easter may well be attributed to the fact that chickens do not fast for lent.


A strong wave of piety ran through chicken farms from the 4th century onwards, leading to the custom of giving eggs on the first Sunday after the full moon following the spring equinox - a rather less spiritual way to celebrate Christ's resurrection throughout Christendom. Why? You may ask. Simply because the church forbade the consumption of eggs during the forty days of fasting that proceeded Easter, but since chickens don't observe Lent, they continued to lay! Thus by Easter morning, people found themselves with a large quantity of eggs making it necessary to share the surplus by giving them away. A basket full of fresh eggs is a nice gift - but when coloured and painted with figures and designs, they became true presents: beautifully arrayed and designed to give pleasure.

Every country and every era has had its particular styles. Traditions have not evolved in the same way from one region to the next, although one thing remains the same: on Easter morning eggs of varying colours are exchanged, whether among Egyptian Coptic Christians of the 10th to 12th centuries, or the inhabitants of Alsace in the 15th and 16th centuries.

In the year 1200, under England's King Edward I, the royal ledgers showed an expense of 18 pence for the purchase of 450 eggs that were decorated with gold leaf before being distributed to members of the royal household. The gold-covered eggs brought wealth to those who received them. This royal custom was still in evidence 500 years later when Louis XIV of France institutionalized it. His people were required to bring him the largest egg laid in the kingdom during Holy Week, while on Easter Sunday the king himself, surrounded by large baskets, would personally distribute gilded eggs to both his courtiers and menials. Later on, eggs became used as currency and every year churchmen would go through the streets of Paris, baskets on their arms, to collect their ecclesiastical dues.

It was not until the 18th century, in France, that someone came up with the idea to empty out a fresh eggshell and fill it with chocolate. Then came moulds, decorations and many delicious traditions. In France, when children hear the bells on Easter morning they set out into the yard to hunt for Easter eggs… or for chocolate chickens hiding in the shrubbery! Here it's the bells that bring sweets to good children, hidden under their wide iron or bronze skirts, as they ring out their pride at having been blessed in Rome on this holy day. However they are not the only emissaries: in the Tyrol it's a chicken, in Switzerland a cuckoo, and in Anglo-Saxon countries, a rabbit.

The tradition of the chocolate bunny has had a long evolution, beginning with the ancient Teutons who firmly believed that at Easter it was the rabbits' turn to sit on eggs. The rabbit-Easter-chocolate associations derive from this popular tradition.

I can’t see the local supermarket accepting payment in eggs of any kind, as here in Spain the chocolate egg does not seem to be part of the Eater tradition and can only be purchased from specialized “foreign managed” shops.

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