Easter is observed as a religious holiday around the world, and is the Christian church's most important festival, marking the crucifixion and subsequent resurrection of Jesus. But many of the customs we now observe at Easter are not of Christian origin.
The giving of eggs – representing new life - as gifts around the Spring equinox long predates Christianity, though Christian tradition has adopted the practice with an empty egg coming to represent Jesus' empty tomb after the resurrection.
But how and why did the practice start – and why are our Easter eggs now made of chocolate?
Where do Easter eggs come from?
The practice of decorating birds' eggs dates back tens of thousands of years – decorated and engraved ostrich eggs have been discovered in Africa that date as far back as 60,000 years.
But the Christian tradition of giving Easter eggs began in Mesopotamia - modern-day Iraq and Syria – where egg decoration had already been a custom for a few thousand years. Eeggs would be stained red by early Christians to symbolise the blood shed by Jesus at his crucifixion. From here, the giving of Easter eggs spread to Russia and Eastern Europe via the Orthodox church.
Another reason given for the adoption of the tradition by Christians is that eggs would have been forbidden during Lent, so they would be decorated and given as gifts to eat, in celebration of the end of fasting.
Why do we eat chocolate eggs?
In the 18th century, people began to get more creative with their egg-giving. Fake eggs made of papier-maché, with small gifts hidden inside, could be purchased around this time; by the 19th century cardboard eggs covered with silk, lace or velvet and tied with ribbon were fashionable.
The first chocolate eggs appeared in France and Germany in the 19th Century. These were made of dark chocolate and were usually bitter-tasting; because there was no process at this time for moulding chocolate, they were also solid and hard.
When did Easter eggs as we know them first appear?
Developments in chocolate-making toward the end of the century allowed for the first hollow eggs, resembling the ones we eat today, to be developed and sold. Eggs were now not only able to be decorated and hold gifts inside them, they were now also a sweet treat in themselves.
The first of these were made in Bristol, by chocolatier JS Fry & Son, in 1873. The company eventually merged with Cadbury's, which launched its first Easter egg line in 1875.
The earliest Cadbury chocolate eggs were made of dark chocolate and were filled with smaller sweets. Their earliest decorated eggs had plain shells enhanced by chocolate piping and marzipan flowers. The practice of giving chocolate eggs a swirled or patterned finish, as opposed to a smooth one, came from Germany and was used to mask any minor imperfections.
The development of milk chocolate helped popularise eggs as a best selling treat at Easter. Today the Easter egg market remains predominantly milk chocolate-based.
In Western cultures, the giving of chocolate eggs is now commonplace, with 90 million Easter eggs sold every year in the UK alone; each Easter, around £300 million is spent on chocolate in this country.