Colored eggs in a basket

A Short History of Egg Painting

Decorating Easter eggs is an extremely popular Easter tradition. Every year, millions of families will dye, paint, or otherwise decorate eggs for Easter. Some families who don’t decorate eggs themselves will purchase pre-painted eggs, brightly colored plastics eggs, or help their kids hunt for eggs if the weather is nice enough. Little do most people know, that decorating eggs is a tradition that goes back to the very beginnings of human history.

Brightly colored easter eggs in a wicker basket
Painted eggs in a basket Ikonact, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

Early Decorated Eggs

The oldest decorated eggs go all the way back to 55 to 65 thousand years ago. These eggs were found in South Africa. Archeologists believe that hunter-gatherers used ostrich eggs to carry water, as some tribes still do today. The ancient tribes marked the eggs with lines. Some eggs found had a cross-hatch pattern, others had wavy lines. Amazingly, some eggs show different colors than the normal ostrich’s white/yellow, so they may have painted the eggs as well! During the Bronze and Iron Ages, ostrich eggs were found as far away from Africa as Spain.

Most ancient cultures seem to have placed a special significance on eggs and, at times, decorating them. Ancient Egyptians believed in a great “cosmic egg.” Chinese and Indian myths both have creator beings born from eggs. Finnish mythology also has the world being created from fragments of an egg laid by a goldeneye. Other mythologies have restoration or creation myths involving eggs. So it can be easy to see how eggs are linked to Easter and the rebirth of Jesus.

Decorated eggs were also found in other regions of the world. Persians and Zoroastrians used decorated and painted eggs for Nowruz. Nowruz is the New Year in some parts of the world and is celebrated at the Spring Equinox. People in Eurasia still follow this tradition.

Painted Eggs and Easter

Painting eggs for Easter started with the Eastern Orthodox. Most egg decorating began well before Christianity. So it’s not surprising that those who already decorated the eggs around the time of Easter began incorporating them into their Easter celebrations. Ukrainian egg decoration, called pysanky, is very elaborate. These eggs are often given as gifts for health and fertility.

Pysanky painted eggs
Pysanky eggs Lubap Creator:Luba Petrusha, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The earliest record linking the painted eggs directly with Easter comes from the Middle Ages when England’s King Edward I ordered 450 eggs to be colored and given out to other royals. Eggs tended to be cheap and the practice caught on.

Easter egg hunts became popular in Germany in the 1600’s and spread across Europe. By the Victorian era, early fake eggs were being used.

Chocolate eggs started in the late 1800’s and the Industrial Revolution helped make mass-producing the candy possible. Now millions of chocolate eggs are distributed each year.

Egg Color Meanings

As eggs already symbolized life and rebirth, they fit in quite well with the story of Jesus’ resurrection. Certain colors quickly took on special meanings

Red was for the blood of Christ, Mary’s tears staining the eggs red, and the eggs next to Jesus’ tomb turning red.

White was for purity. Sometimes this is for the purity of the Virgin Mary. Other times it is for the lilies that grew in Easter lilies.

Black is for mourning and grief. This mainly relates to the crucifixion and death of Jesus.

Violet stands for royalty, as well as penance and sadness. This is to remind people of Jesus’ suffering.

Green is the color of life. For Easter, it means eternal life. Green also stands for spring and renewal.

Yellow tends to stand for happiness. It’s the color of joy. It’s also the color of sunshine. Gold stands for victory. Gold symbolizes the victory of life over death.

How Do You Decorate Easter Eggs?

There are many ways to decorate easter eggs. Some follow ancient traditions of blowing out eggs and using wax. Some hand-paint their eggs. Others go to the store and buy a kit. And others still use stickers.

There’s really no right or wrong way to decorate eggs- this tradition has been evolving for 60 thousand years! How do you and your family decorate eggs? Let us know in the comments below.

Want to Learn More?

Check out these websites!

Good Housekeeping goes into detail about the colors of Easter. Parade does as well!

Want to know more about ancient eggs?

Kitchn is a great resource that goes into more detail about Easter eggs.

The Library of Congress has a good overview of egg decorating.

Want to travel over the holiday? Why not see some historic lighthouses? Check out some historic New Jersey lighthouses!

Published by

Jackie Standaert

I'm an office worker by day, a historian by night. At some point, I'll have enough money saved to get my Ph.D. in History, but for now, my B.A. will have to do.

One thought on “A Short History of Egg Painting”

Leave a Reply