History of the Hunt: How an Easter Tradition Was Hatched

Published: 16 March 2020
Posted by: English Heritage
Category: History In-depth

Every Easter, children across the country rush around their homes and gardens searching for chocolate eggs. For many families Easter just isn’t Easter without the annual egg hunt.

But why do we associate treasure hunts with Easter? Let's explore where the egg hunt originated and how it came to be a part of our Easter celebrations.

Why do we hide eggs at Easter?

In many pre-Christian societies eggs held associations with spring and new life. Early Christians adapted these beliefs, making the egg a symbol of the resurrection and the empty shell a metaphor for Jesus’ tomb. 

In the medieval period eating eggs was forbidden during Lent, the 40 day period before Easter. On Easter Sunday the fast ended with feasting and merriment, and eggs were considered an important part of these celebrations. This was especially true for poorer people who couldn’t afford meat. Eggs were also given to the church as Good Friday offerings, and villagers often gave eggs as gifts to the lord of the manor at Easter. Royals got involved with this tradition too – in 1290 Edward I purchased 450 eggs to be decorated with colours or gold leaf and then distributed to his household.

Find out more about why we have Easter eggs.

The custom of the Easter egg hunt, however, comes from Germany. Some suggest that its origins date back to the late 16th century, when the Protestant reformer Martin Luther organised egg hunts for his congregation. The men would hide the eggs for the women and children to find. This was a nod to the story of the resurrection, in which the empty tomb was discovered by women.

In the German Lutheran tradition the Easter egg hunt is linked to the Easter Bunny – or the Easter Hare as he was originally known. The first written reference to the Easter Hare was in 1682 in Georg Franck von Franckenau’s essay, De ovis paschalibus (‘About Easter eggs’). However links between hares and rabbits and Easter go back earlier in central Europe. Hares were associated with fertility and with the Virgin Mary, and sometimes appear in paintings of the Virgin and Christ Child, and also in illuminated manuscripts. Custom had it that the hare would bring a basket of brightly painted eggs for all the children who had been good, and these would be hidden around the house and garden for the children to find.

A wild rabbit at Brodsworth Hall and Gardens.

As a child the future Queen Victoria enjoyed egg hunts at Kensington Palace. These were put on by her mother, the German-born Duchess of Kent. On Sunday 7 April 1833, the 14-year-old Princess Victoria wrote in her diary: ‘Mama did some pretty painted & ornamented eggs, & we looked for them’. 

Victoria and Albert continued this German tradition, hiding eggs for their own children to find on Maundy Thursday. Albert was responsible for hiding the eggs, concealing them in ‘little moss baskets’ and hiding them around the palace. Victoria made numerous references to these egg hunts in her journals, including in 1869 when she wrote: ‘After breakfast, the children, as usual on this day looked for Easter eggs.’

Queen Victoria and her family at Osborne
© Historic England

The royal family usually spent Easter at Windsor Castle, but in 1848 they stayed at Victoria’s holiday home at Osborne on the Isle of Wight. Victoria wrote in her journal:

‘During our breakfast & after, the Children hunted for Easter eggs, it being Maundy Thursday, & they were in the greatest delight.’

The eggs were probably hard-boiled and decorated, as was the custom at the time. The simplest way to colour eggs was to boil them with onion skins, which gave the shells a rich golden hue. Another technique was to wrap the egg in gorse flowers before boiling. This produced a delicate yellow and brown pattern. 

You can have a go at decorating your own eggs with a few household ingredients to hide for your own family this Easter.

Artificial eggs began to appear in London in the 1850s and, according to the Illustrated London News, had become popular by 1874. On 2 April 1863 Queen Victoria noted in her diary, ‘Baby [Beatrice] very happy with a huge Easter egg (containing a doll & its toilette), which Affie [her brother] had brought her.’ Chocolate eggs first appeared in France and Germany in the early 19th century, but here in the UK it was Fry’s who produced the first chocolate Easter egg in 1873.

Though the egg hunt had its origins in central Europe, Britain had its own egg-related Easter traditions. In the north of England and in Scotland the custom of decorating eggs, and giving them as presents, or using them to decorate the home goes back many centuries. Known as ‘pace-egging’ from the Latin for Easter, pascha, it is first recorded in early-eighteenth century Lancashire, and by the early 19th century was popular across large parts of the country.

Egg rolling was also an Easter tradition in the north of Britain, particularly in Cumbria, where children came together from the 1790s to roll decorated eggs down grassy hills. In the Edwardian period large crowds gathered each year at traditional egg rolling sites like the castle moat at Penrith, Avenham Park in Preston and Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh.

The modern day egg hunt

Easter eggs and the egg hunt became more popular in mainstream England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as society began to change. Family life became more of a priority for the expanding Victorian middle classes, and they had more disposable income. The Victorians were also fascinated by old traditions. As a result, Easter moved away from being a primarily religious and communal celebration and became more centred on family, home and the pleasures of children.

Nevertheless, at the turn of the century egg hunts remained something of a novelty – so much so that in 1892 the poet A.E. Housman thought it was worth noting that ‘In Germany at Easter time they hide coloured eggs about the house and garden that the children may amuse themselves in discovering them.’ But since the mid-20th century, confectionery companies such as Fry’s, Cadbury’s and Rowntree have used the popularity of Easter egg hunts to promote their products.

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