These days, Easter eggs are painted by children and adults alike in a variety of colors and with an array of symbols and pictures. Painting eggs as a custom has been documented to reach back over several thousand years. The colors and symbols used in painting eggs held special meanings and were often part of rituals. Those meanings changed and adapted over time depending on which culture and which religion people belonged to that were painting eggs.
Over time, eggs held significance as a symbol of life and fertility in different cultures and religions. This was documented already in antiquity. Then, eggs painted red were given away as fertility symbols and charms. The color red stood for potency and love. Early Christians painted eggs with red paint, too, but this came to symbolize the blood of Christ. Eggs were also often used in Christianity as a symbol of the death and subsequent resurrection of Christ. As a seemingly inanimate object, an egg eventually brings forth life, a miracle if ever there was one. This kind of interpretation was widely known in the Middle Age.
Christians observed a 40-day fasting period leading up to Easter; this custom persists in the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. The Lenten fast forbade the consumption of meat and dairy products. In its strictest form, this would mean all food deriving from animal sources including eggs. As freshly laid eggs could not be eaten for 40 days, and with only limited use for chicks, people cooked them to make them durable and consumable at a later date. Oral folk tradition has it that boiled eggs were painted in order to distinguish them from raw ones.
As taxes and tithes were due on Maundy Thursday at the end of Lent, eggs were a staple to pay for these dues. Reduced egg consumption during Lenten fast coincided with raised egg laying patterns in chickens in spring resulting in an abundance of eggs. At Easter, at the end of Lent, the remaining collected eggs were eaten or given away.
Besides the color red, eggs were painted in other colors holding different meanings depending on local culture and custom. Yellow stood for the desire for enlightenment and wisdom. Green was for youth and innocence and also, as today, as the color of hope. Eggs painted golden spread in Eastern Europe as a sign of preciousness both of the egg and the receiver. Patterns used on eggs also held meaning: Meandering lines stood for eternal life. Points or teardrop shapes represented Saint Mary. Triangles were used for the Holy Trinity.
Starting quite early in Christian history, eggs can be found in many pictures of Saint Mary as a symbol of the virgin birth. The first painted eggs were mentioned in a text from the 13th century in Germany. Specifically red colored eggs are documented for 1553, and the term ‘Easter egg’ appeared 60 years later. Frank mentioned the hiding of Easter eggs for the first time in his Satyrae of 1682.