Christians have been celebrating the feast of Easter for more than 2000 years but chocolate for people to eat has only been widely available for a couple of hundred years so chocolate eggs are a relatively recent addition to the festival. We don’t have an exact date for the first chocolate egg (although Fry’s claim to have made the first mass produced one in the 1870s), but they’ve certainly been around since the late nineteenth century. However (and this is the really surprising part of the chocolate egg’s history), until the 1920s chocolate fish, chocolate shoes, chocolate hares and chocolate cockerels were also pretty popular.
The reason chocolate makers sold shoes, fish and cockerels at Easter comes from a mix of traditions. Fish and cockerels (particularly a cockerel that crows three times and a breakfast of fish beside the sea of Galilee) are important parts of the Christian Easter story, so it seems reasonable for the Quaker chocolate makers Rowntree’s to know about this and to sell them for the festival. Shoes are not part of the Christian Easter story, and their popularity is more obscure, but they may relate to secular celebrations in some parts of the UK, where it is traditional to give children new shoes, clothes or bonnets at this time of year. The chocolate hares are more likely a throwback to historic British celebrations that happen around the same time as Easter.
Although chocolate definitely doesn’t feature in the Christian story of Easter, there is a strong tradition of fasting in the 40 days before Good Friday as a time of spiritual preparation for Eastertide. Historically, Christians would use up their rich fatty foods on Shrove Tuesday and abstain from indulging for Lent. Chocolate became a way to break the Lenten fast with a rich treat.
It wasn’t until after the First World War that the popularity of the chocolate fish, shoes and cockerels began to wane, and the hare evolved into the (cuter) Easter Bunny.
Interestingly, eggs don’t feature in the Easter story told in the Bible at all. There are a few reasons why they might have become associated with the festival: one is that they look like a stone and there is an important stone boulder in the Christian Easter story which is rolled away; another is that they are symbols of new life (when they hatch into chicks) and could have related to the new life in the Christian Easter story. Some scholars (including the Venerable Bede, the 7th century British Christian historian) believe that the decoration of eggs at this time of year doesn’t derive from Christian tradition at all; spring is the time of year when hens began to lay eggs again (in modern farming they can be bred to lay all year round, but this hasn’t always been the case) and so they were symbolic of the time of year and may have been incorporated into the celebrations because of the season that Easter falls in Europe.
In our confectionery archive we have examples and records of thousands of Easter products from down the decades. It should be noted, given recent media coverage, that most of them don’t refer to Easter explicitly on the packaging. In fact, if you take a look at this sales catalogue from 1914 you’ll see that none of the eggs are called Easter eggs; the only mention of Easter is on the cover of the catalogue (and that would have only been seen by shopkeepers) and on a small label that say "Easter Novelties" and appears on three of the eggs and two of the novelties out of a catalogue of 65.
Eggs are not the only seasonal products in the company archive; we have examples of Easter-themed Dairy Box and Black Magic boxes; selection boxes for Christmas; chocolate ornaments for the Christmas tree; and even chocolate chicks. However, more often than not they don’t mention Christmas or Easter on the packaging and, of course, because these products are made and sold especially for the seasonal period it’s clear to people what they are celebrating. Easter eggs remain a much-loved tradition during Eastertide in the UK and we continue to make them with pride, as we’ve always done (11 million have been made this year alone at our factory in Halifax, West Yorkshire). So when you’re enjoying your chocolate egg this year, spare a thought for the chocolate fish and the chocolate cockerels that have been consigned to history.