As the feast of Easter developed in Christian tradition, so did the festival's preparatory period, known as Lent. This involved fasting and later abstinence from certain foods, including eggs. The festal letter of Athanasius in 330 shows that the early church was practising a 40-day fast prior to Easter (also indicated in Canon V of the first Nicene Council). The fifth-century church historian Socrates Scholasticus noted, "Some abstain from eggs …" Canon LVI of the Council in Trullo, 692, enjoined such abstinence: "It seems good therefore that the whole Church of God which is in all the world should follow one rule and keep the fast perfectly, and as they abstain from everything which is killed, so also should they from eggs and cheese, which are the fruit and produce of those animals from which we abstain."

By the time of the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-74), eggs, milk, and meat were all forbidden during Lent: "Eggs and milk foods are forbidden to those who fast, for as much as they originate from animals that provide us with flesh … Again the Lenten fast is the most solemn of all, both because it is kept in imitation of Christ, and because it disposes us to celebrate devoutly the mysteries of our redemption. For this reason the eating of flesh meat is forbidden in every fast, while the Lenten fast lays a general prohibition even on eggs and milk foods."

In pre-refrigeration days, it would be difficult to preserve milk and meat products until Easter, but the same was not true of eggs. Eggs, which unlike other foods do not perish quickly, were therefore a natural way to break the fast on Easter Sunday. Presenting gifts of eggs at Easter has a long and culturally ...

Subscriber Access OnlyYou have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Already a CT subscriber? for full digital access.