Cadbury has changed the name of its annual ‘Easter Egg Trail’ to ‘Cadbury’s Great British Egg Hunt’, callously dropping any reference to the Christian festival celebrated by 31.5 million Brits. (Actually, the word ‘Easter’ appears multiple times in the marketing, but it’s out of the title, and that’s the important bit.) Theresa May has taken this as an opportunity to tell everyone yet again that she is the daughter of a vicar, calling the decision ‘absolutely ridiculous’ and reminding the country that Easter is ‘a very important festival for the Christian faith for millions across the world’.
So it is – far more so than the overhyped Christmas celebration. But if May remembers much about her religious education (which I am sure she does), she knows full well that there is nothing in the Bible which suggests children should be sent off to hunt for chocolate eggs. Her interjection is far more likely to be a signal to Christians that she shares their values than an actual religious objection.
Almost every religion has a springtime festival of some kind, and the motif of an egg for rebirth and renewal is in no way specific to Christianity. It is true that, in the context of Easter, the egg can specifically symbolise the empty tomb of Christ, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many parents laying an Easter egg trail who make this link. In other religions and cultures, eggs are simply a symbol of new life – Egyptians, Cretans and Mesopotamians were decorating eggs to commentate death and rebirth thousands of years before Christianity. Many of the trappings of Easter – eggs, chicks and bunnies – are derived from the worship of the Germanic spring goddess Ēostre, from whose name we get the word Easter in the first place. Given the timing of Easter, there is strong evidence to suggest that early Christians imposed the memorialisation of the death of Jesus onto the Pagan springtime festivals that already existed.
That is, after all, what they did with Christmas. 25 December happens to be the date of the Roman festival of Sol Invictus (the unconquered sun), which celebrated the Winter Solstice. The Christmas tree has a number of Pagan origins, from the Romans to the Vikings, while the Yule log dates back to the Celts, and mistletoe was significant to the Druids. Needless to say the Bible does not mention turkey, crackers, or eggnog, anymore than it does chocolate eggs.
None of this is to say that religious traditions are not important. In Britain in particular they play a huge cultural role, as evidenced by the Prime Minister wading into this debate. But it is a misunderstanding to suggest that Cadbury’s decision is somehow an attack on Easter, as though there is only one way to celebrate. Cadbury can call their event whatever they like – and British Christians can continue to hold Easter egg hunts. To suggest otherwise is absurd.
Religious traditions develop over time. They can evolve and change. Easter eggs used to be painted eggshells. Then they were made of chocolate, and now some people eat them in April without any thought to what they might represent. And that’s okay. But part of enjoying your own interpretation of religious customs is accepting that other people might feel differently. Cadbury, which was founded by a Quaker who shunned the celebration of Easter altogether, made a commercial decision. If people are upset, they don’t have to attend the event or buy Cadbury eggs.
One might think that the Prime Minister, who is in Saudi Arabia today, could have found more important ways to speak out in defence of religious freedom than declaring war on a chocolate company.
Rachel Cunliffe is the deputy editor of Reaction