Easter has always been a holiday celebrated with great enthusiasm in my family. Part of it was due to their Catholic tradition–after the long Lenten season it was time to celebrate. But honestly, after a long New England winter, wearing a pretty bonnet or enjoying a meal of ‘spring lamb’ was just the thing to provide a more hopeful outlook on life.
I remember as a child receiving a colorful “Easter chick.” Being close in age, each of my three siblings received one and the baby birds were kept in a large cardboard box until they began to grow, then they were transferred to the chicken coop in the back yard. Today of course there are laws against such things, to prevent cruelty to animals.
From various newspaper records, it appears that this custom of giving Easter chickens or rabbits began in the 1880s, and I find ‘Easter chickens’ first for sale in Pennsylvania. The first notice, however, of coloring them is found by a store in Keene, New Hampshire.
“A brood of Easter chickens which have been comfortably housed in one of Frank G. Dort & Co.’s show windows for a day or two past have attracted no little attention from passers by and curious visitors. The chicks were originally white, but have been fantastically colored with diamond dyes so that they present a most striking as well as a very pretty appearance. Blue, green, carmine, orange, and purple chickens of the brightest hues are indeed a novelty and as the little fellows ran about in the sand and grass arranged for them in the window, and dodge back and forth into the coop and under the old hen comfortably quartered in the rear, they make a living picture which one does not soon tire of looking at. The chicks were colored by washing them in the liquid colors with a sponge, and then putting them under the hen where they soon got dry again, the colors in the meantime setting firmly. When the chicks came out in the morning in their new garbs, the old hen did not manifest any concern or uneasiness at their fantastic appearance. On the contrary, she seems rather proud of her brood. A number of highly colored Easter eggs add to the adornments of the window.”
–Wednesday, April 24, 1889: New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, NH) Vol XCI, Issue 17, page 5
The tradition of gifting “Easter eggs” is much older and remains to this day. The Easter egg ‘hunt’ in the United States, however, began about the same time as the gifting of baby chicks, in the late 1880s. By about 1890 such hunts appear to have become an accepted tradition here. In April of 1890 the Augusta Chronicle announced an Easter Egg Hunt to benefit the Presbyterian Ladies’ Sewing Society. From 1890 to 1894 these hunts appear to occur mostly in the southern states of Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Washington DC. By 1899 the tradition has spread north to New England.
New Hampshire has continued the tradition of Easter Egg Hunts to this day with many towns holding events in addition to individual churches. A partial list of events being held in 2015 here found here. Please check with your local newspaper, online event calendar or church bulletin to find more.
*ADDITIONAL EASTER READING*
New Hampshire and the Easter Bonnet (published in 2014)
Not New Hampshire: Roscoe E. Rodda, Inventor of Peeps (1862-1941) (published in 2013)
A New Hampshire Easter Medly (published in 2008)
Pinterest: Old Fashioned Easter Hats