WHAT came first: Easter or the egg? Theologians can easily answer this, but supermarkets obviously struggle. Now, settling the argument for once and all, a pair of investigative reporters at the cutting edge of the profession have discovered that the eggs have it. Examining more than 100 on sale in Tesco, they found that only 17 use the word “Easter” on their packaging. In other stores, meanwhile, there are chocolate confections so beautifully crafted they should be on display in The Hermitage in St Petersburg. Yet while they might be stuffed with e-numbers, the E-word is nowhere to be seen. Fabergé eggs have never ditched the Fabergé, but almost all egg-shaped treats whipped up in confectioners’ kitchens for this, the most important date in the Christian calendar, have quietly dropped their raison d’être. Unless a deeper meaning lies behind this absence – a nod, perhaps, to the empty tomb? – the word Easter has gone, never, one suspects, to be resurrected.

Even for those of us who rarely cross the threshold of a church, this seems peculiar. Without wishing to evoke a Pollyannish childhood, in which my brother and sister and I scampered down the hillsides of East Lothian in our knickerbockers and pinafores, I nevertheless have fond memories of our kitchen turned into an artist’s studio as we painted hard-boiled eggs as lovingly as Michelangelo did the Sistine Chapel. The next day we would cycle up country with them in a wicker basket and bounce them down the same windswept slopes where Cromwell and his men had once charged and cracked the Scots’ heads. And although we sat in the pews every Sunday, the grisliness aspect of the Easter message was never dwelt upon in our household, my tender-hearted mother finding it unbearably savage. Easter, as a result, was a delightful occasion, the day I discovered my sweet tooth.

Thanks to my mother, I am entirely sympathetic to softening or even avoiding the story if required. When my four-year-old step-granddaughter goes on an egg-hunt this weekend, you can be sure her humanist mother will not be mentioning the agony of the Cross. Even as an adult it is an appalling experience to dwell on. Yet without the brutal events that led to Easter, where’s the point in chocolate eggs? Without acknowledging the story of the rolled-away stone that inspired them, their meaning evaporates.

This latest instance of the vanishing E-word heightens the unease raised over the National Trust’s airbrushing of Easter from its egg-hunts. That this exercised Theresa May a great deal more than Brexit speaks volumes for its importance among the devout. And while one applauds Manchester’s decision not to proceed with its fund-raising wheeze of giving people “the full crucifixion experience” in public for £750 a pop, the facts behind Easter should not be ignored. Whatever one’s religion or beliefs, the harrowing death that it honours is fundamental to the way our society and attitudes have been shaped. Without Easter, every aspect of the western world, from our laws and language to our music and buildings would be unrecognisable. Using the word Easter or respecting its religious significance does not oblige anyone to accept that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead on the third day. Pretending that a milk chocolate egg has spontaneously appeared on the shop shelves without good cause, however, is denial of an entirely different kind.

The issue, of course, is bigger than just this. As at Christmas, with its child-friendly message, and Bonfire Night, from which mention of Guy Fawkes has disappeared – to ward off sectarian offence or save a tedious history lesson? – the high and holy days of the religious and historic diary are being sandpapered into universal blandness. Soon they will be the liturgical and commemorative equivalent of magnolia paint. Even Lent has lost its hallowed position as a period of abstinence and renouncement, with Dry January and Dechox and other self-improving initiatives removing anything spiritual or contemplative from the age-old Christian cycle.

Landmark anniversaries, such as Armistice and VE Day, have never prompted much beyond lip service, despite what they represent. Yet however important in terms of our history, these dates rarely hold profound personal significance. They are staging posts in the nation’s curriculum vitae rather than evergreen and meaningful passages in an individual’s spiritual journey. This makes it all the more strange, then, that despite the number of church-goers across the UK, Christian dates are under persistent threat in our increasingly secular and multi-faith society. And as religious voices are drowned out by uninterested or heedless non-believers, so they become ripe for commercial and sentimental exploitation.

In some ways that’s perfectly okay. Our world is vastly different from the one many of us grew up in. Countless among us have turned our backs on the church and either found a new spiritual direction, or renounced supernatural convictions of any kind. At the same time the diversity of religious faith has proliferated. I would rejoice to see the country emotionally unshackled from the often oppressive tenets and injunctions of a church whose judgemental principles continue to blight many lives. We may like to think of ourselves as post-Christian, but the influence of our hard, unforgiving heritage still runs deep. Yet while it has been a force for ill as well as good, the once-dominant religious culture of these islands cannot be easily jettisoned, however much some of us might like to throw it overboard. Nor should it be. Without it, we risk losing track of our past. For this reason, the clockwork church calendar that once used to control every citizen’s life must not be forgotten or camouflaged beneath praline chicks and truffle eggs.

Without a doubt I would rather talk to a child about chocolate bunny rabbits than crucifixion. But not to explain at some point the terrible events that led to belief in the Resurrection would be to short-change our youngsters, and us. Like it or not, while Easter can be explained as history or myth rather than living truth, it cannot be ignored. At its heart is a story of renewal and rebirth. Perhaps this is what we should focus on, sweetening the original story with the message of hope and new life that springtime always inspires, whatever else you may believe in.