Genome-wide erasure of DNA cytosine-5 methylation has been reported to occur along the paternal pronucleus in fertilized oocytes in an apparently replication-independent manner, but the mechanism of this reprogramming process has remained enigmatic. Recently, considerable amounts of 5-hydroxymethylcytosine (5hmC), most likely derived from enzymatic oxidation of 5-methylcytosine (5mC) by TET proteins, have been detected in certain mammalian tissues. 5hmC has been proposed as a potential intermediate in active DNA demethylation. Here, we show that in advanced pronuclear-stage zygotes the paternal pronucleus contains substantial amounts of 5hmC but lacks 5mC. The converse is true for the maternal pronucleus, which retains 5mC but shows little or no 5hmC signal. Importantly, 5hmC persists into mitotic one-cell, two-cell, and later cleavage-stage embryos, suggesting that 5mC oxidation is not followed immediately by genome-wide removal of 5hmC through excision repair pathways or other mechanisms. This conclusion is supported by bisulfite sequencing data, which shows only limited conversion of modified cytosines to cytosines at several gene loci. It is likely that 5mC oxidation is carried out by the Tet3 oxidase. Tet3, but not Tet1 or Tet2, was expressed at high levels in oocytes and zygotes, with rapidly declining levels at the two-cell stage. Our results show that 5mC oxidation is part of the early life cycle of mammals.