Volume 2015, Issue 1

Origins of the Easter Bunny

by Therese Tuttle

I remember as a young girl getting up Easter morning, having breakfast with the family, then getting dressed for Mass.  My sisters and I always had new Easter dresses, new lace socks and white shoes waiting for us.  Mom would fix our hair up in glittery bows and barrettes, and Daddy would buy us flower corsages to wear like bracelets around our little wrists.  My little brothers would don their new blue or black suits with blue ties – how handsome they would look. All seven of us would load up in the station wagon and head to Church.  After Church we would go home, change our clothes and make the trek to Granddad's and Momma Anne’s house for Easter dinner.  Momma Anne was an old fashioned southern cook who could baste a ham like no other.  She always had every kind of vegetables you could imagine and desserts galore of every flavor.  But what we kids enjoyed the most was the Easter egg hunt.  Our grandparents and parents would hide eggs throughout the yard and in the house and then invite all the children in the neighborhood to join us in the Easter egg hunt.   In our little minds there had to be thousands of eggs – some hard boiled and decorated with stripes or dots and some plastic with pennies and candy inside them.  If we got lucky, we would find a chocolate bunny hidden in a tree or bush. Growing up I never really thought about the origins of the Easter Bunny or its eggs, only that they were in my grandparents back yard somewhere, and I was going to find them.  So, just what is the origin of the Easter Bunny?

Easter is the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, and nowhere in the scriptures are chocolate eggs and the rabbit who delivers them found.  Bunnies, eggs, Easter gifts and fluffy, yellow chicks in garden hats all stem from pagan roots. The exact origin of the Easter bunny (or Easter hare for some folks) is a bit of a mystery.  According to the University of Florida’s Center for Children’s Literature and Culture, the origin of the Easter Bunny can be traced back to 13th-century, pre-Christian Germany, when people worshiped several gods and goddesses.  The rabbit, in pagan tradition, represents the festival of Eostre (goddess of fertility) and the rabbit symbolizes energetic breeding, fertility, and new spring.

The first Easter Bunny legend was documented in the 1500s when Roman Catholicism became the dominant religion in Germany, with the Easter Hare playing the role of a judge, evaluating whether children were good or disobedient in behavior at the start of the Easter season. The two religious beliefs were merged: – Catholicism’s view of Easter eggs as representing Jesus’ emergence from the tomb and resurrection, and an association with the Holy Trinity. The Easter Bunny is thought to have become common in the 19th Century.  Rabbits usually give birth to a big litter of babies (actually known as kittens); thus, they became a symbol of new life.  Some Christians dye their Easter eggs red, the color of blood, in recognition of the blood of the sacrificed Christ.  Others use green in honor of new foliage emerging after a long winter.

A lot of us may chomp on chocolate eggs or colorful boiled eggs at Easter, but hundreds of years ago, churches had their congregations abstain from eggs during Lent, allowing them to be consumed again on Easter. Any eggs laid that week were saved and decorated to make them Holy Week eggs, which were then given to children as gifts.  During the Victorian era, the Victorians adapted the tradition to include satin-covered cardboard eggs filled with Easter gifts. These traditions were brought to the United States in the 1700’s with German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania Dutch country.  Eventually, the custom spread across the U.S. and the fabled rabbit's Easter morning deliveries expanded to include chocolate and other types of candy and gifts. 

The tradition of making nests for the rabbit to lay its eggs in soon evolved into decorated baskets, colorful eggs, candy, treats, and other small gifts.  Bunnies aren’t the animal traditionally associated with Easter in every country.  Some identify the holy season with other types of animals like foxes or Cuckoo birds.  In Switzerland, Easter eggs are delivered by a cuckoo, and in parts of Germany by a fox. So, while you’re scarfing down chocolate bunnies and marshmallow chicks on Easter Sunday, think fondly of the Easter Bunny’s origins and maybe even impress your friends with a few trivia facts.

 

St. William Catholic Church - FaithStreet