-by Kate Dugger-
Where did the Easter Bunny come from? Was he a tiny rabbit who burst forth from a brightly colored chicken egg knowing that when he grew up he would do great things? Perhaps he was invented by Cadbury or some other chocolate company? Is he about six feet tall and answers to “Harvey?”
Easter is the celebration of Jesus’s resurrection. But nowhere in the Bible does it mention bunnies, hares, or rabbits in reference to this event. Before conversion to Christianity, Germanic peoples celebrated a pagan holiday to honor Eostre, the goddess of fertility and rebirth. The celebration took place in the early spring when plants shift from dormant to blooming and the animals begin bearing young. Eostre was associated with rabbits due to their incredible reproduction rates. “They multiply like rabbits,” or so the saying goes. It’s easy to see the similarities in nature being reborn in spring and Christ’s resurrection. That’s how a few pagan traditions were assimilated into the celebration of the resurrection.
Hares have even been associated with the Virgin Mary and have even been depicted in early European church motifs, illuminated manuscripts, and paintings of Mary. Medieval clergy thought hares were pure animals due to the belief they were hermaphroditic (capable of reproducing asexually). The world was flat then too.
Rabbits were not directly associated with Jesus but could be considered a springtime counterpart to Santa Claus. Children as early as the middle ages were told that the Easter Hare would bring them lucky gifts if they were good. On the night before Easter children would build “nests” in their shoes and right before sunrise the Easter bunny would leave a piece of candy or two. Today these nests are recognizable in the form of Easter baskets.
Why does a mythical bunny lay eggs? During Lent, Orthodox churches would give up eating eggs. Unfortunately, no one could convince the chickens to take a vacation, so people had more eggs than they could eat. Food is a precious commodity. Letting all those eggs go to waste would be a sin, so they would boil them to prevent spoilage. Then the eggs would be eaten to break the Lenten fast. Eggs were decorated as a celebration of Easter and then eaten as part of a special feast. Eggs might have been boiled with flowers to color them red for the blood of Christ. Green was a traditional color also. Records of this tradition date back to the 1300’s.
Easter Hares and Easter eggs came to America in the 1700’s with the Pennsylvania Dutch. Children of German immigrants would wait patiently the night before Easter Sunday for a giant benevolent rodent called Oschter Haws, or Easter Hare. The Easter hare would deposit candy, small tokens, and colored eggs in nests made in caps and bonnets.
Alas, Americans have done away with bonnet nests. Jelly beans and chocolate bunnies fly off shelves right after Valentine’s Day. If it can be covered in chocolate, made out of chocolate, sprinkled with chocolate, dipped, dotted, filled, flavored, rolled in, or drizzled with chocolate, it is. Ironically, chocolate is extremely toxic to rabbits. Treats come in baskets shrink-wrapped on store shelves graciously put together by candy companies and toy makers. Egg-dyeing kits are purchased by the cartful. Chickens have to work over-time to keep up with demand. Parents, who have forgotten the horrors of Christmas shopping, once again prowl department stores looking for the perfect Easter outfits for their children, often growling at each other while hunting the perfect toy.
In the end though it doesn’t matter where he came from or how he got involved with Easter. Oschter Haws’ job responsibilities have evolved from pagan symbol to rewarder-of-good-children to the best candy marketing critter in the business. Now that’s job security.
-by Kate Dugger-