The Easter Bunny is one of the best known symbols of Easter, but what are the Easter Bunny’s origins? We know him as the fuzzy figure who hides eggs for children to find on Easter morning. How, though, did the Easter Bunny become such an integral part of the Easter tradition? Nowhere in any of the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus Christ are there any mentions of bunnies or eggs. It is a mystery, unfortunately, that scholars have not yet solved. The exact origin of the Easter bunny is unknown, but we have theories.
The most widespread theory traces the origins of the Easter Bunny back to Anglo-Saxon pagan traditions.
St. Bede, a 9th century English monk, wrote that the Anglo Saxon month Ēosturmonath, or Easter Season, got its name from the Goddess Éostre (also known as Ostara). The pre-Christian Anglo Saxons celebrated feasts honoring Éostre during that month.
When they converted to Christianity, they applied her name to the Resurrection day. Ēostre was the Goddess of spring, of fertility, of dawning light, and renewal. As such, it was relatively easy for the early Christians to merge her traditions with the celebration of the Resurrection.
Jacob Grimm, a folklorist and one of the Brothers Grimm, first attributed the folklore of the Easter Bunny to Éostre in the 1835. In his book Deutsche Mythologie, he argues that the Easter Bunny came from the hare, which was sacred to the Pagan Goddess Éostre. Other historians proposed that the parti-colored eggs the Easter Bunny hides were also sacred to Éostre.
The Easter Bunny may have originated from a myth where Éostre turned her pet bird into either a hare or a rabbit. This transformed rabbit still had the ability to lay eggs. In some versions of the myth, she did this benevolently, to make children laugh. She then gifted the children the eggs from the rabbit.
This theory on the origins of the Easter bunny is popular and widespread. A number of Christian denominations have even chosen to abandon the traditions of the Easter Bunny and Easter Eggs because of these Pagan roots. Despite its popularity, however, its basis is shaky. There is little collaborating evidence supporting these claims.
Another theory argues that the Easter Bunny had more purely Christian roots.
The ancient Greeks associated rabbits with spring because of their high fertility rates. Counter to this, they also believed that rabbits could reproduce as virgins. The reason for this misconception comes from the fact that rabbits can conceive another litter when they are already pregnant.
This belief continued well into the Middle Ages in Europe. Thus, rabbits and hares, which are closely related to rabbits, are associated with Virgin Mary. They symbolize her simultaneous virginity and fertility, especially white rabbits which also symbolize purity. Paintings and Illuminations of the Virgin Mary as a result often depict her petting a rabbit.
It is unclear how the rabbit went from being an allegory for the Virgin Mary and the birth of Jesus to being the Easter Bunny associated with Jesus’s death and resurrection, however, other than the timing. Rabbits are associated with spring, which happens to also be the time when the church celebrates the Resurrection.
We owe the modern concept of the Easter Bunny to the 16th Century Germans.
German Protestants were the first to tell the story of the Easter Bunny. In the earliest accounts, the Easter Bunny, or Osterhase or Oschter Haws in German, hid decorated eggs for good children to find. When the Germans and Pennsylvania Dutch immigrated in the 17th and 18th centuries to the United States, they brought the Easter Bunny with them.
The earliest accounts have the children making nests to entice the Easter Bunny to come to their house. On the night before Easter the children left carrots for the Easter Bunny to eat, similar to the milk and cookies children leave out for Santa Clause. Eventually the nests were replaced with decorated baskets.
The Easter Bunny’s colorful eggs may have their roots in Catholicism as well.
One legend has Mary bringing eggs with her to the Crucifixion and his blood turned the eggs red. In another legend, Mary Magdalene brings hard boiled eggs to the tomb for the women to eat, but when they opened the tomb and found it empty, the eggs turned red. In the 13th Century, Christians abstained from eating Eggs during Lent, a tradition continued today by Orthodox Christians. This made eggs a big treat come Easter morning, and families decorated the eggs in preparation for the celebration.
In addition to the dyed eggs we are familiar with, in the Ukraine they make elaborately decorated eggs called pysanky. In the 19th Century in Russia, the jeweler Fabergé created incredible jeweled eggs for the Imperial family. The first egg was a gift from Czar Alexander III to his wife, Czarina Maria Fedorovna in celebration of their anniversary which happened to fall on Easter. The eggs became a yearly tradition, continuing under Czar Nicholas II, until the fall of the Imperial family in the Bolshevik Revolution.
Today, the Easter Bunny fills Easter baskets with candies as well as eggs. Chocolate eggs first made their appearance in the early 19th century in France and Germany. They continue to be popular today, as are also chocolate Easter Bunnies. Jelly beans, another popular Easter treat, became associated with Easter in 1930s, likely because of their egg-like shape. Peeps first made their appearance in the 1950s. The original peeps, made by the candy company Just Born, were yellow Marshmallow peeps and painstakingly made from hand. Now they are mass produced and come in a variety of shapes and flavors.
For many today, the Easter Bunny has become a secular tradition for celebrating spring.
Parents from diverse backgrounds have their kids’ pictures taken with the Easter Bunny. In addition to coloring eggs and the baskets full of candies and other goodies, kids participate in a variety of activities such as egg hunts.
However you celebrate, I hope you have a happy Easter!