Have you ever wondered exactly how an oversized, egg-laying bunny made his way into a Christian holiday celebrating the resurrection of Christ? It doesn’t seem quite right, does it? To get a look at the origin and evolution of Mister E. Bunny, we need to go way back to the Pagans and the Christians.
How the Symbolic Meanings of Decorated Eggs and the Hare Came Together
The pagan celebration of Spring Equinox and the Christian holiday of Easter have always taken place within short proximity of each other. Eggs were symbolic of new life and fertility in pagan religions and the decoration of eggs dates as far back as the 13th century.
In Christianity, people abstained from eating eggs during Lent, and when it was time to break the fast, they decorated the eggs to celebrate. Hares (or their close relatives, rabbits) were an important Christian symbol, often representative of the Trinity because they were believed to be hermaphroditic in ancient times and able to mate without having sex. The pagans, however, knew better. They revered the rabbit during Spring Equinox as the ultimate symbol of fertility because they are super-breeders. Fun Fact: did you know hares can conceive a new litter of babies while they are still pregnant with the first? No wonder they are one of the prime symbols of fertility!
So, now you know how hares and decorated eggs are associated with both Easter and Spring Equinox. How did we as a society associate a colorful, egg-laying, giant bunny with The Resurrection? You can thank some German Protestants and Lutherans.
The Legend of “Osterhase”
“Osterhase” was first mentioned in 16th century Germany and translates to ‘Easter Bunny’ in English.
There are two variations of the legend of “Osterhase.” In the first, a poor woman decorated eggs for her children to find in their garden. Once the children found the eggs, they looked up to find a large rabbit hopping away. The children then thought, “Of course! The rabbit left the eggs!”
The second version is basically the same story except it takes place during a famine. The legend took hold and was incorporated by German Protestants into Easter traditions. The decided to do away with the pesky fasting elements of Lent, but they kept the coloring egg aspect of Easter and added the fabled rabbit.
The Easter Bunny Emigrates to the United States
Nothing but a basket of eggs in hand, the Easter Bunny then made his way to the United States with a bunch of the German Lutheran immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania Dutch country during the 1700’s. This new Easter Bunny delivered gifts to children in reward for good behavior. Before Easter children would make nests in their hats or bonnets in which the Easter Bunny would leave gifts of decorated eggs. In time the nests became baskets, and the bunny added chocolate, candy and toy treats to the children’s bounty.
This Easter tradition became an important American cultural event, and the Easter Bunny evolved into the modern incarnation of the Bunny we know and love today.