The concept is somewhat baffling -- a rabbit that brings eggs and often wears a little suit while he makes his rounds. Like Kris Kringle, he visits good children the night before the holiday, leaving a basket of treats they awake to find on Easter morning. Blame ancient heathens for the confusion, for there was an Easter bunny long before there was Easter.
Its origin dates back to pre-Christian lore, when the rabbit was celebrated for its fertility and as a sign of spring and new life. During the pagan festival of Eastre, the goddess Eastre and her symbol, the rabbit, were worshipped by the Anglo-Saxons. Early Christians used to piggy-back their holidays onto pagan ones to avoid detection, and they gradually transitioned pagan rites into Christian ones. The celebration of the resurrection of Christ coincided with Eastre, which eventually became Easter.
The bunny as a symbol of Easter first appears in German writings in the 1500s, according to Arlene Wright-Correll, author of "The History of Easter and the Easter Bunny." By the 1800s it had become an Easter tradition, both as an edible confection made from pastry and as a custom for German children who would build a hidden nest in their home or garden. Caps and bonnets were often used to encourage the rabbit to "lay" its brightly colored eggs and candies, a precursor to the baskets the Easter Bunny uses today.
In German postcards from the early 1900s, Easter bunnies often wear suits with vests or dresses (some are female). In one card now on sale on German eBay, "Frau Osterhase" pushes a buggy filled with chicks while carrying a basket of colored eggs and pussy willows. In another, also dated 1909, a nattily dressed male Easter Bunny woos a fluffy yellow chick in a skirt. Chickens and chicks are another early symbol of spring.
The Germans who traveled to America and settled in Pennsylvania Dutch country during the 18th century brought the Easter Bunny, which they called the "Oschter Haws" or "Osterhas." Children were taught that if they behaved, the Easter "hare" would lay a nest of Easter eggs for them. Often the eggs were dyed by boiling them with flower petals, vegetables and leaves. Wealthy families sometimes used gold gilt to wrap them -- hence today's foil-covered eggs.
It was not until after the end of the Civil War that the custom spread throughout America, along with an increased observance of Easter as a religious holiday. Pastry made way for sugar and then chocolate as Easter bunnies became the centerpieces of the basket. No one seemed to wonder if eating those chocolate bunnies gave the real Easter Bunny a bad vibe, but soon it was joined by chicks (a much more logical association with eggs), toys, jelly beans and other candies.
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