Most of us grew up associating Easter with a bunny who brings candy and eggs, so we don’t question how this legend came to be. When you actually think about it, though, it’s an odd tradition! Rabbits don’t, after all, lay eggs, or deliver gifts. The Easter Bunny is nonetheless a cherished aspect of the holiday for children all around the world.
Easter began with the pagan celebration of the goddess Ostara. This ancient figure was said to bring light and life, and she was known by many variations of the name. These names give us the official title of “Easter” that is used today. In one legend, the goddess entertains children by turning a bird into a rabbit. The rabbit then lays colored eggs and gives them as presents. In other stories, a rabbit that is her friend and constant companion accompanies the Ostara wherever she goes. Hares and rabbits have long been symbols of fertility, so it makes sense that they would be associated with the goddess of springtime.
Anyone who has owned rabbits – or just been around them – can understand why they represent fertility. Rabbits and hares are both frequent breeders, and they often have large litters at the beginning of spring. Females can even conceive a second litter while still pregnant with the first. Male hares and rabbits also engage in elaborate courtship rituals each spring. Their mating habits of fighting and frolicking for attention from female rabbits makes them especially noticeable to humans around Easter. In Asia, hares symbolize the moon. People realized early on that the fertility in human women was connected to the cycles of the moon, and thus hares came to represent new life around the world.
The Easter Bunny character seems to have officially originated in Germany, where he was said to bring sugary pastry eggs for good children. When German settlers arrived in the Pennsylvania Dutch country in the 1700s, they brought their Osterhase/Oschter Haws tradition with them. Children would create nests in secluded parts of their home, and check them on Easter morning. Often these nests were created out of bonnets or caps, which helped to inspire the tradition of wearing new hats to church on Easter Sunday. Some families would leave children’s shoes out for the Easter Bunny to fill, but those didn’t offer much room for treats. Eventually hats and shoes became baskets that were brimming with goodies!
Modern interpretations of the Easter Bunny vary by region. In America, the story of Peter Cottontail hopping down the bunny trail has given a name and personality to the iconic figure. Germany’s version of the Easter Bunny was influenced by folklorist Jakob Grimm’s stories on traditional Easter rituals. In Australia, an abundance of rabbits became a nuisance. The endangered bilby, however, looks similar to a bunny, and has become a new symbol of the season. You can find Easter Bilby candy, cards, and decorations if you visit Australia during their Easter celebration!
Many families consider the Easter Bunny as a sort of springtime Santa Claus. The religious connection between the two holidays is obvious; Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ, and Easter celebrates his resurrection. Both figures reward children with candy and treats for good behavior. These characters also share a unique distinction: snacks are left out for them the night before! Santa tends to receive milk and cookies, while the Easter Bunny gets carrots. We even present gifts in the same way for each holiday; Christmas stockings and Easter baskets are usually filled with similar items.
Real life rabbits might not have the same magic that the Easter Bunny offers, but they did inspire the character. Teach your family about the similarities between different cultures by sharing Easter Bunny stories and customs this spring!