In the Christian world, Easter is a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. On the third day after his crucifixion (which is remembered on Good Friday), the New Testament tells us that Jesus arose from the grave, appeared to his disciples and ultimately ascended to Heaven. It is this act that is celebrated by Christians every year on Easter Sunday.
If the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the origin of Easter, where then does the Easter Bunny come from? There is no mention of the Easter Bunny in the Bible, and except for its modern association with Easter the rabbit has not been a Christian symbol. Where then does the tradition come from?
The Hare: Ancient Fertility Symbol
In the ancient world, the rabbit has long been a symbol of fertility. The rabbit is known for its reproductive prowess, in fact even today we talk of couples who have many children as “multiplying like rabbits.” Because it is known to reproduce often, it was seen has having special powers in assisting humans to reproduce. In fact our own lucky rabbit’s foot goes back to this ancient tradition. (Not only is it a bodily part of the fertile rabbit that can transfer power to the bearer, it also serves as a phallic symbol).
In Europe prior to the introduction of Christianity the ancient pagans already had their own springtime festivals, as did almost all other ancient peoples. Because spring is the time, after the harshness of winter that the world begins to bloom once more, it is seen as a time of replenishing and renewal, birth and rebirth, fertility.
The Goddess of Fertility in Northern Europe before the coming of the Christians was Eostre. It is in fact from her that our own word for Easter comes. The consort of Eostre was none other than a hare, that great animal symbol of fertility. According to some traditions, Eostre cast the hare into the Heavens, creating the constellation we know today as Lepus the Hare. Some stories also say that Eostre gave Lepus the ability to lay eggs once a year, eggs also being an ancient symbol of fertility.
From Fertility Figure to Easter Bunny
As Christianity expanded north from the Mediterranean world where it was born and first grew, it was common for Christians to attempt to incorporate pre-Christian ideas and rituals and place them within the context of Christian ideas and rituals, creating a mix of both Christian and Pagan.
These traditions co-existed for some time. When exactly the rabbit first became a major part of the Christian celebration is unknown. Where is a little bit clearer, the first written mentions of the Easter Bunny come from Germany in the 15th Century, although we do not know for how long the Germans had used the symbol. It was also in Germany that the tradition of making chocolate bunnies to celebrate Easter began, sometime during the 1800’s.
Before this, however, the Easter Bunny had already come to the United States. German settlers in Pennsylvania brought along their traditions with them, including the traditions of the Easter Bunny. They called him Osterhase, or Oschter Haws, who would lay brightly colored eggs to good children who would make special nests in their caps and bonnets the night before
Over time the tradition grew, and soon Osterhase (or the Easter Bunny as he is known today) began to bring more than just eggs, but chocolate and candies as well. Rather than making nests in caps and bonnets, the Easter Bunny would leave his treasures in a decorated Easter basket.
Although begun by German immigrants, these practices soon caught on throughout the United States and are now almost universally practiced. Christians and non-Christians alike look forward to Easter as a celebration of life and family, and the Easter Bunny, that ancient symbol of fertility, is the central figure. Across the country and around the world children wait eagerly for Easter to find the baskets full of eggs and chocolate left for them the night before by the Easter Bunny.