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Have you ever wondered why we color eggs for Easter? Or where the Easter Bunny came from? Or even why it is an Easter Bunny? Since it lays eggs, shouldn’t it be called the Easter Chicken?
To find the answers to these vexing Easter questions, we turned to Pamela R. Frese, professor of anthropology at The College of Wooster, in Wooster, Ohio.
Frese is widely known for her expertise on the anthropology of religion, Anglo-American lifecycle rituals and American civil-religious holidays. She has been quoted in a number of national media outlets, including CNN, USA Today, Los Angeles Times and multiple radio shows.
Pamela, what's the history of the Easter Bunny? Has its look changed over the years?
The origin of the Easter Bunny is firmly rooted in folklore that traces the hare back to pre-Christian pagan roots. These early people passed traditions down orally, and any written mention of their beliefs and practice would have been crafted by the Christian missionaries who attempted to convert them to a new religion.
Easter was first mentioned by the Christian scholar Bede in his book, “De temporum ratione,” in 725, where he credits the symbol of the rabbit to that associated with Ēostre (Ēastre/Ostara/Ostare), the Mother Goddess of the Anglo-Saxon people in northern Europe. Feasts were held in her honor during the month of April. This goddess represented spring and fertility reborn every spring. Her feast was on the Vernal Equinox, somewhere around March 21.
Blending pagan practices with Christian beliefs about the death and resurrection of Jesus are reflected in the appearance of the rabbit, one of the symbolic animals associated with Ēostre.
"Ostara" by Johannes Gehrts (1884)
The ZooGoer (published by the Smithsonian) also explains that “the original Easter Bunny was almost certainly a hare. Rabbits didn’t exist in northern Europe when those old-time Saxons were celebrating spring. Rabbits weren’t recorded in England until 1235, and in Germany until 1423.”
The Easter Bunny appeared primarily as a “real” rabbit, sometimes with ****willows or small yellow chicks, until Peter Cottontail/Peter Rabbit first appeared in a series of books by Thornton W. Burgess in 1910. Since that time, our Easter Bunny has increasingly become anthropomorphized (given human characteristics).
Why does the Easter Bunny lay eggs (and why wasn't it the Easter Chicken)?
The National Zoo explains that “Ostara’s familiar animal was a rabbit, a symbol of fertility. According to one story, Ostara transformed a pet bird into a rabbit to entertain some children, and the rabbit proceeded to lay colored eggs that the goddess then gave to the kids. In another version, a small girl asked the goddess to save a bird she found nearly dead from the cold. The goddess saved the bird by turning it into a rabbit, which produced colored eggs.”
Hares and rabbits are perceived to be prolific procreators; they both belong to the mammalian order Lagomorpha. They can give birth to one litter while pregnant with another (superfetation). It is no wonder that rabbits are symbols of fertility and new life.
Why do people decorate eggs for Easter?
The egg is as symbol of fertility and new life in many parts of the world. People in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and Persia dyed eggs for spring festivals. It is possible that immigrants brought the practice of decorating eggs with them to America, especially from the German tradition dating to the 17th century. This tradition features the Osterhase (Easter Bunny) decorating eggs at Easter and hiding them in people’s gardens. According to this legend, only good children received eggs.
Folklore also associates the egg with the resurrection of Christ and the promise of eternal life. There may be some connection to the appearance of so many eggs at Easter to the traditional use of all the household’s eggs before Lent began, since they were forbidden during Lent in Western Christianity. One way to preserve the eggs would be to boil them.
How has the celebration of Easter changed in recent times?
Easter was not widely celebrated in the United States until after the Civil War, when traditions that reflected a United States were truly established (including Halloween and Christmas with Santa Claus). Modern versions of Easter include egg rolling, another practice originally brought from the UK and Germany by colonists. Folklore has it that the White House egg roll was first conducted on the White House Lawn in 1814 by Dolley Madison. But other sources credit President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1878.
This year, the First Family will host the 134th Egg Roll on April 9. A white, man-sized Easter Bunny is on the right. He wears clothes and glasses now.
But there is a more feminine version as well:
What's the most interesting fact about Easter?
The first chocolate eggs were made in Europe in the early 19th century. Today, 90 million chocolate Easter bunnies and 16 billion jelly beans are made for Easter. It is the second top-grossing sugar holiday in the United States, following Halloween.
What else can you tell us about our Easter traditions?
It really doesn’t matter where in the distant past the current symbols and practices of the Easter Bunny and his/her eggs originated. It is important to remember that the mythical roots of this celebration connect the traditions we recognize to the changing seasons and the spring equinox. This is the power of myth and legend, to take the natural rhythms of the earth and overlay them with beliefs about what is sacred and tied to human cultures.
But the celebrations in the United States today are generations deep and are completely our own. This is a civil-religious celebration that combines Christian beliefs with secular practices that have become very commercialized. This does not mean that we have lost the importance of what the holiday means, even as we gorge on our children’s candy.
One of the best examples of the blending of all these myths into current practice involves the decoration of bushes and trees in the yard with plastic eggs. Egg trees were first created by Germans from small branches and decorated with real eggs (hollowed and painted). Older eggs from years past would also be added, uniting family through time. These trees are common in American homes today.
My research with contemporary egg trees in people’s yards reveals that the plastic eggs take on new meanings in addition to those of new life, spring, and Easter. They represent the “natural” beauty of the yard as they symbolize flowers and new growth. Some people even lay a few on the ground to represent falling blossoms. And they always mean that children will be around, either as residents in the home or as visitors to their grandparents for Easter.