Whether you love him or are terrified of him (see photo above), the Easter Bunny is here to stay. Believe it or not, you won’t find tails—er, tales of the Easter Bunny in the Bible, even though he seems like the holiday’s biggest advocate. Easter may be the Christian celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, but colorful eggs and the spunky rabbit who gifts them have become semi-official symbols of the holiday. Where exactly did this charitable critter make his entrance into history and popular culture?
Long story short: the Easter bunny’s origin story is a bit of a mystery. One theory traces the symbol of the rabbit back to pagan tradition. Known for their rather prolific breeding, rabbits serve as a representation of fertility and new life. The goddess of fertility, Eostre, had a whole festival dedicated to her. Her animal symbol was, naturally, a rabbit, so it’s safe to assume the festival was rife with bunny appearances.
But how does a pagan ritual relate to a Christian holiday? Considering the centuries-old connection between bunnies and new life, it’s a fairly short leap to connect them to a celebration of life resurrected and reborn. Conversely, Catholic tradition once associated rabbits and hares with the Virgin Mary. Hares are able to produce a second litter of offspring while still pregnant with the first, calling to mind the Madonna’s balance of virginity and purity. See Titian’s painting, The Madonna of the Rabbit, above.
Eggs, also a Christian symbol of new life, solidify the link between Easter and the Bunny. Hundreds of years ago, churches had their congregations abstain from eggs during Lent, making them a meaningful treat on Easter morning. So, of course, who better to deliver them than the Easter Bunny? (Follow this link for more on the history of Easter Eggs.)
The Easter Bunny is believed to have hopped across the Atlantic Ocean and on to America’s turf in the 1700s, stowing away with German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania. The German settlers cherished a tradition called “Osterhase” or “Oschter Haws” in which children made little nests for the bunny to lay colored eggs.
Over time, the custom spanned across the U.S., and the legendary critter’s gifts began to include chocolate, candy, and other gifts. Somewhere down the line, baskets replaced nests, and, voila, you now have a picture of the celebration we all know and love.
So next time you don your finest attire and snag a photo with the Easter Bunny, you don’t have to wonder so much what his deal is in the first place. If you get a little scared, just remember—he’s had a long journey to get to your nearest mall.