For Christians, Holy Week is the most solemn and momentous of the year, culminating with the death of Christ on the cross on Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter Sunday. Jesus’ death as sacrifice for the sins of all mankind, and resurrection, confirming His divinity and affording the possibility of redemption for all, are the very essence of Christianity. And yet the most prominent symbol of Easter is a big goofy rabbit who hops around the world delivering baskets full of colored eggs, chocolate bunnies, jelly beans, and Peeps to the kiddies, the Easter Bunny. How did this come to be?
As with so many Christian holiday traditions, the Easter Bunny per se comes to us from Germany, where similarly to St. Nicholas at Christmas, he was originally an arbiter who passed judgment on the behavior of children and left candy and goodies for those who passed muster. Also, as with St Nicholas/Santa Claus, kids leave a bribe/snack for the beloved figure, but this time in the form of carrots. The first documented mention was by Georg Franck von Franckenau in his 1682 book, forthrightly titled About Easter Eggs. But of course the tradition reaches much farther back than that, to pre-Christian Europe and rites of spring, much like many Christmas traditions can be traced to pagan winter solstice rituals.
The bunny-egg-spring combo can be neatly traced to an ancient Teutonic myth. The goddess of fertility, dawn, and spring Ostara (aka Eostre or Eastre) is passing through a forest one snowy winter day and finds a bird expiring from cold and hunger. (A variation on the tale has the goddess oversleeping her date with spring leaving the bird in the cold.) The goddess turns the bird into a hare because they have warm coats and can find food more easily than birds in winter. The bunny handily survives the winter and when spring came begins laying eggs — much to the surprise of its fellow hares — because it still had some bird plumbing. The grateful and industrious creature decorates every egg and leaves them to Ostara in tribute.
Ostara was celebrated on the first day of spring, the vernal equinox, when the earth and its flora and fauna shook off winter and looked ahead to the promise of warm days and new life. As Easter very neatly falls in early spring and also embodies traditional spring themes of joyous rebirth, it only made sense that the traditions blended together. The Church reassigned the meaning of the egg-and-chick symbol to the emergence of Jesus from the tomb, but birds laying eggs and bunnies reproducing like, er, rabbits, have always been powerful symbols of spring.
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