The Easter Bunny

Why does a rabbit leave colored eggs, candy, and nonedible novelties for children on Easter morning? The answer involves little ones leaving out an item of clothing overnight with the expectation that it will be filled with gifts, families providing a favorite snack for the mythical bringer of presents, and naughty children receiving a lump of coal  . . . sounds familiar.

The Easter Bunny is a curiously unexplored phenomenon—the jolly figure of Santa Claus appears in Coca-Cola ads, Christmas cards, and the minds of children around the world, but his rabbit friend in the pantheon of holiday figures has no one recognizable image. Santa Claus, his elves, his workshop in the North Pole, his big bag of presents, and his magical sleigh pulled by reindeer are a cohesive set of traditions. But where does the Easter Bunny live? What does he look like? Where does the Easter Bunny get candy and eggs and other little trinkets to put in Easter baskets? And why, in the name of the spring fertility goddess, is the Easter Bunny (a mammal, we might remind you) associated with eggs?

Easter Symbols

As the most important holiday in Christianity, Easter is a celebration of the new and everlasting life that comes through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Springtime holidays from pagan and secular traditions also focus on celebrating life and fertility as the world begins to blossom and the sun begins to shine after the darkness and coldness of winter. Many of the symbols we have come to associate with Easter draw from this fountain of youth. Eggs and baby animals are living proof of fertility and new life. Pastel colors reflect the newly budding blossoms in the spring. The growth of Easter lilies from a bulb in the ground to a pure white, trumpet-shaped flower “symbolize the rebirth and hope of Christ’s resurrection” (History.com, 2021).

Ostara by Johannes Gehrts, 1901, shows one artist’s imagining of the goddess. Whether and how the Saxons and other Germanic tribes worshiped her is up for debate.

Rabbits, too, are a prominent symbol of new life: they breed like, well, rabbits. Some have estimated that a female rabbit might have up to 100 babies per season, or a total of up to 1,000 babies over a lifetime! (MentalFloss, 2015). For this reason, they are also an ancient symbol of fertility and thus have a natural association with spring holidays. The Easter holiday is the Christian celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, but the name Easter comes from the festival of Eostre, the Saxon fertility goddess, whose German name is Ostara. Some have conjectured that the Saxons believed Eostre’s animal symbol was a bunny or she had a hare as a companion, though there is little evidence in the historical record for such a claim. (Instead, later scholars may have theorized such an association to retroactively explain traditions that existed in Europe later on.) Stephen Winick at the Library of Congress explains that common observations about rabbits, eggs, and the budding of new life in the spring led to many similar traditions throughout time, whether or not a direct relationship is present between any of these traditions: “In short, we don’t need a pagan fertility goddess to connect bunnies and eggs with Easter—springtime makes the connection for us all by itself” (Winick, 2016).

A Puck Magazine cover showing a young woman in a fancy dress, the Easter Bunny wearing clothing and carrying a basket of colored eggs, and an exasperated monk.

This Puck magazine cover was typical of twentieth-century depictions of the Easter Bunny. The Bunny appears fully clothed, companions with a young woman who evokes the idea of Eostre, while an exasperated monk protests the secular celebration.
Illustration by L.M. Glackens, March 26, 1902, Library of Congress.

The Osterhase and His Hase-Eier

Like many holiday traditions celebrated in America, the Easter Bunny has its origins in Germany. German immigrants to Pennsylvania in the 1700s brought stories about an egg-laying rabbit called the Osterhase (“Easter Hare”). Among the Pennsylvania Dutch, children made nests for the Osterhase and left carrots for him to eat as fuel on his journey, in hopes that he would leave colored eggs for them the night before Easter. Children often used hats and bonnets as nests, sometimes placing them outside in a garden or a barn where a bunny would have the easiest access. In some versions of the story, the bunny lays the eggs, while in others he brings them in a basket. The Easter Bunny was also a judge: tradition has it that he only gave eggs to children if they were good, to encourage children to behave themselves during Eastertide. Misbehaving children might receive rabbit droppings or coal instead.

Georg Franck von Franckenau’s 1682 essay “De ovis paschalibus” (“About Easter Eggs”) describes an Easter egg hunt of sorts, where the Easter Hare lays Hasen-Eier (“hare eggs”) hidden in the garden and grass for children to find. They would then feast on the eggs (real ones rather than candy-filled plastic!). Eating so many eggs without salt or butter would cause a stomachache, doctors warned—bet they never envisioned the mass sugar rush children today have from feasting on chocolate eggs.

A True Renaissance Rabbit

So why does the bunny deliver eggs, and why he is a male?

Anciently, it was believed that hares were hermaphrodites, meaning that they had the reproductive equipment of both a female and male. Pliny, Plutarch, and other great thinkers thought that hares could switch sexes at will and even impregnate themselves. So though we speak of the Easter Bunny as a he—even though it wouldn’t make sense for a male (or a bunny for that matter) to lay eggs—into the Renaissance, hares in general were not believed to be strictly male or female. This led to an association of the hare with the Virgin Mary, due to its supposed capacity to reproduce while remaining a virgin (which we now know is definitely not true). Renaissance art reflects this association.

The Madonna of the Rabbit: a depiction of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child, a hare, St. Katherine, and John the Baptist.
The Madonna of the Rabbit
By Titian, 1520, oil on canvas, image from Wikimedia Commons.

Whether or not the bunny actually lays the eggs or just delivers them (did he steal them from a chicken?), eggs represent the potential for new life when a baby chick hatches as well as symbolizing the emergence of Christ from the tomb. Because of this dual symbolism, the Easter Bunny pays a visit to people of different faiths or no faith. It exists as a tradition that draws upon symbols that can be interpreted in light of different religious beliefs, whether Christian or not. The widespread appeal likely contributed to the growing popularity of the Easter Bunny throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in America.

Also, in the twentieth century, nests turned into baskets, real eggs turned into plastic eggs, and the Easter Bunny’s gifts expanded to include chocolate, jelly beans, and small toys. Candy companies capitalized on the Easter Bunny tradition by marketing spring-themed candy and other odds and ends for Easter baskets, further reinforcing the practice.

Other Bringers of Easter Cheer

The Easter Bunny isn’t the only bringer of springtime cheer. In Switzerland, the Easter Cuckoo makes the rounds, while some parts of Germany receive visits from the Easter Fox or the Easter Rooster. In Australia, the Easter Bilby initiates the springtime festivities (and don’t mention the Easter Bunny to an Australian—the overabundance of rabbits as an invasive species introduced in the eighteenth century has led to the endangerment of native animals).

A chocolate Easter Bilby.
Image by Nicole Kearney, April 21, 2019, CC BY-SA 4.0 from Wikimedia Commons.

We could have just had an Easter Hen. That would have made much more sense, and baby chicks are already associated with springtime festivities. But if we’re making up a mythical creature, we might as well stretch our imagination a little further!

Sources

Crew, Bec. “Australia’s Easter Bunny: The Long-Eared Greater Bilby.” Scientific American, April 19, 2014. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/running-ponies/australiae28099s-easter-bunny-the-long-eared-greater-bilby/.

History.com Editors. “Easter Symbols and Traditions.” History.com, March 24, 2021. https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/easter-symbols.

Jeon, Hannah. “What Are the Easter Bunny’s Origins? Here’s the Fascinating History of the Easter Bunny.” Good Housekeeping, March 4, 2020. https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/holidays/easter-ideas/a31226078/easter-bunny-originshistory/#:~:text=As%20for%20how%20the%20specific,goes%2C%20the%20rabbit%20would%20lay.

Sifferlin, Alexandra. “What’s the Origin of the Easter Bunny?” Time, February 21, 2020. https://time.com/3767518/easter-bunny-origins-history/.

Soniak, M. “Are Rabbits as Prolific as Everyone Says?” MentalFloss, January 20, 2015. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/29870/are-rabbits-prolific-everybody-says.

Wikipedia. “Easter Bunny.” Accessed March 25, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easter_Bunny.

Winick, Stephen. “On the Bunny Trail: In Search of the Easter Bunny.” March 22, 2016. Library of Congress. https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2016/03/easter-bunny/.

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