Easter Bunny is an anthropomorphic, egg-laying rabbit who sneaks into
homes the night before Easter to deliver baskets full of colored eggs,
toys and chocolate. A wise man once told me that all religions are
beautiful and all religions are wacko, but even if you allow for
miracles, angels, and pancake Jesus, the Easter Bunny really comes out
of left field.
If you go way back, though, the Easter Bunny starts to make a little
sense. Spring is the season of rebirth and renewal. Plants return to
life after winter dormancy and many animals mate and procreate. Many
pagan cultures held spring festivals to celebrate this renewal of life
and promote fertility. One of these festivals was in honor of Eostre or
Eastre, the goddess of dawn, spring and fertility near and dear to the
hearts of the pagans in Northern Europe. Eostre was closely linked to
the hare and the egg, both symbols of fertility.
As Christianity spread, it was common for missionaries to practice
some good salesmanship by placing pagan ideas and rituals within the
context of the Christian faith and turning pagan festivals into
Christian holidays (e.g. Christmas). The Eostre festival occurred around
the same time as the Christians' celebration of Christ's resurrection,
so the two celebrations became one, and with the kind of blending that
was going on among the cultures, it would seem only natural that the
pagans would bring the hare and egg images with them into their new
faith (the hare later became the more common rabbit).
The pagans hung on to the rabbit and eventually it became a part of
Christian celebration. We don't know exactly when, but it's first
mentioned in German writings from the 1600s. The Germans converted the
pagan rabbit image into Oschter Haws, a rabbit that was believed to lay a
nest of colored eggs as gifts for good children. (A poll of my Twitter
followers reveals that 81% of the people who replied believe the Easter
Bunny to be male, based mostly on depictions where it's wearing a
bowtie. The male pregnancy and egg-laying mammal aspects are either side
effects of trying to lump the rabbit and egg symbols together, or
rabbits were just more awesome back then.)
Oschter Haws came to America with Pennsylvania Dutch settlers in the
1700s, and evolved into the Easter Bunny as it became entrenched in
American culture. Over time the bunny started bringing chocolate and
toys in addition to eggs (the chocolate rabbit began with the Germans,
too, when they started making Oschter Haws pastries in the 1800s).
The Easter Bunny also went with European settlers to Australia—as did
actual bunnies. These rabbits, fertile as they are, got a little out of
control, so the Aussies regard them as serious pests. The destruction
they've caused to habitats is responsible for the major decline of some
native animals and causes millions of dollars worth of damage to crops.
It is, perhaps, not a great idea to use an invasive species as a symbol
for a religious holiday, so Australia has been pushing the Easter Bilby
(above, on the right), an endangered marsupial that kind of looks like a
bunny if you squint. According to some of our Australian readers, the
Easter Bunny is not in danger of going extinct.