Easter’s official celebration is on Sunday, March 31, 2013. Easter is the day that celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and is the greatest feast day in Christian communities. Many people believe that this is the one day of the year that they are obligated to go to church. People come to church all dressed up ready to endure church just for this one day, and to make sure that their children can participate in the annual Easter Egg Hunt. As I thought about the eggs that we boil and then dye, the plastic eggs filled with candy or money and the resurrection of Jesus Christ - I wondered how did a bunny rabbit become associated with Easter?
History: Like most traditions and rituals, there are several answers which have a base of reality, with some creative license thrown in for flair. Easter is named after a pagan goddess whose name was EASTRE. She was the goddess of dawn, spring and fertility. Her companion was a hare and he was the Sun god. The celebration of spring is considered a celebration of Eastre.
Rites of spring were celebrated in her honor on the vernal equinox. Looking up definitions of both vernal and equinox, we find that vernal is a characteristic of or occurring in spring and equinox is derived from the Latin word meaning “equal night.” The vernal equinox is when the day and night are equal everywhere. We celebrate the goddess, Eastre and Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon. The full moon represents the pregnant phase of Eastre, which is when she is going from being fertile to giving birth.
Rabbit and the Hare: The hare in ancient times was believed to be a hermaphrodite. A hermaphrodite is an individual, animal or flower that has both male and female reproductive organs. This is extremely rare, but research has shown that it is factual. So the belief was that since the hermaphrodite has both reproductive organs that it can give birth multiple times and still be a virgin. So this led to the association with the Virgin Mary. I know a little loose but it is indeed how a rumor begins. By the time the story you told gets back to you it has changed significantly.
Eastre’s symbols which were the hare and the egg; represent fertility. Over time, the hare was replaced by a rabbit in the telling of the story, because the rabbits’ presence is more abundant and perhaps cuter than the hare. If you were like me and thought the rabbit was another name for a hare or the hare was another name for the rabbit – nope, we were both wrong. The hare is brown with dark gray spots and if it lives where it snows it is white. The rabbit is white, black, brown, gray and is visible in a mixture of these colors. Both the hare and the rabbit are prolific in that they can have 4 or 8 litters in a year. A rabbit is smaller in size than a hare. Both belong to the Lagomorpha order of mammals and both have live births. And regardless of what Cadbury (the chocolate maker), says rabbits do not lays eggs. A rabbit is born hairless and blind; whereas, a hare has hair and is born with sight. A rabbit lives underground in burrows and a hare lives above ground in nests. The only exception here is that the cottontail rabbit does live above ground in nests. Can you hear it .........“Here comes Peter Cottontail, hopping down the bunny trail, hippity hoppity, Easter’s on its way...”
So, why do people color or dye eggs during Easter? Easter is a celebration of spring and is when we begin to see brightly colored (lily’s, daffodils, tulips and narcissus) flowers blossoming. Eggs, symbolizing fertility, were boiled with the petals of the flowers because the boiling released color which dyed or colored the eggs. The people wanted the colors of the spring flowers and symbolism of life, eggs boiled in fertile water in their homes.
The Story: German Protestants wanted to retain the Catholic custom of eating colored eggs for Easter but they did not want to introduce their children to the Catholic rite of fasting. Eggs were forbidden to eat for Catholics during the fast of Lent, which was the reason for the abundance of eggs at Easter time and I think in order to get rid of an of eggs, the game of hiding them was created.
Soon, the egg laying rabbit story was born. The German immigrants told their children stories about the Osterhase (hase meaning hare) and the Northwestern European folklore told their children stories about the Easter Bunny. The unifying thread is that these tales reminded the kids that if they were good, they would receive gifts of colored eggs delivered by Osterhase if you were German and the Easter Bunny if you were not. The parents and children dyed and placed eggs in children’s bonnets; which has since become the present day Easter Basket. The tradition is that the Easter Bunny leaves eggs (and now he leaves candy and chocolate) on Easter Sunday.
The resurrection of Christ is a symbol of rebirth and of new beginnings. In an attempt to create some sense of fantasy mixed with lesson, the rabbit was used as the image that happens to be cute and small and cuddly. In this way those that tell story create places for our children’s minds to connect the Easter celebration with new beginnings.