It’s that time of year again! The time when I get completely confused by societal traditions we somehow think are totally normal! The tradition this time of year? The muthah-friggin Easter Bunny. I mean, what? We are a weird people, people. What does a secretive and kind of creepy bunny who defies the laws of nature by laying eggs have to do with the resurrection of Jesus? There is no mention of Easter celebration, Easter eggs, or the Easter bunny anywhere in the Bible, so where did it come from? Just like my Santa Claus confusion, I had to do the research to get to the bottom of this trippy bunny trail (epic pun! virtual high five!).
Research on this topic was somewhat unfulfilling because it’s not entirely clear where most of our Easter traditions come from. That’s right, there is no definitive consensus. What is clear is that most of the traditions we associate with Easter have nothing to do with Jesus or Christianity at all, and most seem to be truly pagan (the heathens strike again!). Allow me to explain.
The return of spring has long been a season for celebration, probably since we were weird little amoebas. Pretty much every ancestral culture has a history of celebrating the end of winter, usually kicked off by the Vernal Equinox on March 21. The Vernal Equinox is the day when the amount of day and the amount of night are equal. It’s exciting because from that day on there will be more light and less dark. Sayonara Snowmaggedon.
Spring is a time for life, birth, and fertility. To celebrate, many ancient traditions honored common symbols of spring: rabbits, due to their stellar reputations as prolific makers of babies (a female rabbit can get pregnant while she’s already pregnant. A little, uh, loose of you, rabbit girls); and eggs, a globally-shared, long-held symbol of fertility and birth.
The most widely accepted theory on the origin of the word “Easter” is that it was derived from Eostre, the Germanic goddess of dawn, spring, and fertility. The Anglo-Saxons would celebrate Eostre’s return every spring, honoring her symbols, the rabbit and the egg, and coloring eggs to express appreciation for Eostre’s gift of abundance.
There is suspiciously little written about this goddess, however. In fact, she is only officially mentioned once by one English monk and historian, St. Bede, in an 8th century book. He wrote that Ēosturmōnaþ (‘Month of Ēostre’ in Old English), was a time to celebrate a goddess of spring and fertility he called Eostre. And that’s pretty much it. No one else talks about her in any other book, before or contemporary to Bede. Because of this, some theorize that Bede simply made Eostre up as a joke, which would make part of me really happy because that would mean this entire megaholiday came from a few flippant lines written by one man.
Over time, the basic legend of Eostre evolved wildly. There are many different versions of the legend, but it essentially says that one year Eostre arrived late for spring and to make up for it she saved a bird who was partially frozen by snow. The bird could no longer fly so Eostre turned it into a rabbit (her earthly symbol), but retained its ability to lay colored eggs (her other earthly symbol), which it did in her honor and gave to children. And here we have one theory on the origin of the Easter Bunny. To be continued later…
What is amazing to me is that this whole thing — the origins of the word Easter, the existence of the goddess Eostre, her turning a bird into a bunny, and possibly the Easter Bunny himself — may have been completely fabricated by single individuals with some sweet imaginations.
I love this stuff!
What Came First: the Rabbit or the Egg?
The tradition of dyeing Easter eggs and giving candy eggs has a few origin theories:
- To honor the mysterious Eostre’s bird-turned rabbit that laid brightly colored eggs that were given to children.
- As mentioned before, eggs, along with rabbits, were widespread symbols of new life and fertility found in many pre-Christian cultures around the globe. There are many, many old customs that involve decorating eggs and giving them as gifts around the Vernal Equinox. Eggs were boiled with flowers and other materials to change their color to bring spring into the home.
- Decorating eggs are seen by many Christians as a symbol of Jesus’ empty tomb and thus His resurrection, and some dyed eggs red to symbolize Jesus’ spilt blood.
So what came first, the rabbit or the egg? My opinion is that since so many cultures, including as old as the Egyptians, Persians, and Romans, all used eggs as symbols of spring, this pagan rabbit came before the Christian egg. Research shows that the association between Easter, eggs, and Jesus’ empty tomb came in the 15th century when Roman Catholicism became the dominant religion in Germany. It seems very likely, and very natural, that the tradition merged with already ingrained pagan traditions.
Pulling a Rabbit Out of a Hat
As mentioned earlier, the rabbit was a symbol of fertility and celebrated at the start of spring by many ancient cultures. Regardless of whether Eostre was a fabricated goddess or not, these animals were always associated with spring festivals and what came to be Easter.
At some point, the Germans took the pagan fertility rabbit, probably smashed with the legend of Eostre, and turned it into Oschter Haws (“Easter Hare”), a hare that lay a nest of colored eggs for good children. The first mention of Oschter Haws was in the 1600s and when the Pennsylvania Dutch settled in America in the 1700s, they brought the hare with them. Over time, Oschter Haws evolved into the Easter Bunny and now he’s in a photo booth in a mall near you!
Just like they did with Santa Claus, the Germans took a pagan character to the next level (what were the Germans smoking back then? Impressive imaginations). Same as the history of Santa in the United States, the Puritans rejected this pagan character for a long time and it wasn’t until the mid 1800s that it was widely adopted, celebrated, and incorporated into Christian traditions. And just like Santa Claus, the original purpose of the bunny was to bribe children into good behavior with the threat of no candy since apparently candy is somewhat important to children.
The Resurrection of Easter
After all this research, it is clear that the Easter Bunny and Jesus’ resurrection are totally unrelated. They are two separate celebrations. And so maybe we can’t thank Jesus for Cadbury Eggs, but we can still thank God or Eostre or the Vernal Equinox or weird fertility bunnies or whatever you honor for the start of spring.
For me, the fact that Easter is the amalgamation of pagan traditions, Christian traditions, and maybe even certain individuals complete fabrications doesn’t do it any disservice. I think it gives it even more depth. Celebrating the beginning of spring is reason enough for feasting, pastel party dresses, and jelly beans.
And that makes me so very — don’t do it, Sunna — egg-cited. *groan* For Peeps sake!
Things They Forgot to Mention:
Our traditions are much stranger and mishmashed than they appear. They began rooted in nature, hobnobbed with religion, and ended covered in chocolate. It seems that the Germans have not only provided us with delicious beers and brats, but also two of our most celebrated holiday characters. And let’s just forget about that one guy with the mustache…
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