Easter Sunday is here again, and this year I find myself alone playing a video game and eating masses of surgery treats. Not the traditional means of celebration, but it suits me just fine. So far I have scoffed one medium Easter egg, two creme eggs and a reasonable chunk of a box of roses chocolates, because it’s Easter and I can get away with it. Of course, children usually relay on a certain bunny to provide them with their fill of goodies this time of year, but, unlike Santa, not many people know the true origins of the generous chocolate giving rabbit. That’s a shame, because it’s actually very interesting. The following is how I’ve come to understand it.
The first seasonal celebrations go back further than the bunny, and begin with the Anglo-Saxon traditions for welcoming spring. Documents written by the Christian Monk Bebe refer to a pagan deity named Eostre, who was honoured with a feast once a year upon the arrival of warmer climates. According to his work The Reckoning of Time (crafted in the 8th Century) the tradition lost popularity over the years. The goddess Eostre is represented as a young woman wearing the crown of flowers and is often accompanied by a hare. This little large-eared companion is thought to be the first allusion to the Easter Bunny. The name Eostre derives from the Germanic word austrōn, meaning ‘dawn’. The ind0-Europian parent to both words is Aus, meaning ‘to shine’, and is the root of the word East in English. Hence, Eostre becomes Easter over a variety of languages and countries.
When Christianity grew in popularity, the season altered in meaning, but the name, and many of the former traditions of feast and symbolism stuck around. Obviously, sects of the new religion began to equate the time to the resurrection of Christ. The first depictions of the Easter Bunny started with the German Lutherans, who presented a hare as a judge for children. Obedient Christian children, faithful to the Lord, would be rewarded with colourful treats, including sweets and small toys, at the beginning of Eastertide. Why a hare? Eostre’s symbolic companion is thought to have filtered down in symbolism, but actually earler Christians had another reason for favouring rabbits.
Due to their rapid breeding habits, rabbits were believed to be hermaphroditic, and therefore capable of reproducing asexually. Obviously the scientific terms had yet to be understood and, you know, invented, but essentially this equated to rabbits producing young without loss of virginity. This gave the animal a symbolic relationship to the Holy Mother Mary and the Christ Child. Churches often used hares to represent the holy trinity in decoration.
Throughout Europe, individual fables surrounding the Easter Bunny began to appear. Northwest European folklore spoke of the Easter hare which placed coloured eggs in the bonnets and caps of good children at the start of Eastertide. Traditionally, children were encouraged to make little nests in their hats to encourage the hare. However, when German immigrants bought the fable to Sweden, a misunderstanding in language changed the tradition entirely. The mispronunciation of “Påskharen” (meaning Easter Hare) as “Påskkarlen” (meaning Easter man) altered the original tale so much, that to this day Swedish children are visited by the Easter Wizard. In the 18th Century, German Protestant immigrants carried the tradition of the bunny with them to America.
So there you go. I hope you were all good little girls and boys, and received chocolate goodies from the rabbit, or, if you’re Swedish, the Easter Wizard. That kind of makes me wish I lived in Sweden…. Just a bit.