The Easter Bunny

If anything, early Christian missionaries and officials were practical people. A letter from Pope Gregory to Mellitus in June 601, about the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, encourages the appropriation of pagan temples (sprinkling holy water about cleansed any temple) and festivals for Christian use. Gregory even said that since pagans sacrificed oxen in their temples, “some solemnity must be exchanged for them on this account ... but kill cattle to the praise of God.”

Appropriating the symbols of cultures that church missionaries or ambassadors hoped to convert was essentially a way to make the locals happy and lead them one step at a time toward Christianity. A happy pagan would eventually became a willing convert to Christianity.

Among the gods of the pagan Anglo-Saxons was Eostre, the goddess of spring, who had a festival held at the spring equinox in her honour, which was the time of planting a new crop and praising the fertility of the land; that is, a time of renewal and rebirth. In the spirit of appropriation, her name became the name for Easter and the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Christ. 

Eostre also had a mascot that children today are well familiar with — the Easter Bunny. It made perfect sense to the pagans that a bunny would be associated with Eostre, since rabbits tended to breed  — well, like rabbits — in the spring. As prolific producers of litters of youngsters, Eostre’s role as a fertility goddess made the rabbit a good match. 

According to one legend, Eostre found a wounded bird laying on the ground. To save its life, she transformed it into a hare, but the transformation was not complete, since the animal still retained the ability to lay eggs. “The hare would decorate the eggs and leave them as gifts to Eostre.” Its a tall-tale, but it does help to understand the link between the Easter Bunny and Easter Eggs.

Of course, decorating eggs arose well before the rise of Christianity and were regarded as symbols of fertility. The Ukrainian Easter Egg — the pysanka — is part of this pagan tradition appropriated to Christian practices as being associated with the rising of Christ.

The Easter Bunny, Easter Rabbit or Easter Hare in German tradition was depicted as a rabbit bringing coloured eggs and playing a role as a judge to evaluate whether a child has been naughty or nice at the start of spring. The rabbit is a sort of spring-time Santa Claus. In the original German stories, the rabbit is always referred to as an Easter Hare (Oschter Haws).

The custom of a hare bringing Easter Eggs to children was first mentioned in 1682 in De ovis paschalibus (About Easter Eggs) by Georg Franck von Franckenau.

It is felt that the tradition of an Easter Hare delivering Easter Eggs was brought to North America in the 18th century by German immigrants to Pennsylvania and from there spread outward across the rest of the continent.

In its first incarnation, the custom was for children to build nests in barns or outbuildings where they would later find eggs placed inside. From a nest, it wasn’t long before the custom was for the hare to deliver eggs in an Easter basket — it was also more convenient. The Easter egg hunt arose from this custom.

Another famous Easter activity is rolling eggs which occurs annually at the White House in Washington, but has its roots in a traditional British practice. In Britain, the tradition of rolling decorated eggs down grassy hills goes back hundreds of years and is known as “pace-egging,” from the Old English Pasch, meaning Pesach or Passover. The eggs were traditionally wrapped in onion skins and boiled to give them a mottled gold appearance (although today they are usually painted) and the children competed to see who could roll their egg the furthest. The eggs were eaten on Easter Sunday or given out to pace-eggers — fantastically dressed characters who processioned through the streets singing traditional pace-egging songs and collecting money as a tribute before performing traditional mumming plays. 

The Easter Egg Roll  held on the White House lawn each Easter Monday is for children and their parents. The egg roll itself is a race, whereby children push an egg through the grass with a long-handled spoon. Surrounding events include appearances by White House personalities in Easter Bunny costumes, speeches and book-reading by cabinet secretaries, and exhibits of artistically-decorated eggs.

According to an undocumented tradition, Dolley Madison, the wife of U.S. President James Madison, began the event in 1814 and hundreds of children brought their decorated eggs to join in games. The original site was on the grounds of the United States Capitol, but in 1877 a new lawn was planted and the gardeners cancelled the event. Congress then passed a law making it illegal to use the grounds as a children’s playground. At the request of a number of children, including his own, then President Rutherford B. Hayes and his wife Lucy Hayes brought the event to the White House lawns (Wikipedia).

The Easter Bunny as depicted today brings fun and  laughter to children, although the rabbit has become commercially exploited. Such marketing is not unique to today, as newspapers in the early-1900s were filled with advertisements for “Easter sales.”

The road to commercialization of Easter is exemplified by the 1934 Walt Disney animated Little Symphony cartoon entitled, Funny Little Bunnies. In the cartoon, the bunnies make chocolate Easter eggs and bunnies and decorate eggs laid by hens, and place the items into baskets for delivery, all of which is set to a musical score. 

An article in the April 18, 1908, Winnipeg Tribune tells the story of Arthur who wanted an Easter Bunny.

“Wait until Eastertime, and then catch the bunny that delivers your eggs,” advised Arthur’s father.

On Easter morning, Arthur found baskets overflowing with chocolate bunnies and hens, as well as “funny little toys that opened and showed many tiny white eggs within ... But Bunny himself had disappeared.”

Arthur was disappointed, but his father told him to go outside and search in the garden and the barn for the missing bunny. In the barn, he found “the nicest little bunny” that didn’t attempt to run away when Arthur approached.

“I think he took pity on you in your hunt, and so he just waited for you to come up to you,” his father said with a laugh.

Bunny never ran away and remained with Arthur, “and became almost as fond of Arthur as Arthur was of him.”

Of course, the Humane Society wisely doesn’t encourage giving a child a bunny for Easter, as most children eventually become bored with such a gift. The motto is to give a chocolate bunny rather than a living bunny.

Or go for a walk with your children over Easter. Winnipeg happens to have a very prolific wild rabbit population. The odds of seeing a cute Easter Bunny are quite good anywhere that there is greenery in abundance.