If you’re one of the millions of people who will be taking their children to an Easter egg hunt, eating giant chocolate bunnies, or painting eggs, you might be surprised to learn about the origins of these cute traditions. It’s not something people think about often, but why, exactly, do we hunt for eggs on Easter? Unless we completely flunked biology, bunnies don’t lay eggs. Who is the Easter bunny, anyway? How did he come to be associated with Easter, a holiday that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus?
While rabbits and hares had been associated with Christianity for centuries prior, Americans can thank Germany for the Easter bunny’s popularity in the United States. 18th-century German immigrants bound for Pennsylvania brought along with them the legend of the ‘Osterhase’ an egg-laying hare who laid eggs and hid them around homes and gardens for children to find on Easter morning. Eventually, the legend of the Osterhase spread across America. The Easter hare became an Easter bunny, and the real eggs were eventually replaced with molded chocolate eggs, first popularized by Cadbury in the 19th century NOM!
Now here’s where things get a bit strange. Rabbits have a long history as symbols of fertility, but did you know that ancient scholars believed that hares were hermaphrodites? Because of their rapid reproductive cycles, tiny reproductive anatomy, and extreme fertility, the experts of the day theorized that hares had both sets of reproductive organs and could impregnate themselves. Some even believed that hares could reproduce asexually. That (incorrect) belief led to an association with the Virgin Mary that’s why in Middle Age art, the Virgin Mary is often depicted with rabbits or hares.
So wait, where did the eggs come from? A modern spin by Big Chocolate™? Not exactly. According to ancient myth, it’s the Easter bunny him/her/themself that lays these eggs. In fact, some scholars believe that Easter eggs can be traced all the way back to a pre-Christian Germanic goddess named Eostre. A popular legend tells the story of Eostre, the Goddess of the dawn, entertaining a group of children. As part of the demonstration, she transformed her pet bird into a pet rabbit. The catch? The rabbit could still lay eggs like a bird.
Much of Easter’s early origins remain a mystery, but scholars have linked it to the ancient pagan festival celebrating the Goddess Eostre (Eostre… Easter… hmmm) and the coming of spring.
Okay so how did all of this end up in Christian tradition? In 596 A.D., Pope Gregory sent a mission across the channel to convert pagan Anglo-Saxons in the British Isles to Christianity. But there was a strategy involved: he instructed his missionaries to embrace some local pagan customs to make Christianity more palatable for the potential converts. Thus, a church holiday celebrating the resurrection of Jesus ended up being intertwined with symbols of fertility, like eggs and hares! So now if you’re looking for more to do this Easter than hunt for eggs and crack open chocolate bunnies, you’re now equipped to drop some knowledge bombs as well to impress family at the table!