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The Origin of the Easter Bunny

As we observe Christianity's holiest day, one might wonder how the floppy-eared, fuzzy-tailed animal became associated with it. After all, the New Testament does not mention any egg-bearing rabbits. As it turns out, the Easter hare, or Osterhase, as an Easter symbol seems to have its origins in Germany, where it was first mentioned in writings as early as the 1500s. Some German parents began telling their children stories of the Osterhase delivering colored eggs to the baskets of well-behaved children. As part of this tradition, children left carrots and made small nests or baskets lined with grasses to look like nests and put them outside overnight for the Osterhase. It was only natural that the German settlers who arrived in Pennsylvania during the 1700s introduced the Easter Bunny to American folklore.

The first known mention of the Easter bunny or Easter hare in print was in a 1682 doctoral dissertation in Latin, the language of academia at the time. George Franck von Franckenau (1644-1704), a German medical doctor and botanist, taught anatomy, chemistry and botany at Jena and became Professor of Medicine at the University of Heidelberg in 1679. Following the French invasion during the War of the Palatinate Succession he left Heidelberg for Frankfurt and then the University of Wittenberg. Franckenau later moved to Denmark as the personal physician to Christian V in Copenhagen, where he died on 17 June 1704.

In 1682, while still at Heidelberg, under the name of Johannes Richier, one of his doctoral candidates, Professor Franck published a 16-page dissertation titled "De Ovis Paschalibus. Von Oster-Eyern." ("On Easter Eggs"), which mentions for the first time the existence of the folk belief in an egg-bearing Easter bunny found in Protestant regions of Alsace and the Palatinate. In some other German-speaking regions the bringer of Easter eggs was a fox, a rooster, a stork or a cuckoo. In English translation, part of the dissertation reads: “In Alsace, and neighboring regions, these eggs are called rabbit eggs because of the myth told to fool simple people and children that the Easter Bunny is going around laying eggs and hiding them in the herb gardens. So the children look for them, even more enthusiastically, to the delight of smiling adults.”

It's hard to track the Easter Bunny's history before Franckenau's first mention, and even harder to figure out why children were so ready to believe in a mythical egg-laying hare. But some historians attribute the rise of egg-and-rabbit imagery on Easter to the holiday's roots in springtime fertility celebrations.

The earliest recorded observance of an Easter celebration comes from the 2nd century, though the commemoration of Jesus’ Resurrection probably occurred earlier. While most European languages refer to the Christian holiday with names that come from the Jewish holiday of Passover, such as Pâques in French, Pasen in Dutch or Påsk in Swedish, German and English languages retain this older, non-biblical word: Easter. The English word Easter, which parallels the German word Ostern, is of uncertain origin. One view, expounded by the eighth-century English monk and scholar known as the Venerable Bede wrote in his work The Reckoning of Time was that it derived from Eostre, or Eostrae, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and fertility. This view presumes, as does the view associating the origin of Christmas on December 25 with pagan celebrations of the winter solstice, that Christians appropriated pagan names and holidays for their highest festivals. Given the determination with which Christians combated all forms of paganism, this appears a rather dubious presumption. There is now widespread consensus that the word derives from the Christian designation of Easter week as in albis, a Latin phrase that was understood as the plural of alba (“dawn”) and became eostarum in Old High German, the precursor of the modern German and English term.

Hares are celebrated for their prolific breeding, sometimes for the wrong reasons. Back in ancient Greece, for example, writers like Pliny and Plutarch were convinced that hares were hermaphrodites, capable of switching their gender month-by-month, which they are not.

One reproductive behavior that does make hares remarkable is a phenomenon called superfetation, meaning that mothers can conceive a second litter of offspring while still pregnant with their first. Of course, this has been misunderstood, too. Hares were once believed to be capable of self-impregnation, giving them an unusual association with virgin birth. That belief was reflected in art beginning around the time of the Renaissance, when rabbits and hares started appearing as common symbols of fertility and purity in religious paintings.

The Madonna of the Rabbit (C.1530) by Titian

As time passed, in America and Europe, the custom added chocolate Easter bunnies and eggs. When it comes to candy sales in the US today, Easter is second only to Halloween. Easter egg hunts and egg-rolling developed as related Easter traditions. As a child, Queen Victoria enjoyed egg hunts put on by her German mother, and helped popularize the tradition in Great Britain. Chocolate Easter bunnies were initially created in Germany and France in the 1850s. The earliest ones made in Germany in the mid-19th century were heavy, solid, and hard as a brick. But that was costly and inconvenient, so a method was created to make them hollow, usually by using molds.

They gained mass appeal in 1890 after American merchant Robert Strohecker began to promote his chocolate rabbits. He had a five-foot-tall chocolate bunny made in the Pennsylvania factory of candy manufacturer William H. Luden. Strohecker displayed the large chocolate bunny in the window of his drugstore in Reading, Pennsylvania. After that, sales of chocolate Easter bunnies started to take off.

As for eggs. they have been a symbol of fertility for thousands of years. Their status as a symbol of new life (and, hence, the resurrection of Jesus) is easily understood. Just as Jesus rose from the tomb, the egg symbolizes new life emerging from the eggshell. The use of painted and decorated Easter eggs was first recorded in the 13th century. The church prohibited the eating of eggs during Holy Week, but chickens continued to lay eggs during that week, and the notion of specially identifying those as “Holy Week” eggs brought about their decoration. They were probably hard-boiled to ease storage and then eaten at the end of Lent to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. In the Orthodox tradition, eggs are painted red to symbolize the blood Jesus shed on the cross.

Hopefully this will shed a little light on how the Easter bunny came about and made his way to America, all thanks to our German immigrant ancestors.

Wishing everyone a Blessed Easter!


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