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The History of the Easter Bunny

April 14th, 2014 Seasonal

In many homes, children wake up on Easter morning to find colorful baskets filled with chocolate in the shape of eggs and rabbits that their parents tell them were brought by the Easter Bunny. One of the traditional activities they may participate in during the Easter holiday is decorating hard-boiled eggs with dyes and various embellishments. They might have an Easter egg hunt for the eggs they decorated, or their parents might instead hide candy eggs or hollow, plastic eggs that are filled with treats.

For generations, all of these happy traditions have evolved around the arrival of the Easter Bunny, which is akin to Santa coming to your home on Christmas Eve with presents for little ones.

But the legends that surround this special rabbit - or in many cultures, a wild hare - go well beyond the frivolity that the Easter Bunny usually represents to children. They often focus more on the religious aspect of Easter, the day on which Christians believe Jesus Christ was resurrected.

Origins of the Easter Bunny
The story of the Easter Bunny, and how he came to be associated with one of the most solemn Christian holidays, dates back many centuries. A rabbit was frequently depicted in religious medieval art, alternately representing fertility and the Holy Trinity.

One legend held that the trinity symbol of three interlocking rings represented a young rabbit who was in the ancient Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus went after the Last Supper. The rabbit waited for three days until Jesus reappeared in the garden on Easter morning. When the disciples arrived that evening, they found a path of larkspur blossoms with the image of a rabbit in the center of each. These flowers were said to represent patience and hope as shown by the rabbit during his wait for Jesus' return.

The modern evolution of the Easter Bunny came from the German Lutheran tradition in which an Eastertide hare judged whether children had behaved well enough to receive small gifts and eggs, which they hadn't been allowed to eat during Lent.

This custom was first depicted in a 1682 essay, "De ovis paschalibus (About Easter Eggs)," by Georg Franck von Franckenau, a German botanist and physician. According to Celebrating Holidays, the Franckenau story is the first printed evidence of a bunny in Easter traditions in Alsace, a region of France that borders Germany.

The bunny and the eggs
So how did eggs become intertwined with the legend of the Easter Bunny? One book, "Stories Behind the Traditions and Songs of Easter" by Ace Collins, explained that Easter egg hunts in olden times took place in open fields where rabbits lived. As children scurried about to collect their treasures, the rabbits scattered from the very places where children found the colored eggs left in the grass.

The traditions of Easter differ on this point, according to Collins. In Scandinavian countries and some parts of the British Isles, early Christians sent their children from house to house in their villages to ask their neighbors for the brightly-colored eggs, rather than hide them away for an egg hunt.

The animal in Easter stories isn't always a rabbit or hare, either. In Switzerland a cuckoo bird delivers the eggs, and in some regions of Germany, a fox brings the eggs to children. In Sweden, the eggs are brought by an Easter wizard, and children there still dress up as witches at Easter time.

In the U.S., the German tradition of the Easter hare and colored eggs was transported to Pennsylvania Dutch country by immigrants who settled there in the 1700s. In those early days, children would make nests in their hats and bonnets and wait for colored eggs to be deposited by the Easter hare.