Thornton Burgess’ works depicting a didactic bunny delivering eggs to reward children who “do the things they should” in the 1900s did not originate in his bedtime stories for his 4-year-old son. Tales of a rabbit associated with spring, new life and good behavior date all the way back to the 16th century.
The egg-laying hare is commonly associated with the Christian holiday of Easter, yet there are no direct Biblical associations with rabbits. Rabbits are commonly associated with fertility due to their prolific breeding abilities and eventually became associated with the Virgin Mary in Christian tradition. Rabbits also became symbolic of rebirth and resurrection in Christian art, appearing in manuscripts and paintings alongside the Virgin Mary in the medieval period, an allegorical illustration of her virginity.
The Easter bunny has roots in the pagan celebration of spring and new birth, celebrated in conjunction with the goddess of fertility, new life and dawn, whose animal symbol was a hare. This goddess appears in numerous Anglo-Saxon myths, going by various names including Ostara, Oestre and Eostre, depending on the region. Eggs, symbols of fertility, and newborn chicks, symbols of new growth, were commonly featured in festivals of Ostara. These festivals were also home to brightly colored eggs, chicks and bunnies, in appreciation of spring’s abundance, and eventually leading to the modern-day images of Easter.
In an attempt to Christianize Easter, early Protestants changed the hare in the tale of Eostre to a bunny, symbolizing fertility and rebirth. The meaning of the pagan holiday’s rising sun, bringing joy and blessing, is also found in the celebration of the resurrection day of Jesus.
The Easter bunny figure first appeared in 16th century German text, and the tales and traditions of egg decorating and a bunny that rewards well-behaved children were brought over to America in the 18th century with the arrival of German immigrants. German Protestants adopted the figure alongside the Christian holiday as a judge of children’s behavior, leaving decorated eggs in good children’s “nests” of caps and bonnets. By the end of the 19th century, rabbit-shaped candies inhabited all sweet shops on the East Coast, later developing into the chocolate bunnies that are found in stores nationwide today. The image quickly spread until the excitement of the Easter bunny’s morning deliveries, including chocolate, candy and gifts in brightly decorated baskets, occupied children’s minds all over the world at Easter time.
Easter eggs, the bunny’s gift, also have meaning associated with the holiday. In the 13th century, during the Lenten season in Catholic Europe, eggs were a forbidden food; they were then decorated, painted and enjoyed on Easter to mark the end of the period of penance and fasting. In Russian high society, ornately decorated and bejeweled eggs were exchanged in celebration of the season. Today, Easter eggs are symbolic of Jesus’ emergence from the tomb and resurrection, along with an ancient symbol of new life.
There are numerous modern interpretations of the Easter bunny, varying by region and culture. In America, Thornton Burgess gave the figure a name and personality in his tale of Peter Cottontail. In Germany, Jacob Grimm, the 19th century collector of fairy tales and folklore, influenced the region’s hare figure, largely from the primitive German pagan traditions of Eostre. The Easter bunny is a bilby in Australia, similar to the bunny in both appearance and meaning; the Easter bilby appears on cards, candy and decorations in the region instead of the bunny. In South Carolina, the figure was reinvented in 1939 by DuBose Heyward in his classic children’s book, The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes.
Although there are many Easter bunny figures, tales and images, they all unite under a celebration of springtime, rebirth and growth. While there is no direct evidence linking the creature originally to either pagan or Christian traditions, the tales of an egg-laying hare instead have history and meaning in both. This springtime, be on your best behavior in hopes that Peter Cottontail’s trail leads to rewarding your basket with eggs, gifts and candy.