On the first Sunday this April, children all over Columbia will wake up with one question: what did the Easter bunny bring me? As they break into their chocolate bunnies, squishy peeps, and rainbow-hued jellybeans, these happy kids won’t have a single thought about the origins of their sweet-filled treasure chest. Their parents, though, might be interested to know that Easter baskets have an oddly fascinating history that also contains a bit of a mystery.
On the surface, it seems simple. Even before the birth of Jesus, both eggs and rabbits, or more precisely hares, served as strong motifs of spring. Add to that the fact that eggs are usually gathered and carried in a basket, and the story of Easter baskets being delivered by a springtime bunny seems to come together pretty logically.
There’s actually a lot more to the story.
It begins long before Jesus was born, when pagan civilizations throughout the Northern Hemisphere held festivals to celebrate the spring equinox, which indicated the beginning of spring and the time when days would become longer than the nights. In most areas, plowing and planting could begin, livestock began to give birth, and — this is really a reason to celebrate — inhabitants hadn’t died of starvation or disease during the long, harsh winter.
The spring equinox wasn’t important just to ancient pagans. In 325 A.D., the First Council of Nicaea permanently tied Easter to this annual event when it decreed that the official celebration of Jesus’ resurrection would be held each year on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal — or spring — equinox.
Long a symbol of life and fertility, eggs were part of both pagan equinox festivals and early Christian Easter celebrations. Archaeologists have uncovered decorated eggshells more than 60,000 years old. A common early Christian practice was to stain eggs red to be served at Easter feasts, either to symbolize the blood of Christ or in support of a legend that eggs carried by Mary Magdalene had miraculously turned red. In what would become Eastern Europe, artisans spent hours covering eggshells with elaborate designs in a rainbow of colors.
As years went on, eggs both decorated and unadorned continued to be part of Easter celebrations. In medieval England, eggs — often dyed in spring colors — were given as Good Friday offerings or as gifts to manor lords. The trend of decorating the fragile orbs became so popular that in 1290, King Edward I purchased 450 eggs to be decorated with colors or gold leaf and then distributed to his household. Easter egg hunts probably started in Germany when, some experts believe, 15th century reformer Martin Luther organized the men in his congregation to hide eggs for the women and children to find. This was a nod to the story of the Resurrection, in which the empty tomb was discovered by women.
The custom of hard boiling Easter eggs probably has its roots in frugality. Before refrigeration, hard boiling eggs produced during Lent (when they couldn’t be eaten) was a way to preserve them until they could be consumed.
The earliest Easter baskets actually had nothing to do with children. The practice began during the Middle Ages, when villagers would carry baskets containing their Easter feast to the church to be blessed.
And the Easter Bunny? American children can thank their German counterparts for sharing the tradition of the Osterhase — Easter Hare — who first appeared in 16th century German writings as a benevolent visitor who rewarded well-behaved children with sweets and colored eggs on Easter morning. The receptacle, which was often the child’s hat or bonnet, was customarily lined with grass because, unlike rabbits, who live in underground burrows, European hares reside above ground in grass-filled depressions called forms. The inclusion of candy stems from rewarding early Christians who had given up sweets for Lent.
The custom was carried across the Atlantic to the United States by German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania and became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. Before long, kids all over America were waking up on Easter morning to baskets overflowing with colored eggs and other goodies, all courtesy of the Easter bunny.
But why was the hare — or rabbit — put in charge of Easter basket delivery in the first place? As a symbol of spring, a rabbit is certainly a logical choice, but a more scholarly explanation exists. The story goes back to the eighth century when an English monk named Bede was hard at work writing The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. In it, Bede gave a name — Easter — to the Christian holiday celebrating Jesus’ rebirth. The source he credited was a pre-Christian, Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, abundance, and fertility called Eostre, whose sidekick was a spring hare. A thousand years later in 1835 Jacob Grimm, of the fairy tale Grimms brothers, wrote of a German version of Eostre named Ostara, after Oster, the German word for Easter.
Chances are, these stories did somehow morph into the Easter Bunny. But as experts in European mythology and folklore have worked to track down more information, they’ve made the startling discovery that, with the exception of Bede’s work (and later Grimm’s), no historical evidence exists — meaning no carvings, imagery, ruined temples, altars, or written record — of an ancient goddess named Eostre or Ostara. Scholars continue to debate whether Bede had somehow heard of her legend and believed it to be true or perhaps created her himself. The mystery will probably never be solved.
Regardless of his origin — and unlike Santa Claus — the Easter Bunny is part of the culture in only a handful of countries, including the United States, Germany, Great Britain, Austria, Switzerland, Canada, and the Netherlands. In France, Easter goodies are delivered by church bells and in Australia by the Easter Bilby, a marsupial related to the kangaroo.
As different as each country’s Easter basket traditions might be, one aspect that ties them all together is candy. Each year, Americans fill theirs with around $2.5 billion in Easter sweets. Reese’s Peanut Butter Eggs are the most popular, followed by Cadbury Crème Eggs, jelly beans, chocolate bunnies, and always divisive marshmallow Peeps.
Chocolates were actually among the first candies to be manufactured specifically for Easter; chocoholics have Joseph Fry of the JS Fry Company in Bristol, England, to thank for creating the first chocolate egg in 1873. Painstakingly made by hand using tin molds that folded together to create a hollow sphere, the newfangled treats were an expensive luxury. No one knows who first shaped chocolate in the form of a rabbit, but in the United States they became popular in 1890 after Reading, Pennsylvania, drug store owner Robert Strohecker placed a man-sized chocolate Easter bunny in his shop window as a promotion.
After a pause for World War II, when chocolate was reserved for the troops fighting overseas, Richard Palmer of RM Palmer, a chocolate company still in operation, created the side-view profile bunny — originally called Baby Binks — that has become the classic. Palmer is said to have based the rabbit on a dog toy.
Jelly beans were invented in 1861 by William Schrafft, a Boston confectioner who used an ancient candymaking technique to wrap a nonstick coating around a chewy center. Since the candies didn’t melt in hot weather, Schrafft marketed them as gifts for soldiers fighting in the Civil War. It’s not clear why they were shaped like beans — one theory ties them to baked beans, a staple food in Boston. Though they were a hit from the start, jelly beans were a popular Christmas treat that didn’t make the jump to Easter until the 1930s. Black jelly beans, which are either loved or abhorred, are one of the few types that are sold in single-flavor bags.
The king of the Easter basket, the Reese’s Peanut Butter Egg, was introduced in 1967. Though a direct spinoff of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup — which hit the market in 1928 — the egg’s higher peanut butter-to-chocolate ratio made it different enough from the original that die-hard fans were known to hoard the Easter variety. For those who prefer to stay seasonal but with more chocolate with each bite, the company also produces small, foil-covered peanut butter eggs, which are sold in bags.
The ubiquitous Peep, which came onto the scene in 1925, is said to be the most popular non-chocolate Easter sweet. Fashioned by hand using a pastry tube filled with a mixture of sap from the marshmallow plant, sugar, and whipped egg whites, the first peeps were either yellow or white and with drying took about 27 hours to produce. Until 1955, when the production process was automated, they were made only during Easter. Today, though, Peeps have become a cultural phenomenon that have inspired Peeps eating contests (the 2017 record is 255 Peeps in five minutes), artwork, games, and even STEM engineering challenges for students.
For parents, hiding the Easter basket is almost as much fun as watching children hunt for them. Small children delight to discover bunny tracks (stenciled from flour or cornstarch) leading to their baskets; older kids can follow lengths of string wound through the house or even a trail of clever written clues that lead from one spot to the next.
Baskets themselves take a variety of fun forms with everything from terra cotta pots and metal buckets to recycled berry containers and even baseball caps serving as the receptacle. Eco-conscious parents can purchase non-plastic or even edible grass to form the traditional nest. And while tradition nods to filling Easter baskets with candy, moms and dads looking to help their kids cut back will get just as many smiles on Easter morning with a collection of toys, books, and, of course, a few pretty eggs.