Rabbits, eggs and springtime are tradition

“Madonna with Rabbit” (1530) by Titan. Here the rabbit symbolizes chastity and purity, from the belief that female rabbits could conceive and give birth without contact with the male of the species. The gentle timidity of the rabbit also represents unquestioning faith in Christ’s Holy Church.

     The Easter Bunny has hopped a long way in his lifetime — all the way from ancient Europe, Alsace and Germany to the United States.  Even part of his name dates back to pre-Christian times.

     According to Bede of Jarrow, the English word “Easter” comes from the German “Eostur-monath”, which was the month of the year in which the festival of Eostur or Eostre was celebrated.  Eostre, the Celtic version of Ostara, was a goddess associated with the moon and with mythic stories of death, redemption and resurrection during the turning of winter into spring.

     The word “bunny” dates back to the 1690s, when “bun rabbit” or “bun” was English dialect for a young rabbit.  Gradually the word for a young rabbit became “bunny,” and now it is often used as a nickname for a hare or rabbit of any age.

     Rabbits and hares are famous for their fertility, and to ancient Europeans these animals symbolized the new life that comes to the earth in spring.  Also in spring, birds also lay eggs, making the egg another potent fertility symbol.  No one knows when or why people began coloring eggs at Easter time, but this ancient tradition is related to both Christian and fertility symbolism.  Many eastern Christians still dye their Easter eggs red, the color of blood, in recognition of the renewal of life in springtime and of the blood of Christ.  Some also use green dye to symbolize new foliage emerging after the drabness of winter.

     The idea of an egg-laying bunny probably came from confusion about the reproductive habits of hares.  Hares raise their young in a hollow called a “form,” rather than digging a burrow.  Lapwings nest on the same kind of ground, and their nests look similar to hare forms.  In the spring, eggs would be found in what looked to be hare forms, giving rise to the idea that hares laid eggs in the spring.       

     The Easter Bunny as we know him was first mentioned in German writings of the 1600s. German settlers in America’s Pennsylvania Dutch territory brought the Easter Bunny to America.  In those days he was known as the “Oschter Haws,” which is a phonetic version of the German word “Osterhase.”  “Hase” means “hare,” not “rabbit,” and in Northwest European folklore the Easter Bunny is a hare. 

      The German children used their caps and bonnets to build brightly colored nests in secluded parts of their homes.  During the night before Easter, the Oschter Haws would visit the home and lay brightly colored eggs in the nests as a treat for “good children,” something like the legend of St. Nicholas.   As the tradition of the Easter Bunny spread across the nation, the homemade “nest” became today’s manufactured Easter basket, and the placing of the nest in a secluded area has become the tradition of hiding baskets and eggs.  The first edible Easter bunnies, composed of pastry and sugar, were made in Germany in the early 1800s.  It seemed natural for chocolate bunnies and candy eggs to be added to the Easter Bunny’s selection of gifts, and now many baskets also include toys and games.

     In art, the idea of rabbits, hares, and springtime has a long history, with the first examples seen in ancient pictures of hares, dating back to 581-618 CE, in Buddhist cave temples in China.  In some countries, legends say that the hare is the messenger of the goddesses and gods; in others, he is a god himself.  The Trickster Rabbit is also a familiar character in stories around the world, including African and Native American cultures. Japanese tradition has a legend of a Rabbit in the Moon (rather than a Man in the Moon).  In Christianity, three rabbits with ears interlinked to form a perfect triangle representing the Holy Trinity are adapted from a symbol that goes back to pre-Christian times. All these ancient rabbit tales may have played a part in developing the legend of the clever bunny that brings baskets of eggs, candy and toys to good children.

Published by on March 2013. Filed under Archives, Paint Box Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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