Many are understandably confused as to why Easter, the day widely believed to mark the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is known for egg hunts and rabbits. While not everyday knowledge, a look at the holiday’s history reveals that, as with many other Christian festivals, Easter can trace many of its traditions and trappings to older pagan celebrations. Indeed, even the day Easter is celebrated on is governed by the phases of the moon, a tradition that originated with many early spring festivals (McDougall). Yet while the rabbits and eggs of Easter have nothing to do with Jesus and stem from pagan roots, they are nevertheless rich reminders of not only how much Christianity was influenced by religions of times past, but also how humans of all ages have felt the need to celebrate the coming of spring (Dominguez).
Research done at the University of Florida’s Center for Children’s Literature and Culture indicates that the origin of Easter as we know it can be traced back to 13th-century, pre-Christian Germany, and particularly to the Teutonic deity Eostra (Dominguez). Eostra, whose symbol is the rabbit, was the goddess of spring and fertility, and feasts were held in her honor on the Vernal Equinox (Messenger). Eggs, a longtime symbol of fertility, were also important for these feasts and were later taken up as symbols of Jesus’ resurrection “after Roman Catholicism became the dominant religion in Germany in the 15th century and merged with already ingrained pagan beliefs” (Dominguez). It’s also a possibility that the importance of eggs at Easter is associated with the end of Lent, as eating them during this time was forbidden (Messenger).
The first legend of the Easter Bunny wasn’t documented until the 1500s (Dominguez). One story of its beginnings, according to the University of Florida’s Center for Children’s Literature and Culture, has it that Eostra once appeared to a little girl who found an injured bird and prayed to the goddess for help. Eostra turned the bird into her emblematic rabbit, and promised the child that, for her good deed, the bird-turned-bunny would return once a year to reward her with rainbow colored eggs (Messenger). The first story about a rabbit laying eggs and hiding them in a garden was published by 1680. These legends, along with the tradition of making nests for the rabbit to lay its eggs in, were first brought to the United States in the 1700s, when German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Eventually, nests became decorated baskets and colorful eggs were largely swapped for the candy and treats of today’s Easter (Dominguez). From pagan feasts to our own egg hunts, Easter has undergone many transformations but has always retained some of the joy that comes with spring and the renewal of life.
Dominguez, Trace. “What Does the Easter Bunny Have to Do With Easter?” Discovery News, History. April 19, 2014. news.discovery.com/history/wha…
McDougall, Heather. “The pagan roots of Easter: From Ishtar to Eostre, the roots of the resurrection story go deep. We should embrace the pagan symbolism of Easter.” The Guardian, Religion. April 3 2010. www.theguardian.com/commentisf…
Messenger, Stephen. “What Does a Bunny Have To Do With Easter?” The Dodo. April 19, 2014. www.thedodo.com/what-does-a-bu…
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