Adorable little bunny rabbits and gaily colored eggs immediately bring to mind the spring holiday of Easter, a Christian religious feast celebrated to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Quite frankly, cutesy little symbols such as the aforementioned bunnies and eggs seem a little out of place next to a crucified and risen savior. The Bible is lacking any passages pertaining to a furry rabbit dude named Peter Cottontail, and we are not admonished to dye eggs pretty pastel colors to achieve the Kingdom of Heaven. So, how did these seemingly random objects come to represent the holiest mysteries of the Christian faith?
Like most Christian practices, Easter itself was swiped from Pagan tradition. The very name Easter is derived from a very ancient pre-Christian deity Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of fertility and spring. Other cultures had their own version of this beloved goddess with similar names. There is one common thread to all holy days celebrated in the spring — no matter the time or place — rites have always been observed to celebrate death and rebirth, as nature waking from her long winter’s nap has always provided the perfect metaphor for such.
During the very early days of Christianity, the church fathers were not unaware of the fact that if they wanted to convert the largest number of heathens possible, the easiest way to do it was by simply changing the old ways and gods with the new ones. For example, instead of trying to completely reinvent the wheel by doing away with the springtime festival of Ishtar (see the similarity with Easter?) and the resurrection of the God Tammuz (hmmmm…..) around the spring equinox, they chose to observe their savior’s rebirth at that time as well. What a coincidence! And an excellent PR move.
The egg has always been a symbol of fertility and regeneration. Decorated ostrich eggs believed to be 60,000 years old have been discovered in Africa. The ancient Romans had a proverb that stated, “all life comes from an egg.” The early Christians borrowed this imagery to pertain to the resurrection of Christ, as opposed to the ancient association with the rebirth of nature in spring.
Since all we have to do when we want an egg is go to the local supermarket, it’s easy to forget that for our forebearers eggs were strictly a seasonal treat available only in the spring. In the natural world, birds don’t lay eggs on a year round basis because their laying cycles are regulated by the amount of daylight. As the days grow shorter heading into winter, the quantity of eggs being laid dwindles along with the hours of sunlight.
During the Middle Ages, eggs were not allowed during Lent, so it was common practice for eggs laid during that time to be boiled for use later. This ensured that eggs were a major part of Easter holiday meals and a much anticipated gift for kids and servants.
Although tradition has always dictated the used of painted or dyed chicken eggs, in modern times the use of chocolate eggs or plastic ones filled with candy has become more of the norm. Some eggs may be hidden for kids to find on Easter morning, or placed in Easter baskets filled with fake Easter grass that will be stuck in the couch cushions until Halloween.
The rabbit is a well known fertility symbol. There’s a very good reason we describe certain fecund creatures as “multiplying like rabbits.” In Easter lore the animal in question is more specifically a hare. Legend has it the goddess Eostre transformed an injured bird into a hare that could still lay eggs — and colored ones on her feast day at that. So colored eggs have been part of Easter tradition long before prepackaged kits became available.
The Easter Bunny was brought to America by German settlers in the 1700s, who called it the Osterhase, which literally means the Easter Hare. He was a white rabbit that laid colored eggs for well behaved children to find. Children would also fashion him nests to lay his eggs in, which evolved into Easter baskets over time. German immigrants also baked cakes in the shape of white hares for tasty holiday treats, which may have been a precursor for chocolate bunnies that came later.
A lovely little myth tells of a young rabbit who waited anxiously for his friend Jesus to return to the Garden of Gethsemane, unaware of the tragedy that had befallen him. Very early Easter morn, Jesus returned to the garden to reassure his furry pal that he was OK. Later that night when the disciples came to garden for prayers, they were greeted by a path of lovely larkspurs each with the center image of a rabbit in commemoration of that little animal’s friendship and loyalty.
So there you have it. Eggs, bunnies and Easter go back a long, long way. And every year, after another long winter has passed, it’s always to see them come around again.