Michael Thompson, Contributing writer
While the Easter bunny may play second fiddle to Santa Claus in the pantheon of holiday myths, the wiggly-nosed critter actually has deeper historic roots than ol' St. Nick.
The Easter bunny's origins predate Christianity, whereas Santa Claus came to popular attention in the 4th century. Like the Easter eggs it is said to circulate, the Easter Bunny is an icon of fertility. The arrival of spring on one hand is a symbol of renewed life for people, but it also is the mating season for rabbits and hares, and it's the time when birds lay eggs. If you put that together with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, you wind up mixing Easter with the Easter bunny.
The Sacred and the Secular
Though some question what Jesus Christ would think about the Easter bunny motif around Easter, many believe
he would find good qualities in the secular symbols, as long as people still appreciate the religious values of the holiday.
Among the ancient Saxon peoples of Europe, Eostre was a goddess of spring and fertility, and her sacred animal was the hare. In fact, one original purpose of a rabbit's foot was to give humans good fortune in reproducing. The vernal equinox (the first day of spring) and the month of April featured pagan festivals devoted to Eostre.
As Christianity took root, celebrations of Christ's resurrection became comingled with the fertility festivals, and in English the spelling was transformed to Easter.
How Can a Bunny Lay an Egg?
Colored eggs were part of fertility festivals in many cultures, including among the Romans, Greeks and Persians, according to Holidays.net. As for the thought that a rabbit would lay eggs, this is perhaps the most confusing aspect of the Easter bunny's history. One legend is that Eostre cast a hare into the sky, creating a constellation known as Lepus the Hare and empowered it to bear eggs once per year.
Written history in Germany dating to the 16th century describes how children would await the arrival of Oschter Haws, a rabbit that would place colored eggs in nests prepared by the youngsters, usually inside of hats. The children were required to have demonstrated good behavior to receive the gifts. The first Easter bunny confections were not chocolate, but rather pastry and sugar.
German settlers brought the Oschter Haws tradition to America, especially to Pennsylvania, where their settlements were the most concentrated. The concept of hiding baskets and eggs is believed to have originated at this point.
Of course, when Madison Avenue got hold of the Easter bunny, there was no turning back.