Why Rabbits Are Symbols Of Easter
When you think of Easter, your first thought is mostly like the Easter Bunny and chocolate eggs. Children are taught from an early age that at Easter time, well behaved children received chocolate eggs from the Easter Bunny, but where did this tradition come from? The other mystery is why the Easter Bunny would bring eggs, since rabbits do not lay eggs! While there are many different myths surrounding the Easter Bunny, many of them share a common idea.
Easter is a Christian holiday, a time to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, however, there are no mention of eggs or the Easter Bunny in the Bible. The most widely accepted story of the Easter Bunny comes from the Germanic goddess Ostara. She has many different names and areas of influence. In some countries she is called Eástre, Eostre or Austrō. She is often referred to as the following:
• The Goddess of Spring
• Maiden Goddess
• Goddess of the Dawn
• Goddess of Fertility
• Personification of Sunrise
Little is actually known about Ostara, however, many cultures base their springtime traditions around her. The Pagan holiday of Ostara celebrates the Spring equinox, the time of year where Winter ends and Springtime begins.
There is an ancient Anglo-Saxon myth that the goddess Ostara turned her pet bird into a rabbit to amuse children. The rabbit would bring vibrantly coloured eggs and Ostara would gift these to all children. There are also references to a similar story in a 19th century book about German mythology.
It is believed that the Christian celebration of Easter has connections to the goddess Ostara, as she is celebrated as the dawn or bringing light, something that could easily describe the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Pagan festival of Eostre celebrates the goddess of fertility, whose animal symbol was a bunny.
In the 18th Century, German immigrants brought the tradition and fables of Easter Bunny with them to the United States. Less than a century later, American sweet shops began selling bunny shaped sweets, which were the beginners of the Easter eggs we know and love today.
The relationship between eggs and Easter is another mystery and there are an equal number of unusual stories behind this connection. Aside from the story of Ostara and her rabbit bringing brightly coloured eggs, other countries also have similar traditions. Centuries ago, church congregations were expected to give up eating eggs during Lent, the 40 days before Easter. Lent is a period of reflection and prayer for Christians, beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending the day before Easter Sunday.
During the last week of Lent, commonly referred to as Holy Week, any eggs laid were kept and decorated to give as gifts to children. In Victorian times, many families would craft eggs from cardboard, fill them with treats or gifts and cover their eggs with satin. During the 19th century, Russian high society began a tradition of exchanging extravagantly decorated eggs at Easter. The richest member of society even used jewels to decorate their eggs.
As more American sweet shops began crafting and sell rabbit shaped treats at Easter, some countries adapted this and, thanks to the advances in chocolate making, chocolatiers created their own versions of the Easter egg. This is very similar to the tradition of advent calendars at Christmas, which never contained chocolate, but instead, had different images behind each door. It was only with the increase in popularity during the Christmas period that little chocolates were added.
Ostara’s rabbit is also thought to be the reason that Easter egg hunts are now popular at Easter. Ostara’s rabbit would lay eggs, decorate them, and then gift them to children. Over time it became popular for parents to decorated eggs filled with treats for children to find.
Interestingly, Easter eggs in Switzerland are delivered by a cuckoo, not a bunny and in certain parts of Germany, eggs are delivered by a fox.
It is possible that the story of Ostara and her rabbit is what began the idea of rabbits as a symbol of Easter, but there are also other reasons to consider.
Many famous artists use rabbits as a way of depicting purity or fertility. The Madonna of the Rabbit is a painting that dates back to 1530. In the painting, the Virgin Mary can be seen with an infant Jesus and a white rabbit.
Rabbits were often used as a symbol of purity by artists since it was believed at that time that rabbits could reproduce without mating. The colour white has always been used to signify purity and peace.
Rabbits are also more active at the beginning of Spring and this is typically when they start breeding. The weather is warmer, the days longer and food is more plentiful to support new babies. Due to the ability of rabbits to reproduce so easily, they are also seen as a symbol of fertility.
Additionally, rabbits tend to give birth to large litters, so they also represent new life and family. Since many animals also give birth in Springtime and Jesus was resurrected at this time, Easter is celebrated as a holiday of life, fertility, and new beginnings. These ideas combined with the goddess Ostara’s rabbit bringing gifts of eggs to children, the Easter bunny quickly spread from Germanic populations, across the United States and then through Europe.
Today, the Easter bunny brings gifts of chocolate eggs to well behaved children, much like Father Christmas brings gifts at Christmas.
- Hannah Elizabeth
Animal Health and Behaviour Blogger