The Easter Bunny: A Curious Case

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Do you celebrate Easter?

Brenda de Jong-Pauley, Amsterdam, March 2021

Easter is a nationally recognized holiday in many countries. And even if you are not religious, you may enjoy a special dinner with family on Easter Sunday. Or a day off on Good Friday.

If you are in the Netherlands, you know Easter as Pasen and, if you’re a child, you wait for the Paashaas. (the Easter Bunny)

Many people are not clear about the origins and traditions of Easter. Where does the word Easter come from? Did the holiday start with Christianity, or is it older? And why is the Friday before Easter “good?” Why is Easter on a different date every year? And why in the world is there a rabbit that brings colored eggs and candy to children? Let’s find out!

Let’s start with the word Easter. Where does it come from?

While not everyone agrees, many scholars believe that the word Easter comes from the name of a pre-Christian European goddess, Eostre, who represented spring and fertility. The only early reference to this goddess comes from the writings of the Venerable Bede, a British monk who lived in the late seventh and early eighth century.

Bede wrote that the month of April, when English Christians were celebrating the resurrection (=rising from the dead) of Jesus had formerly been called Eosturmonath in Old English, and that it referred to a goddess named Eostre. And even though Christians claimed the holiday as their own, they continued to use the name of the old pagan goddess.

This makes sense. Historians agree that Christians worked hard to win the hearts and minds of the pagans, and one way they did that was by absorbing and blending holidays from the “old religion” into the new religion – Christianity.

Thus, a holiday celebrating a Goddess of fertility, springtime and new life morphed into (=changed into) a holiday celebrating a return to life (=the resurrection) of Jesus.

Why is Easter on a different date every year?

The Council of Nicaea, a big gathering of Christians, decided in the year 325 that Easter should be observed on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox.

Hold on, what is spring equinox?

Simply stated, the spring and fall equinox are the times of the year when day and night – light and dark – are in balance. The hours of light vs. dark are equal (=exactly the same). The word equinox comes from two Latin words meaning “equal” and “night.”

Scientifically speaking, an equinox is the time when the plane of Earth’s equator passes through the geometric center of the Sun’s disk. This occurs twice each year, around 20 March and 23 September. In other words, it is the moment at which the center of the visible Sun is directly above the equator.

So what’s Good Friday?

Good Friday is a Christian holiday commemorating Jesus’s crucifixion (=death by hanging on a cross). It is always the Friday before Easter. Members of many Christian denominations, observe Good Friday with fasting and church services. For many non-religious people, however, Good Friday is just a nice day off from work.

Still, why is the day of Jesus’s death called “Good Friday?” Why not “Bad Friday” or “Sad Friday?” Some Christian traditions do take this approach; for example, in German, this day is called Karfreitag, or “Sorrowful Friday.” In any case, for Christians, this day is good because it marks the day that they believe God saved his people. It is also worth noting that the older name of this day might have been “God’s Day” and somehow, through the centuries, it changed to Good Friday.

OK, but what about the Easter Bunny?

No one can be sure about the story of the Easter bunny, but here is one version:

In the early folk lore of South Germany, there was a bird that became a rabbit. Rabbits were associated with fertility. The ancient goddess of spring, Ostara (a name related to Eostre), cleverly transformed a winged creature (a bird) into a fertile little 4-legged animal – a rabbit! Because of that, the Easter rabbit had the magical power to lay beautifully colored Easter eggs for the spring festival. And because eggs have always been a symbol of life, the egg was also a great symbol for the resurrection of Jesus at Easter.

In the 1700s, the Easter Bunny’s fame spread to America with German immigrants…

…who brought with them their tradition of an egg-laying rabbit (=hare) called the Osterhase. As the story goes, the rabbit would lay colorful eggs as gifts for children who were good. (Funny how this is similar to the rules of Santa Claus and Sinterklaas about toys for just the “good boys and girls,” eh?) It seems like parents through the ages have used holidays to motivate good behavior in children!

Eventually Easter Bunny customs spread across the US, Canada, the UK, Europe, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand

While Easter gifts started with colored eggs, through the years the gifts expanded to include bunny shaped chocolates, stuffed animals (especially chicks and bunnies) and toys. The Easter basket originated with the idea that the bunny would need a nest (like a bird, eh?) in which to safely lay its colored eggs.

Today, children in many countries decorate and color eggs and wait for the Easter Bunny to bring them a basket of Easter treats

Coloring eggs is a very popular Easter activity. Children may also go on “Easter egg hunts” looking for colored eggs hidden in the garden or even the living room if it’s too rainy outside. Some lucky children may receive a pretty Easter basket with chocolates and candy, colored eggs and stuffed toys.

I hope the Easter Bunny brings you something nice, too!

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