What does the bunny have to do with Easter?

From central Europe to the United States, one of the Easter symbols is the bunny, or better yet the hare. Apparently, this animal has nothing to do with eggs, the emblem of birth, or, for those who believe, with resurrection and Christianity. But it actually does.

The tradition created around these lagomorphs is Germanic. Out there, Osterhase judged the kids’ actions, to, eventually, reward them with colored eggs. This deity took the name from a pagan god, Eostre, associated to spring and fertility – also the English term “Easter” and the German one “Ostern”come from it. Osterhase was accompanied by a hare, because of its prolificacy.

So, the pair with eggs resides in spring. Ancient societies already observed the birds’ behavior after the rigors of winter and the idea of painting eggs, according to some theories, is related to the variety of species which nidified with a milder climate. According to the Bible, Peter (when he wasn’t a saint yet) didn’t trust Mary Magdalene when she told him that Christ resurrected and he told her something like “I’ll believe you when the eggs that you carry in the basket will turn red”.

ticianus madonna rabbit

Ticianus, “The Madonna of the rabbit”

Like it happened with Halloween, Christianity overlapped with preexisting customs.

Jacob Grimm dealt with Osterhase‘s myth, trying to collect the stories around it. It’s first mentioned by Bede the Venerable, a monk who lived in VII century. The link with hares and bunnies comes from the Leviticus, a book in the Old Testament, where those rodents are called “impure” for being ruminants.

On the other hand, it was thought that those animals were able to breed without mating, so they were something like the Virgin Mary. According to St. Ambrose, the hare was also a symbol of resurrection, probably because it changed the color of its fur in relation to the season. During the XV century, in Germany, the hare became the traditional Easter animal and people used to make hare-shaped cakes.

hare middle ages

The hare in Medieval iconography

Migrations brought all of these beliefs overseas and, how often happened, the United States made a very old and rooted tradition, like the eggs hunting “organized” by the judicious Easter bunny, popular in the whole world. Sometimes this celebration is taken too seriously, during this period many people buy a real bunny and abandon it when they find out that these pets don’t live just a couple years.

Eggs and hares “survived” the transition from the pagan spring celebrations to Christian Easter, showing once again the strength that some symbols have in the collective imagination, even at a subconscious level.

And turning them into chocolate can only mean one step closer to immortality.


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