Peggy Keener: The inexplicable Easter Bunny

Published 5:21 pm Friday, April 5, 2024

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We would agree, without question, that Easter is a deeply religious holiday, but would we also concur that it is, as well, a playful holiday for our children? At the same time, would we not grant that it’s quite a stretch to logically pair the two? With that thought in mind, I’m going to try.

Although Easter signifies the end of the Lenten season and the resurrection of Jesus, it also ironically is a day for a little fellow with long ears and a cotton tail. Yes, the Easter Bunny. Still, we ask ourselves, where did this ubiquitous little fellow come from? The truth is that there may be more to this tradition than you would imagine. In fact, the bunny’s connection to our Easter Christian holiday probably goes back to pagan traditions.

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Don’t look in the Bible because you won’t find the link there. One explanation has it that the symbol of the rabbit stems from the ancient heathen tradition of the festival of Eostre. This day honored the goddess of fertility as well as the beginning of spring. The goddess’s animal symbol was a rabbit. Why, you ask? Because the rabbit traditionally stood for fecundity due to its very high reproduction rates—and the peasant masses wanted their goddess to have lots and lots of little goddesses and godders. (Just made up that word.)

History reports that the Easter Bunny character was first introduced in the 1700s by German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania. From the old country, they brought with them their tradition of an egg-laying hare named “Osterhase” or “Oschter Haws.”

Legend has it that the rabbit laid colorful eggs as gifts for children who had been trying their best to be good upstanding youngsters. With that incentive in mind, the contrite children made nests in which the bunny could leave its eggs. They even set out carrots in case the hare got hungry. (Sound familiar … like that plate full of cookies left for Santa in order to keep his toy-giving-energy-level on high?)

Eventually the holiday spread across America until it became an established tradition. Over time, however, the fabled bunny’s delivery expanded to include other treats such as chocolate and even toys. And we mustn’t leave out Peeps! Just take a trip to Target or Walgreens and you’ll see what I mean.

This does, nonetheless, not explain why the bunny brings eggs? Well, for starters a rabbit is a mammal. Okay, okay, so we know that they have live babies. That doesn’t explain, though, why the rabbits bring chicken eggs for this holiday. It may, albeit, be argued that eggs, like rabbits, have long been a symbol of virility, rebirth and new life—all things associated with the springtime celebration of Easter. (Yet it must be pointed out that Minnesotans in the act of lifting heavy shovels of snow are often unconvinced that Easter necessarily brings Spring!)

But, one more mystery is yet unexplained. Why do we dye eggs for Easter? This may date as far back as the 13th century when eggs were traditionally considered a forbidden food during the Lent season. Folks waited to decorate them when the fasting period was over, thus making the colorful eggs an even more celebratory food for the Easter Sunday feast.

But now things get sticky. Despite what you may believe, it’s not always a rabbit that brings Easter eggs to everyone. In Australia, for example, the holiday is greeted with the Easter Bilby, an endangered rabbit-like chocolate creature. It was inspired by an environmental campaign to bring public awareness to the devastation that the proliferation of feral rabbits was causing. (Having said that, it begs the question of why there was never an Easter kangaroo … kangabilby?)

In closing, here is a true story from my book, “Wondahful Mammaries.” Trust me, it really and truly relates to this column. As any of my readers will attest, I have never held back from pointing out the wacky contradictions I found when East meets West … and then tries to make sense of the mix.

My story takes place in December on a busy downtown street in Tokyo. To my utter disbelief, I look across the traffic to see a large Christmas decoration; a Christian Christmas decoration. (And here I remind you that Japan is a Buddhist country.)

I absolutely MUST get a closer look. Thus I treacherously cross the hysterically busy street for an up close inspection. Yup. Sure enough. There it is. Just what I thought I’d seen. A manger with some sheep, a donkey, a cluster of wise men, Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus.

I reel over the oddity of this until I remind myself once again that Japan is a country of copycats. The East loves its ancient traditions, but it also has an insatiable hunger to be like the West. So, it forges ahead … but always with a twist. You see, Japan habitually puts its spin on any foreign custom, doing it the way they think it should be done. Alas, such efforts often go awry.

I stand in front of the scene, continuing to be gobsmacked. Gobsmacked because it appears … yes, it actually appears … that Japan may have gotten it right this time. Let’s see, three sheep, two shepherds, a donkey, three wise men, Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus. They’re all there. A lump appears in my throat. Gosh, it almost feels like I’m back home in Minnesota.

Then I look up. And I see it. There suspended from a hook on the peak of the uppermost manger rooftop hangs … the Easter Bunny!