In the weeks before Easter, a lot of people may be asking, “What does the Easter Bunny have to do with such an important religious holiday?” I had wondered that myself for years, but I finally decided to do some research to find out the truths concerning the origins of Easter and the symbols that represent it.
I originally thought that making these connections should have been an easy feat given the significance of this holiday to so many people. But as with many cases of historical research, answers are not always as clear-cut as we would like them to be. The origins of Easter (concerning its name, religious foundation and its associated symbols) come from a mixture of cultures and beliefs. Let’s start with Easter’s connection to religion.
The origin of Passover is linked to a time when Israelites were enslaved by ancient Egyptians. The story says that to free his people, Moses tried to make a deal with one of the Egyptian pharaohs (believed by some scholars to be Ramses II). The pharaoh refused and was later sent nine plagues by Yahweh (the Jewish God). For the 10th plague, Yahweh came down to Earth with intentions of going from house to house to kill firstborn sons. The Jewish people were warned ahead of time and were able to sacrifice a lamb and sprinkle its blood on their doorsteps. This was necessary so that Yahweh would “pass over” their homes and their sons could be spared. (The term “pass over” could have originally been derived from the phrase “skipping over.”) The celebration of Passover is based on the Jewish people’s release from Egyptian enslavement and lasts eight days.
The story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of the Christian faith. Since Jesus himself was a Jew, many of the Jewish and Hebrew traditions were incorporated into Christianity. Jesus and his proposed ability to unify people were seen as a threat to ancient Romans who were trying to maintain control over the area. To avoid any serious altercations with the Romans, Jesus was handed over and was then condemned to death by Pontius Pilot. As the story goes, Jesus was resurrected three days after his crucifixion.
As Christianity developed a larger following over time, its traditions and holidays became incorporated within Europe. The term “Easter” (used by English and German speakers) is said to derive from the German Goddess Ēostre (also Ēastre and Ȏstarȃ ) who was celebrated in Ēostur-monath (the modern equivalent of the month of April).
There are varied explanations to the connection of rabbits with Easter. It would actually be more appropriate to make note that the hare, and not the rabbit, should be given credit for what would later become the “Easter Bunny” to Americans. There are theories that the hare is closely tied to connections with the Goddess Ēostre. Another connection is that the hare is a symbol for vitality and fertility, which connects with the coming of spring and the new life it brings.
The origins of the Easter egg are also unclear, but the significance of the egg itself has been a part of ancient cultures and traditions for centuries due to its symbolic representation of birth and fertility. Egg decoration was popular among ancient Persians who did this in celebration of Nowruz, their New Year celebration that fell on the spring equinox. Christians have also been attributed with dying eggs red to symbolize the blood of Christ. In later years, it became tradition for children to build colored nests (many times out of bonnets and caps) so that the Easter Hare would come and lay its brightly colored eggs inside them. These nests later became our modern-day Easter baskets.
In essence, various beliefs and traditions assimilated over time to create one holiday that is observed by millions. Easter practices are carried out differently depending on an individual’s beliefs and country of origin. Regardless of these differences, the collaboration of symbols and stories from a multitude of cultures is a fascinating example of how we are all linked together by a shared day of celebration.
Suggested further reading:
Fertility Goddesses, Groundhog Bellies & the Coca-Cola Company: The Origins of Modern Holidays by Gabriella Kalapos