The Easter Bunny: Symbol of Easter
The Easter Bunny is one of the best known Easter symbols. Learn its history, and how people around the world revere rabbits and hares.
The Easter Bunny: Beloved Easter Symbol
Of all the symbols of Easter, none is more beloved than the Easter Bunny. And, of all the symbols of this season, none has a more varied, unique and universal background than this floppy-eared chocolate confection deliveryman. With his placeand yes, for some reason, the Easter Bunny is always referred to as hein the traditions of many cultures, Rabbit can most certainly answer the question, Whats up, doc? (after all, what would Elmer be without Bugs?).
The Advent of The Easter Bunny
The first documented use of the bunny as a symbol of Easter appears in Germany in the 1500s; although the actual matching of the holiday and the hare was probably a much earlier folk tradition. Not surprisingly, it was also the Germans who made the first edible Easter Bunnies in the 1800s.
The Pennsylvania Dutch brought the beneficent Easter Bunny to the United States in the 1700s. Children eagerly awaited the arrival of Oschter Haws and his gifts with a joy second only to that brought about by the winter visit of Kris Kringle.
Rabbits Revered Around the World
Many Asian and Eurasian cultures revere the rabbit (or hare) as a sacred messenger of the Divine; to the Chinese, he is a creature in the moon, pounding rice (the staff of life) in a mortar.
To the followers of Buddhism the rabbit was placed in the moon as a result of his self-sacrifice in offering himself as food. In a second version, the rabbit cooks himself in Indras fire since he had no food to offer her and the deity placed him in the moon as a reward. To the Egyptians, the hare (as opposed to the rabbit) was known as un, which meant to open, or the opener. This was because the hare, unlike his cotton-tailed cousin, is born with his eyes open. Un also meant period as it was a symbol for both lunar and human cycles.
These traditions undoubtedly spread to the indigenous tribes of Western Europe much as the Indo-European language base developed through encounters between these two groups. This also blended well with Celtic tradition, which viewed the hare as a symbol of fertility and new life, and the Germanic tradition that the hare brought new life each spring.
Even in North America, the Rabbit/Hare is revered. To the Native American peoples, he was the Trickster/Transformer who either plays the Fool or, in other instances, has brought about a benefit for humankind (i.e., the legend of Rabbit bringing fire to the people). The ancient Mayan culture gives Rabbit credit for inventing Mayan writing.
Just as the ancient sacred places and names were blended into the holiday celebration we know as Easter, so too was the Rabbit/Hare molded from an ancient bringer of new life and renewal to the Easter Bunny, a symbol of a holiday celebrating a resurrection. In truth, the Rabbit stays the same: a messenger of a season when all things are possible and all things can again be new.
Easter Eggs: Decorating, Hunts and Bunnies
Easter Eggs are an important part of the Easter tradition. Learn about their history, and about Easter Eggs around the world.
The association of eggs with the Easter Bunny is actually a recent one. It seems to be the result of an ad campaign (believe it or not) by European candy makers who wanted to advertise their product. The egg, long a symbol of fertility, had long been a traditional staple of Easter celebrations. The pairing of the Easter Egg and the Easter Bunny at the end of the nineteenth century was not only a stroke of marketing genius, but also well-founded in the traditions of the past.
Decorating Easter Eggs
While no one can say when the practice of giving eggs actually became associated with Easter, the decorating of eggs is as diverse as the cultures that engage in the practice. It is known that the eggs were painted with bright colors to celebrate spring and were used in Easter egg-rolling contests and given as gifts, a practice that predated the advent of Christianity. Medieval records note that eggs were often given as Easter gifts to servants by their masters. What is known is that the egg, like the rabbit, was a symbol of renewal of life and therefore a logical symbol for the celebration of Easter.
The methods of decoration are as varied as the peoples who practice it. Some of the most elaborate are the Ukrainian Pysanki eggs. These ornate objects are truly works of art. First, melted beeswax is applied to the white, unblemished shell using a brass cone mounted on a stick; this tool is known as a Kistka. Then, the egg is dipped into the first of a series of dyes; this process is repeated numerous times. The wax is then melted off the egg to reveal the ovoid masterpiece.
Easter Eggs Around the World
The Greeks dye their Easter Eggs red to symbolize and honor the blood of Christ, while in those in Germany and Austria, traditionally give green eggs on Maundy (or Holy) Thursdaythe day commemorating Christs Last Supper. In Slavic countries, decorating eggs in special patterns of gold and silver adds luster to the shell and to the sharing. The Armenian tradition is to decorate hollowed out eggshells with religious images significant to the holiday.
The Easter Egg hunt itself has also taken many cultural twists and turns. In America, of course, the colored Easter Eggs are hidden and then children search for them. In the northern counties of England, children act out the Pace Egg Play and beg for eggs and other presents; the term Pace itself is a derivative of the ancient Hebrew verb posach (to pass over), which has evolved into the better known word and holiday title Pesach, or Passover.
Pennsylvania Dutch children believed that if they were good, the Oschter Haws would lay a nest of brightly colored eggs. And, in a far-removed invocation of the eggs primal symbolfertilityPolish girls used to send eggs to their beloveds as a token of their feelings. Even more interesting is the fact that a roasted egg can take the place of a lamb shank (which mirrored the traditional sacrificial lamb) on the Seder plate at a Jewish Passover celebration.
The egg, like the Rabbit, has become fused into the spring festival of Easter throughout the world. Whether colored, hollowed or made of candy, the source of a childs delight or a symbol of faith, this image of newlife and renewal certainly has made its own nest in the human cultural psyche.
Easter Sunday, Easter Baskets
And Other Traditions
Easter is not just bunnies and eggs. Learn about Easter Sunday, Easter bonnets, Easter baskets and why people pick pussy willows in Russia and England.
Although taken as a given, one question that is rarely asked, but should be, is why Easter has to fall on a Sunday. In 325 AD, the council of Nice issued an edict that read, in pertinent part, Easter was to fall upon the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the Vernal Equinox; and if said full moon fell on a Sunday, the Easter should be the Sunday after.
The Easter celebration was coordinated with older, pre-Christian celebrations of spring. The direct relationship to Sunday as the day sacred to the Sun, the ultimate symbol of life, is obvious; yet the subtle connections to the earlier celebrations of the time of planting and the Moon are of equal importance in determining the day of the Easter celebration.
The Easter basket originates from the ancient Catholic custom of taking the food for Easter dinner to mass to be blessed. This, too, mirrored the even more ancient ritual of bringing the first crops and seedlings to the temple to insure a good growing season.
This practice, combined with the rabbits nest awaited by the Pennsylvania Dutch has evolved in the brightly colored containers filled with sweets, toys and the like left for children on Easter morning by that omnipotent hare.
The timing of the use of bells at Easter comes from France and Italy. While the gentle pealing of these huge instruments can be heard throughout the year, their songs fall silent on Maundy Thursdaythe Thursday before Easternot to be heard again until Easter Sunday, thus marking the resurrection.
This Easter tradition, too, has an older origin. In many ancient belief systems the period before an equinox or solstice was a time of reflection on the past seasons. This period of silence would then be marked by a joyous celebration of light and sound that told all that the darkness had fled and that new life was coming back into the world.
Other Easter Traditions
The cross and the lily are both Christian symbols relating to the religious significance of the season and the renewal of faith. Similarly, the lamb has a religious basis, both in Christianity (Christ as the Good Shepherd) and in Judaism (the Paschal Lamb). The view of a lamb as a symbol of new life is the foundation for both religious images.
The Easter bonnet and the wearing of new clothes on Easter Sunday are fairly recent additions to Easter traditions. While imitating the more ancient view that the new clothes and colors symbolized the end of winter, new life and renewal, the actual practice of strolling to Church in your Sunday Best was not prevalent until the end of the nineteenth century.
A unique Easter tradition founded primarily in England and Russia is the picking of pussy willows. As an ancient symbol that spring had finally arrived, it was viewed as good luckto be tapped on the shoulder by a branch of these soft blooms by a neighbor or loved one.
Though identified in modern times as a Christian Holy Day, Easter, the ancient celebration of spring, has roots far deeper than any one belief or culture. It reminds us that there is always a chance to plant our dreams anew; that the cold of winter will pass; and, that in the course of humankind, you can always plant again.