We all know that there is no reference to bunnies or eggs in the Resurrection Story, so how did all the hype start?
A Pagan goddess?
It is commonly thought that the word Easter comes from a pagan figure called Eastre (or Ostara , Eostre) who was celebrated as the goddess of spring by the Saxons of Northern Europe.
According to the stories, she is a goddess associated with flowers and springtime, and her name gives us the word “Easter,” as well as the name of Eostre itself. Eostre’s first appearance in primary sources is when the Venerable Bede tells us that April is known as Eostremonath, named for a goddess that the Anglo-Saxons honored in the spring.
After that, there’s not a lot of information about her, until Jacob Grimm and his brother came along in the 1800s. Jacob said that he found evidence of her existence in the oral traditions of certain parts of Germany, but there’s really no written proof. The most likely “historical Eostre” is a localized goddess worshipped by the Anglo-Saxons in present day county Kent in Southeastern England. It’s in Kent where we see the oldest references to names similar to that of Eostre.
An illustration from nature?
The hare was a popular motif in medieval church art. In ancient times, it was widely believed (as by Greek philosopher Pliny and others) that the hare was a hermaphrodite. The idea that a hare could reproduce without loss of virginity led to an association with the Virgin Mary. One reproductive behavior that does make hares remarkable is a phenomenon called superfetation – meaning mothers can conceive a second litter of offspring while still pregnant with their first.
Even Christians in the 1st century referred to the egg as an example of rebirth. By the 15th century, chickens served as the primary source of protein because they required only a modicum of space and a little feed, they provided eggs and meat.
People refrained from all meat and dairy products during the entire 40 days of Lent, and this included eggs. As a result, many eggs were lost during the early part of the season.
Towards the end of Lent however, eggs could be harvested and hard-boiled to preserve them long enough to keep until Easter. On Easter, Lenten fasts would be broken and the most common treat was usually an egg. As a result, the egg became a symbol of the holiday for the common people.
The origins of the tradition
So it all started in the medieval church, when the common serf had no access to the written word and no ability to learn how to read. The church used symbols to help illustrate basic concepts found in the Bible. The belief that the hare could give birth without any ‘assistance’ made the their broods miraculous and the eggs were a sign of new life, which was recognized in Christianity as early as the 1st Century AD.
The Easter Hare (Osterhase) was first popularized as a symbol of the season by the German Protestants. Even in earliest folklore, the Osterhase came as a judge, hiding decorated eggs for well-behaved children. The Easter hare’s star continued to rise and soon crossed the Atlantic Ocean with German settlers bound for Pennsylvania. As the delightful legend spread, eager children built cozy nests, originally in hats, to court the egg-hatching hare; eventually, the hare became a bunny (yes, they are different species) and the nests evolved into the forebears of our modern-day Easter baskets.
A common practice in England at that time was for children to go door-to-door begging for eggs on the Saturday before Lent began. People handed out eggs as special treats for children prior to their fast. The children would also hope to find pretty colored eggs in their nest on Resurrection Sunday morning, although in the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition, naughty children would receive rabbit droppings instead.
The point of the matter is: Where is your focus? If our focus is on Christ and not the Easter bunny, our children will understand that.
Like Santa Claus, the Easter bunny is merely a symbol, so don’t let the hype get in the way of the reason we celebrate.
Easter should be a time to reflect upon and celebrate the resurrection of Christ.
But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as He said. Come, see the place where He lay. Then go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead, and behold, He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see Him. See, I have told you.”– Matthew 28:5-7
Happy Easter! Christ is risen!