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Here's the Real Story Behind the Easter Bunny

Here's the Real Story Behind the Easter Bunny

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The Easter Bunny reminds us of another magical gift-bearer; he's a bit like Santa Claus: a benevolent bearer of gifts for good children and a star of posed holiday pictures (sometimes including crying children!)—with an origin story that can be fuzzier than a bunny rabbit’s tail.

Perhaps your little one is beginning to ask questions and you want to give them an informed answer. Or, maybe you are wondering if there is a dark history behind the Easter Bunny. After all, adorable bunny cakes and Easter baskets are a lot of fun, but they don’t have a lot to do with why Christians celebrate Easter Sunday. Whatever reason brought you here, you’ve come to the right place, because we’re answering the most-asked questions about the Easter Bunny’s origins.

From the mythical creature’s European roots to its arrival in Colonial America to relatively recent origin tales that date back to the 19th century, we’ve gone down the rabbit hole to separate fact from fiction and bust a few myths. (By the way, the Easter bunny began as a hare, not a rabbit, but when it comes to ole E.B., it’s best not to get too bogged down in technicalities.) Read on for the true story of the Easter Bunny.

archival image easter bunnies loading eggs on cart
FPG

Where Did the Easter Bunny Originate?

The bunny, originally called "Oschter Haws," or Easter Hare, who lays a nest of colorful eggs for well-behaved children, hails from Germany. The earliest known mention, according to A Dictionary of English Folklore, is a German text from 1572, which translated reads:

“Do not worry if the Easter Bunny escapes you; should we miss his eggs, we will cook the nest.”

vintage illustration children searching for easter eggs, easter bunny, german, victorian 19th century
duncan1890

Skip forward to 1682, and we find the German physician and botanist Georg Franck von Franckenau recounting the children’s story of Oschter Haws, who laid eggs in the garden, which children would hunt for—just like our Easter egg hunts today.

In Germany, as in America and elsewhere, traditions surrounding the Easter Bunny grew more elaborate with time, featuring chocolate bunnies and chocolate eggs, as well as toys. (For a fun recollection of Easter Bunny traditions in Germany in the 1950s, check out this account from the Chicago Tribune.)

When Did the Easter Bunny Come to America?

E.B.’s legend hopped continents, landing in Pennsylvania Dutch communities in Colonial America no later than 1757 (and possibly earlier), according Stephen Winick, PhD, of the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center, in his article “On the Bunny Trail: In Search of the Easter Bunny.”

The scholar bases that date on the year a young artist named Johann Conrad Gilbert immigrated to Pennsylvania from Germany. Later in his life, Gilbert would produce two famous drawings of the Easter Bunny—our earliest hard evidence of an American E.B. Since the artist must have known the German tradition from his youth, writes Winick, he would have carried it with him across the Atlantic (though it's possible the E.B. preceded him).

easter card with illustrated girl in easter bunny costume
SWIM INK 2 LLC


Writings from the 1800s begin to show us a more complete picture of the Pennsylvania Dutch traditions, with recollections of children building nests, sometimes using their bonnets or caps (the predecessor to our Easter baskets), and leaving edible flowers to encourage the Easter Bunny to lay colorful eggs. After church on Easter Sunday, children participated in egg hunts and other games.

What Does the Easter Bunny Have to Do with Jesus?

The Easter Bunny is not in the bible and is not related to the resurrection story of Jesus that Christians celebrate on Easter Sunday. Rabbits and hares, along with eggs, are general symbols of spring and renewal that have become integrated into the holiday’s celebration through the centuries.

These symbols do have some ties to Christian art and traditions, though. Rabbits and hares have long been associated with Jesus's mother, Mary, reports Scientific American. The 16th-century painting “The Madonna of the Rabbit” by Italian artist Titian, for instance, shows Mary with a white rabbit by her side.

And as for the E.B.’s eggs? Traditionally, eggs were not eaten during the Christian observance of Lent, according to A Dictionary of English Folklore. Instead, they were preserved or hardboiled to save for Easter. The result: an abundance of eggs for decorating, egg hunts, and other Easter traditions. In some traditions, the eggs used in these activities were imbued with religious meaning.

hare vintage animals antique illustration
ilbusca

Is the Easter Bunny Pagan?

Bottom line: There is not a definitive link in recorded history between the Easter Bunny and ancient paganism. Is it possible there is some aspect of the legend that pre-dates Christianity? Yes, but the following story is not it:

A popular (and often reported) tale goes that the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, Eostre (or the Germanic goddess Ostara, depending on the version), transformed a bird into a hare, after which, the grateful hare laid colorful eggs in thanks. While this story seems to provide an answer to that often-pondered question—"Why isn’t the Easter Bunny a chicken?"—here’s where it gets hare-y: The legend appears to only date back to the 19th century.

Stephen Winick, PhD, of the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center, pretty handily takes the myth apart in his article “Ostara and the Hare” by tracing the legend to its roots. The earliest connection between the hare and Ostara he could find only dates back to 1874 when the German professor and philologist Adolf Holtzmann mused, “The Easter Hare is inexplicable to me, but probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara; just as there is a hare on the statue of [the Celtic goddess] Abnoba,” later adding, “… the hare must once have been a bird, because it lays eggs. …”

From there you might say that journalists of the era, penning holiday content for newspaper and magazines in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, got a wild hare, and the so-called “pagan” legends proliferated.

easter rabbit with egg drawn by a water color on a beige paper
_Yankee_

Wild bunny tales aside, it is in the realm of possibility that hares were revered in pagan cultures. British archaeologist Nina Crummy has suggested that “hare-motif” brooches from the Late Iron Age and Late Roman Period, found clustered in areas associated with Eostre, might indicate the existence of a Celtic hare deity.

Additionally, reports The Guardian, ancient skeletons of hares and chickens that were buried with care in Britain, with no marks of butchering, indicate the animals' special status—and lends credence to Julius Caesar’s account that “the Britons consider it contrary to divine law to eat the hare, the chicken or the goose. They raise these, however, for their own amusement or pleasure.”

Is the Easter Bunny Real?

The Easter Bunny is not real. If you’re considering broaching this truth with a young one for the first time, Good Housekeeping shares good tips on how and when to tell kids the truth about the Easter Bunny.

But if you have an inquisitive child who has pretty much figured out the ruse and is asking questions, you might let them know that it’s okay to pretend for fun—after all kids have been playing along with it for centuries. Case in point, this circa-1850 childhood memory, published in the 1950 issue of The Pennsylvania Dutchman (via Winick):

“Easter was the time for colored eggs, and children were told that a rabbit laid them. Though I was present when the eggs were colored, and had no faith in the rabbit, I always insisted on preparing a nest in the garden among the currant bushes; and when I went there next morning I was sure to find what I expected.” — Joseph H. Dubs (1838-1910)

chocolate easter bunny in spring meadow
boschettophotography

Where Does the Easter Bunny Live?

Easter Island, according to the official Easter Bunny Tracker. Located in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, the island got its name in 1722 when Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen encountered it on Easter Sunday.

The island being E.B.'s home, to our knowledge, is a modern-day addition to the mythology of the Easter Bunny, but chronologically speaking, it tracks: If the Easter Bunny, formerly exclusive to Germany, began hopping the globe by the mid-18th century, he might have also started looking for new year-round digs. An up-to-date world map of that time would have shown the recently named Easter Island, and the locale would have looked ideal—remote like Santa’s North Pole home but with better weather.

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