Easter Bunny

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Easter Bunny

Oschter Haws, Oster Haas

Every Easter millions of children look forward to the nighttime visit of a timid yet powerfully magical rabbit who scatters pretty colored eggs and baskets of Easter candy in homes and gardens across the United States. How did this delightful creature, known as the Easter Bunny, come to be associated with the holiday? Folklorists cannot give a precise answer to this question. Instead they point to a large and ancient body of European folklore in which the hare serves as a symbol of fertility, sexuality, springtime, the moon, and immortality. The people of central Europe somehow distilled the legend of the egg-laying Easter Hare from these strands of folk belief. German immigrants brought the notion of the Easter Hare to the United States. Americans adopted this long-eared legend into their own Easter celebrations in the late nineteenth century, changing its name into the Easter Rabbit or Easter Bunny.

German Origins

The earliest known reference to the Easter Hare in any known historical document comes from a German book printed in the year 1572. The author writes, "Do not worry if the bunny escapes you; should we miss his eggs, then we shall cook the nest" (Weiser, 189). A seventeenth-century German book describes the Easter Hare more thoroughly, portraying him as a shy creature that lays eggs in secluded spots in the garden (see also Easter Eggs). The German Easter Hare may date back even further than the seventeenth century, however, since the author of this book describes him as "an old fable" (Weiser, 189). Since at least the early nineteenth century German children have enjoyed special hare-shaped sweets at Easter time made out of pastry and sugar.

A German folk belief expands on the legend of the egg-bearing hare. It asserts that on Maundy Thursday the Easter Hare lays only red eggs. On the night before Easter the Hare lays eggs of various colors. Since real hares are mammals, however, they do not lay eggs, but rather bear live young. Nevertheless, eggs are an old Easter symbol (see also Egg Lore). Imagining an egg-laying Easter hare helps both to signal the magical qualities of this mythical creature and to link him firmly to the Easter holiday.

The Easter Hare Becomes the Easter Bunny

German immigrants brought legends and customs concerning the Easter Hare with them to the United States in the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, strengthened by new waves of German immigration, these legends and customs began to seep out into the wider American population. By the 1890s fashionable sweet shops in the big cities of the eastern United States featured Easter candy in the shape of rabbits. Since Americans in general tend to lump hares and rabbits together, Americans soon converted the German "Easter Hare" into the Easter Rabbit, and then the Easter Bunny.

Other changes accompanied this process of Americanization. These changes can best be seen by comparing the details of the Easter Rabbit's visit to children in the Pennsylvania Dutch country with the customs observed throughout the rest of the country. Pennsylvania Dutch country lies in the state of Pennsylvania, where many German immigrants settled and where their descendants have preserved many of the German folk beliefs and customs of their ancestors. In the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect of German, the Easter Hare is known as the Oschter Haws. Among the Pennsylvania Dutch, the Easter Rabbit doesn't bring Easter eggs, but rather lays them. To facilitate this process children are encouraged to build nests for the hare's visit on Easter eve. Old customs encouraged children to use caps or hats for this purpose. Many children find a nice, secluded place for this nest outdoors, knowing that the bunny is somewhat shy of being seen. Others tuck the nest away in some nook or cranny of the house. Sometimes the bunny will dare to visit a nest left at a child's own spot at the table. Wellbehaved children wake up on Easter morning to find the nest full of colored Easter eggs. Less obedient children might find an empty nest, or one filled with coal, rabbit droppings, or other disagreeable substances. Special breads, cakes, and candies shaped like rabbits also help to celebrate the visit of the magical hare. Pennsylvania Dutch bakers often place an egg underneath the rabbit's tail, symbolizing this magical creature's ability to lay eggs.

By contrast the American Easter Bunny brings eggs rather than lays them. Most American children are not taught to build nests for the Bunny. They are instead given the delightful task of searching for the eggs which the Bunny has scattered randomly throughout the house and garden. The Easter Bunny also drops off beautiful baskets filled with candy on his nighttime visits to American families. Mainstream American culture has dropped the notion that these baskets may contain unpleasant surprises for poorly behaved children. One American custom would seem to imply that the Germanic Easter Hare is a wilder and more independent animal than the American Easter Bunny. Unlike the Pennsylvania Dutch, who assume that the Hare can fend for itself, some American families encourage children to leave a suitable snack, such as carrots, for the Easter Bunny.

In an attempt to understand the role of the Easter Bunny in American culture, an American researcher, Cindy Dell Clark, has gone so far as to interview children regarding their belief in this flop-eared fable. She found out that American children perceive the Easter Bunny to have supernatural qualities, including immortality, eternal youth, the ability to understand all things, and the ability to disappear or to move so rapidly as to avoid detection. Clark concluded that children rather than adults keep the customs surrounding the Easter Bunny alive in this culture, and often take the initiative in making sure that these rites are observed in their families.

The Easter Hare in Europe

Legends and customs concerning the Easter Hare occur throughout central Europe. In Austria children search their gardens on Easter morning to find special nests harboring clutches of eggs, pastry, and candy deposited there by the Easter Hare. Danish children find similar nests on Easter morning, containing dyed eggs, chocolate eggs, and frosting roses. Toddlers in Luxembourg also enjoy an Easter morning egg hunt outdoors. They hope to catch a glimpse of the elusive Easter Hare who has left behind colored eggs, sugar eggs, and chocolate eggs. Swiss children find a similar bounty in their gardens. In addition, they receive chocolate and marzipan treats shaped like the Easter Hare.

In Germany, where the legend of the Easter Hare may very well have originated, children prepare nests for the visiting gift bringer, known as the Oster Haas. On Easter morning they find these nests full of colored eggs and candy. A German poem, translated into English for a book published in 1895, reveals that the legend of the Easter Hare has not changed too much over the last hundred years:

What is that in the grass out there? Look, oh look, a hare, a hare! Peeping out, the long-eared puss, From his cozy nest at us. There he goes, away, away, Over earth and stones and clay. Quick, you children, come and see This glorious nest for you and me. The prettiest thing you ever saw, Grass and hay and moss and straw. Look inside, what have we found? Coloured eggs, so smooth and round. See them lie each by his fellow, Blue and green and red and yellow. Little hare in yonder wood, Thank you, thank you, kind and good (Lord and Foley, 106).

In addition to the legends and customs concerning Easter Hares that lay eggs and deliver candy, folklorists have recorded several European customs concerning the eating of hares at Easter time. In the region of Germany known as Pomerania, old traditions suggested that people hunt hares at Easter time, and make a communal meal out of their flesh.

The people of Leicester, England, once practiced a custom known as "Hunting the Easter Hare" on Easter Monday. In fact, rather than hunt an actual hare, the local people used a dead cat to entice the hounds to give chase. The hunt ended at the mayor's door, whereupon the populace presented the mock hare to him. This custom disappeared in the eighteenth century, however.

Another local English custom, the "Hallaton Hare-pie Scramble" continues till this day. This custom started at an unknown date in the past, when the local parish was granted a piece of land. The conditions placed on this grant maintained that each year on Easter Monday the rector must offer two hare pies, two dozen loaves of bread, and a quantity of ale to the people of the town. The pies were to be tossed to the assembled crowd and "scrambled for," much in the same way women and girls jostle one another to catch the bride's bouquet at a wedding. Today the people of Hallaton assemble in the parish rectory to partake of the feast beforehand. The remaining pieces of pie are then taken to "Hare-pie Bank," the traditional location for the scramble, and flung to whatever folk have gathered there.

The Easter Bunny in Europe

After the Easter Bunny achieved widespread popularity in the United States, the legends and customs associated with it began to travel back to Europe, establishing footholds in countries which had not recognized the original Germanic Easter Hare. For example, English children are now familiar with this four-footed Easter gift bringer and some may hope to receive treats from this new source of Easter bounty.

Further Reading

Billson, Chas. J. "The Easter Hare." Folk-Lore 3, 4 (1892): 441-66. Clark, Cindy Dell. Flights of Fancy, Leaps of Faith. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Hole, Christina. English Custom and Usage. 1941-2. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1990. Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. Layard, John. The Lady of the Hare. 1944. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1977. Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter the World Over. Philadelphia, PA: Chilton Book Company, 1971. Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Consumer Rites. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995. Shoemaker, Alfred L. Eastertide in Pennsylvania. Kutztown, PA: Pennsylvania Folklife Society, 1960. Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954.