The Easter Hare or Easter Bunny is as much a part of the celebration of Easter in Europe, parts of North America, Australia, New Zealand, and other parts of the world, as Father Christmas, Santa Claus, and similar figures are to Christmas. There can be no doubt that many children look forward to the leporid (variously identified as a hare or rabbit) bringing baskets of brightly coloured eggs, candy, and even toys the night before Easter. The leoprid has even been immortalised in song ("Here Comes Peter Cottontail"). Of course, the belief in the Easter hare or Easter bunny brings up the question, "How did leoprids become associated with Easter anyway and how did the Easter hare or Easter bunny develop?"
To begin with, it seems that hares and rabbits have been associated with spring, at least in Europe, for some time. The phrase "as mad as a March hare" dates at least back to around 1500. It first appears in the poem, "Blowbol's Test" written about that time, which contains the line, "Thanne they begyn to swere and to stare, And be as braynles as a Marshe hare." Other early uses of the phrase are in Edward Hall's Chronicle from 1548 and Sir Thomas More's The supplycacyon of soulys. Whether the phrase pre-dates the 16th century, it is hard to say, but it does show that Englishmen associated the hare with the month of March. The phrase perhaps originates from the behaviour of hares during the mating season (which actually lasts a bit longer than simply March), when they will box, jump unexpectedly, and the males fight over females.
While hares behave unexpectedly in the spring, they were also hunted around the time of Easter. According to anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep, in Poitou in France there was the custom of hunting hares on Maundy Thursday. The tradition of the spring hare hunt also existed in England. At least from the 18th century, in Coleshill, Warwickshire there existed a custom observed on Easter Monday of sending young men out to catch a hare. A similar custom was also observed in Leicester. On Easter Monday there would be a highly ritualised custom in which the mayor and aldermen would go out on horseback in their robes of office to hunt hares. The spoils of the hunt would then be distributed among the mayor and the aldermen's friends. The custom took place as early as 1668 and lasted at least until the end of the 18th century. A survival of this custom may have been the hare pie scramble observed in Leicestershire.
Between the phrase "mad as a March hare" and the custom of hare hunting performed around Easter, it would seem that hares were associated with spring in the minds of many Englishmen and Europeans. This is perhaps natural, given that hares are unusually active this time of year, as it is the start of their mating season. Of course, hare hunting is a very different thing from hunting for the eggs that the Easter hare brings. How did people around the world go from hunting hares to hunting for eggs left by one? It would seem that it all began in Germany. The earliest possible reference to the Easter Hare is in a German book from 1572, in which it is stated, "Do not worry if the Hare escapes you; should you miss his eggs, then we shall cook the nest." The first reference to the Easter Hare by name (Oster haas in the original German) is in De ovis paschalibus ("Of the Easter egg) by Georg Franck von Franckenau, a Heidelberg professor of medicine. von Franckenau told of a custom in Alsace (now part of France, but then part of the Holy Roman Empire) in which it was believed that the Easter Hare brought eggs on the holiday. He condemned the tale, claiming only simple minded people and children believed such things, and further told of cases of people eating too many eggs. From the 17th century onwards there are an increasing number of references to the Easter Hare among the Germans and Swiss.
It would be German settlers in Pennsylvania who would introduce the Easter Hare to what would become the United States in the 18th century. By 1890 the Easter Hare would be a well established custom in the Untied States. The May 1890 issue of Atlantic Weekly refers to confectioners making full use of Easter Hare imagery in their displays for the holiday. It was by the 1890's that the Easter Hare gave way to the Easter Rabbit in America. By the 1900's it became more common to call the Easter Rabbit "the Easter Bunny.". The reason for this may be that in the United States rabbits are much more common than hares (jackrabbits, the best known American hares, only live in the western part of the country). Since rabbits were more common here, they became the bringer of Easter eggs. The Easter Hare would also spread to other countries than the United States. The custom made its way to England by the early 20th Century, although the Easter Hare soon became the Easter Bunny under American influence. It was also around the early 20th Century that the Easter Hare first arrived in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.
Of course, in the form of chocolate, the Easter Hare or Easter Bunny is often consumed by many this time of year. In Germany confections in the shape of the Easter Hare were first made with pastry and sugar. It was not long afterwards that the first chocolate Easter Hares were made. As the custom of the Easter Hare or Easter Bunny became more common in the United States, so too did chocolate Easter Bunnies.
While the Easter Bunny visits children in much of the English speaking world, this may not be so much longer in Australia. Hares and rabbits are not native to Australia. Not long after they were introduced to the continent in 1859, their fecundity proved to be a problem. Feral rabbits caused damage to both plant life and even possibly drove other species to extinction. To this day they are still considered a problem. Because of this, the idea of the Easter Bilby was introduced in the story "Billy the Aussie Easter Bilby" by children's writer Rose-Marie Dusting in March 1968. The Easter Bilby replaced the Easter Bunny the Hawthorn Junior Field Naturalists Club sometime between 1976 and 1983 club’s traditional Easter bush camps, having been introduced to the club by Malcolm Turner. Confectioner David Lea even makes chocolate Easter Bilbies. Here it must be pointed out that bilbies are not leoprids as hares and rabbits are. Instead they are marsupials, related to bandicoots (which they resemble except for long, hare-like ears).
While it is perhaps easy to understand why spring would be associated with hares, it is perhaps harder for us today to understand what hares or rabbits have to do with eggs. The belief that hares legged eggs may stem from the fact that, unlike rabbits (except for the cottontail), hares do not burrow underground. Instead they make nests from flattened grass. Since hares make nests, not unlike birds, they may have pictured them laying eggs too. It was from hares' nests that the modern day Easter baskets evolved. Originally Easter eggs were placed in nest. Over the years this evolved into the basket containing a bed of grass (or fake grass) in which the eggs rested. Of course, the egg may have been associated with the holiday of Easter before the first reference to the Easter Hare.
Although it is a custom to eat hard boiled eggs at Passover, it seems likely that the Easter egg developed independently from the Jewish holiday in Europe. Indeed, the custom of Easter eggs is so common in Europe that it is difficult to determine where it originated. It could well have been developed independently among many different European peoples over the years. The custom has been practised for centuries as far east as Russia and as far west as England. The custom of the Easter egg may well pre-date the arrival of Christianity among the Germanic peoples (the Germans, English, Danes, Norwegians, Swedes, et. al.). In a cemetery dating from 350 CE in Worms, Germany, painted clay eggs were found in the grave of a child. The custom of Easter eggs was common in medieval England. In 1290 it is recorded that eighteen pence was spent for four hundred and fifty eggs to be gold leafed to be given as gifts for Easter. Easter egg rolling, in which Easter eggs are rolled down a hill, is common in England, Germany, and other countries.This custom also dates as far back as the Middle Ages. The English custom of pace egging (the word pace perhaps stemming from Latin Pascha, "Easter") also dates back to medieval times. Pace egging is essentially the performance of a play, not unlike the Christmas pantomimes, in which a hero fights a villain, the hero is killed, and the hero is brought back to life by a doctor. Of course, the best known activity involving Easter eggs is the Easter egg hunt, popular in the United States and the United Kingdom. Curiously, it appears to have been a more recent invention, developed by the Germans in Pennsylvania sometime in the 18th or 19th centuries.
The link between hares and spring is easily seen as they are much more active this time of year. Similarly, given many birds lay eggs in spring, it is easy to see a link between eggs and the season as well. Among the Germanic peoples, however, the link between hares, eggs, and spring could have its roots in pre-Christian religion. It is in Chapter 15 of De temporum ratione (from around 708 CE) that Bede wrote of a goddess named Éostreworshipped by the Angle and Saxon heathen. According to Bede, the month now translated Paschalis mensis was called by the Angle and Saxon heathen Éosturmonađ, named for their goddess Éostre. It was in her honour that feasts were held in that month. Indeed, our modern word Easter is ultimately derived from Old English Éostre.
Over the years there have been scholars who have doubted Bede's account, some going so far as to claim he manufactured the goddess. This seems highly unlikely. Bede had a nearly pathological hatred of paganism of any kind, the heathenism of the Angles and Saxons in particular. In his writings he consistently condemns Angle and Saxon heathenism and always touts the superiority of Christianity. Given this, it seems highly unlikely Bede would invent a pagan goddess out of whole cloth. Besides, the etymology of the name could be used as evidence that Éostre was actually worshipped by the Angles and Saxons. The name would appear to ultimately stem from the Proto-Indo-European root *aues- "to shine," making the name Éostre cognate to Indian Ushas, Greek Eos, and Latin Aurora--names for goddesses of the dawn. Éostre could originally have been a goddess of the dawn. She may have become associated with the spring because early Germanic people s viewed the spring as "the dawn of the year (winter being the night)."
Not only does etymology point to a goddess named Éostre actually having been worshipped by the pagan Angles and Saxons, but it also points to her being known toother Germanic peoples. The German name for the holiday, Ostern, is obviously cognate to English Easter. In his work Teutonic Mythology, Jakob Grimm then postulates that a goddess called Ostara was worshipped by the Germans on the Continent. Strangely enough, there appears to be no equivalent to Éostre or Ostara among the Danes, Norwegians, or Swedes, being unattested in Norse mythology.
Given the modern day English and German names for the holiday may stem from a goddess of the dawn and the spring, it seems possible that hares were associated with her as well. It seems possible that hares were linked to her in the same way that ravens were linked to Óđinn (Old English Wóden) or goats were to Þórr (Old English Þúnor) in Norse mythology. Perhaps because hares were thought to lay eggs or because they would be a fitting symbol of the rebirth of spring, eggs were associated with her as well. It could then be possible that these modern customs of Easter have their origins in ancient Germanic paganism, much in the way many Christmas customs could also have their roots in the ancient Germanic pagan festival called in Old English Geól (modern English Yule). Of course, all of this is speculation. We have no definitive means of knowing if hares and eggs were associated with the goddess Éostre or not.
Regardless of his origins, the Easter Bunny has played a large role in pop culture. As mentioned earlier, as early as the 1890's American confectioners were using his imagery in their displays. With the Christmas card being developed in the Victorian era, Easter cards were not far behind. The first Easter cards in the late 19th century, and even then many featured the Easter Hare. The Easter Bunny has appeared in songs. The best known many be the song "Peter Cottontail," first recorded by Gene Autry in 1950. The song was based on the character of "Peter Cottontail" in works by Thorton Burgess, in which Peter has little to do with the Easter Bunny beyond being a rabbit. Before Peter Cottontail, there was "The Easter Bunny" written by M. Josephine Todd in 1812.
As might be expected, over the years the Easter Bunny has figured in holiday specials. The best known may be the 1971 Rankin-Bass special Here Comes Peter Cottontail, which is based on The Easter Bunny That Overslept by Priscilla and Otto Friedrich and not Thorton Burgess' books about Peter Cottontail (who was not the Easter Bunny in his works). The Easter Bunny was also the central character in the 1977 Rankin-Bass special The Easter Bunny is Comin' to Town. He also figures in the 1992 special Claymation Easter. Curiously, the Easter Bunny has not appeared in movies to the extent which Santa Claus has. He did appear in The Nightmare Before Christmas. When Jack Skellington first sends out citizens of Halloweentown to kidnap Santa, they initially come back with the Easter Bunny. The Easter Bunny also appeared in The Santa Clause 2 and The Santa Clause 3. While there are few feature films which include the Easter Bunny, he has appeared or been referenced in animated shorts. The 1934 Disney short "Funny Little Bunnies" features bunnies preparing for Easter by dying eggs, weaving baskets, et. al. In the 1947 Warner Brothers short "Easter Yeggs," Bugs Bunny delivers Easter Eggs for a lazy Easter Bunny, unfortunately crossing paths with Elmer Fudd along the way.
The Easter Hare and Easter Bunny has been a part of Easter for centuries. Every Easter children look forward to looking for the eggs left by him. While he is not as prevalent in pop culture as Santa Claus or Father Christmas, he still remains a very important part of the holiday. It is doubtful that this will ever change, not that children around the world, not to mention adults, would want it to.