The cute white rabbit used so frequently as a symbol of Easter has its roots in the pagan fertility festivals celebrated at the time of the Spring equinox. The rabbit was actually a hare, an animal that was traditonally seen as being sacred and mystical.
The hare was often associated with moon and goddesses in the ancient world, and was the symbol of the Egyptian moon. The hare was always been portrayed with its eyes open, watching the moon.
In fact, the Egyptian word for hare is ‘un’ which means ‘open’. Hares are born with their eyes open, rabbits are born with them closed. The hare was also considered a symbol of fertility, and specifically signifying spring and rebirth.
Mad March Hares
It is probably not a coincidence that it is at this time of year that the usually shy and solitary animals suddenly become highly visible as the bucks leap and fight each other for the does, when they are collectively called ‘Mad March Hares’, hence the saying “As mad as a March hare”.
When German settlers arrived in America, they brought with them the legend of ‘Oschter Haws’, the white Easter Hare. Children behaved themselves in the lead up to Easter, believing that, if they were good, Oschter Haws would lay colourful eggs (which were the symbols of rebirth) for them in a nest the children had provided, usually in a secluded place in the home, the barn or the garden. Boys would use their caps and girls their bonnets to make the nests. The use of elaborate Easter baskets would come later as the tradition of the Easter bunny spread throughout the country. The arrival of ‘Oschter Haws’ was considered “childhood’s greatest pleasure” next to a visit from Christ-Kindel on Christmas Eve.
Traditionally German children are told that it is the Easter hare that lays all the Easter eggs. In order for the Easter hare to come to the house with the eggs, the children are encouraged to make a soup from green leaves specially for the hare. Without it, the Easter hare will not come into the garden and build the special egg nests needed. The Easter hare is believed to colour the eggs, making the dyes by lighting little bonfires and heating water with flowers and grasses. The luckiest child was the one who received an Easter hare’s egg that hatched to find a baby bird with the head of a hare. As you might expect this was very rare! If the child has been naughty it was likely that he or she would find nothing but hare droppings in the nest. Nowadays most children find the more modern form of chocolate Easter eggs they go on an egg hunt in the garden.
Hares lay eggs?
The legend that suggests the hare lays the eggs is something most people find absurd, but it is believed that this idea may stem from the fact that a bird known as a plover, which would often make a nest on the ground near to a hare’s form (which lies above the ground, unlike a rabbit’s burrow, which is below ground. If, for some reason, the hare deserted its form, it is known that the plover will hijack the form and lay its eggs in comfort, so perhaps this is how the myth came about.
By the 19th Century, the ‘Easter Hare’ had become the ‘Easter Rabbit’. American families would later adapt the nest tradition, using baskets, chocolate, and money. Easter itself was not widely celebrated until after the Civil War, and the arrival of the Easter Bunny in the UK happened after the 2nd World War. In Australia, they hate rabbits because when rabbits were introduced they quickly became an ecological disaster. There have been recent attempts to replace the Easter bunny with the Easter bilby, a small marsupial.
The first edible Easter bunnies, made out of pastry and sugar, were made in Germany during the early 1800s, and chocolate Easter bunnies are now nearly as popular as chocolate Easter eggs.
© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to www.claireburdett.com. Thank you.
First published by Primary Times, 2007. Reproduced on www.funkyangel.co.uk, the ultimate lifestyle website for WAHM and Home Businesses, 2008.