The Christian holiday of Easter marks Jesus's return from the dead, so how did its observers come to associate a seemingly unrelated, egg-bearing rabbit with the celebration?
The answer is both complex and surprising. There's no mention of the Easter Bunny in the New Testament, despite the mythical character's apparent origins with German Lutherans and widespread adoption by other branches of Christianity. Today, most North American families who celebrate Easter do so by giving children Easter baskets filled with chocolate eggs, other Easter candy, and small gifts, and participating in easter egg hunts.
Why is there an Easter Bunny?
To understand how the rabbit became a symbol of Easter, we need to look at the history of the holiday itself, as well as that of its pagan predecessors.
Christians observe Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon on (or after) the vernal equinox—the day when the majority of earth experiences nearly equal hours of sunlight and nighttime—which signals the arrival of spring in the northern hemisphere. That's .
But before Christianity, there was a pagan holiday that also fell around the time of the March equinox, a festival for the Germanic fertility goddess Eastre or Eostre. Her symbol was, allegedly, the hare (rabbits have long been associated with fertility for obvious reasons), an idea that likely stems from German mythologist Jacob Grimm's 1835 book , in which he wrote, "The Easter Hare is unintelligible to me, but probably the hare was the sacred animal of [Eastre]."
Why does the Easter Bunny lay eggs?
In one origin story, found in the 1990 book Mrs. Sharp's Traditions by Sarah Ben Breathnach, Eastre turns her favorite animal, a large beautiful bird, into a hare.
The Canadian magazine corroborates the tale. According to the publication, Eastre prolonged winter one year by arriving late one year. Feeling guilty, she decided to save the life of a bird whose wings had frozen. Then, taking pity on the bird because he could no longer fly, she turned him into a snow hare who could outrun hunters and (an ode to his previous body) lay brightly colored eggs. The only catch was the rabbit could only produce his special eggs once a year, during festival of Eastre.
Easter Bunny history
Some say early Christians adopted the feast day's symbols and rituals for their own holiday, but, beyond one medieval monk's account, there's little evidence for Eastre's existence, according to . (The Guardian's there's "no definitive historical evidence [for] a goddess named Eostre and her hare companion...[in] pagan folklore.")
Whatever the Easter Bunny's origins, it's clear the rabbit is now ubiquitous in the U.S., and some of us have our German ancestors to thank for that. As mentioned above, the Lutherans were the first to incorporate the folklore into Easter Sunday. When German immigrants began arriving in Pennsylvania in the 1700s, they brought the tradition with them, :
What does the Easter Bunny look like?
These days, Easter Bunny costumes are typically white, which lines up with the legend of Eastre's snow hare. As an Arctic hare, Mr. Bunny has very tall ears and white fur that serves as natural camouflage in the snow. If spring has come early, however, he may have a brown coat: Arctic hares molt or shed their fur with the changing seasons, and it becomes brown in the spring and grey in the summer.
He also, occasionally, wears clothes: a vest and bow tie in orange, the color of his favorite food (carrots), are common accessories. He typically carries a basket filled with colorful eggs, candy, and other treats to dole out to children. Like Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny often shows preferential treatment to well-behaved children, rewarding them with the best loot.