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The Origins of the Easter Rabbit
Easter is Both a Religious and a Secular Holiday
Like Christmas, Easter is a holiday that began as a Christian religious holiday and, over time evolved into a combination religious and secular holiday.
Actually, many of the secular traditions associated with Easter are not only very old but actually pre-date Christianity.
This should not be surprising for two reasons.
First, religious holidays in most religious traditions, including Christianity, recognize that people are both body and spirit.
Many holidays therefore seek to nourish both body and spirit by having the holiday include a combination of worship and recreation such as feasting, dancing, singing, etc.
Secondly, much of the success of the early Christian Church in converting the the people of the known Western world was due to the fact that they adapted to local customs and traditions.
The Church did this by absorbing the existing culture and traditions into Christianity, keeping most of the secular aspects of traditions and substituting Christian religious beliefs and symbols for the beliefs and symbols of the previous religion.
It is an Old German Tradition
Easter is no exception. Since ancient times, spring has been a time of renewal that has been celebrated by ancient societies.
Easter celebrates the death and resurrection of Christ which took place in the spring time which paralleled ancient celebrations of the renewal of spring.
While the spiritual focus of these ancient rites of spring shifted from the deities of the past to Christ and the message of Christianity, secular aspects of the celebration remained intact.
In fact, the very name of this holiday comes from the old Saxon goddess Ostara (also spelled Eostre or Eastre) who was the goddess of spring and fertility who was celebrated at the time of the Vernal or Spring Equinox.
While the focus of the celebration shifted from Ostara to Christ and the date pushed back to the end of March or April (see my Hub entitled Why the Date of Easter Changes Each Year) the name Eastre stuck and eventually evolved into Easter.
The Easter Rabbit (or Easter Bunny) is one of these traditions. As a goddess of spring and fertility, Ostara was closely associated with hares and eggs both of which bring to mind fertility.
Hares, like rabbits, are prolific breeders and from eggs, birds hatch. The hare is a very close cousins of the rabbit and is common in Europe and many parts of the United States (the Jack Rabbit is a hare).
The difference between hares and rabbits are the fact that hares tend to be somewhat larger, they give birth to young who have fur and whose eyes are open from birth and nest in shallow indentations above ground.
Rabbits, on the other hand, are smaller, their offspring are born hairless and with eyes shut for the first few days of their lives, and they live in underground burrows.
While the the goddess Ostara faded into the background and was forgotten except for the holiday taking her name, her symbols, hares and eggs, became very closely associated with Easter.
By the time of the discovery of America the tradition of the Osterhase or Easter Hare, which left eggs for for good children on Easter morning was well established in Germany and other northern European countries.
When Germans began emigrating to the British North American colonies, especially Pennsylvania, before the American Revolution they brought with them the tradition of the Osterhase or Easter Hare and its habit of leaving eggs for children on Easter morning.
In time the hare changed to a rabbit, the name which most Americans use to refer to both rabbits and hares. While many Americans continue to refer to the hare or rabbit as the Easter Rabbit, in the twentieth century the image and name underwent a further change from a rabbit to a lovable little bunny which is a term usually used to describe a young rabbit.
Check Out My Other Easter Season Hubs
- Easter Eggs
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- Why the Date of Easter Changes Each Year
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- Eggs and Easter
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