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The Easter Bunny's Surprising Origin Story

What does he have in common with Ostara, the German goddess of spring?

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Photography by: Anna Williams

This year, Easter falls on Sunday, April 21, and while Christians observe the day as a reminder of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, there's a long-eared, floppy-tailed mystery that's a big part of the holiday: the Easter Bunny. Although he's one of the most recognized Easter symbols in the world—children look forward to receiving baskets with candy, toys, and colorful eggs brought by the Bunny—you may be surprised to learn that the Easter Bunny is a fairly modern addition to the holiday. He became a part of the tradition just about 300 years ago.

 

So, where does the Easter Bunny originate? According to History.com, his modern affiliation with Easter can be traced to German immigrants who came to America in the 1700s. When German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania, they brought tales of the strange and wonderful "Osterhase," an egg-laying hare that delivered colorful eggs to children who crafted a nest for the animal. Eventually, this happy delivery would evolve to include chocolates, candy, and other goodies. Why rabbits? Rabbits have long been associated with fertility because of their prolific breeding habits, and springtime is associated with "new life" and "rebirth." For that reason, it's easy to understand how rabbits earned their prime spot as a secular symbol for the Easter season.

 

RELATED: What Is Ostereierbaum? The Charm of Germany's Easter Tree Tradition, Explained

 

Take a deeper look into history, and you will find that the Easter Bunny possibly traces back to pagan origins involving a Germanic goddess named Ostara. According to the Library of Congress folklore expert Stephen Winick, whether this goddess existed or not in practiced religion is up to conjecture, but she was mentioned several times by Jacob Grimm in his 1835 book Deutsche Mythologie. No records exist of actual worship of the goddess Ostara beyond the few mentions she receives in this literature.

 

The Easter hare was later directly associated with the goddess in an 1874 book of the same title by Adolf Holtzmann, Winick says. Other sources allude to a myth that Ostara transformed a bird into the hare that became known as the Easter Bunny. Winick tried to track down this theory and concluded that it branched off from Jacob Grimm's books, until he found another passage in Holtzmann's book that surmised that the hare must have been a bird at some point. (How else would the rabbit be able to lay eggs, right?) Of course, once the idea of a special hare that laid eggs on Easter began making its rounds, the story itself developed into its own legend.

 

Today's Easter Bunny tends to be imagined as a white rabbit that pairs with freshly hatched chicks and delivers baskets to children all over the world. And while the history of the Easter Bunny is still somewhat shrouded in mystery, what researchers have pieced together provides an interesting timeline for believers of the Bunny.