If, like me, you have ever wondered what things as disparate as bunnies and eggs have to do with the resurrection of Jesus in Christianity, then check out Vox’s quick but comprehensive explanation of these unusual symbols.
First, the iconic Easter Bunny.
The first historical references we have to an Easter Bunny date to the 16th-century German tale. According to this legend, a mysterious creature named Oschter Haws, or Easter Hare, visited children while they slept and rewarded them for their good behavior (similar to Santa). The children made nests for the hare, which would then lay colored eggs in them.
The tale was then brought to America by Germany immigrants in the 18th century. In the United States, the hare became a rabbit and grew in prominence as books like The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902) and The Easter Bunny That Overslept (1957) were published. In 1971, ABC aired a television special called Here Comes Peter Cottontail based on a 1957 book.
The history of why, exactly, German Protestants came to associate Easter with a magical hare is somewhat murky.
One theory is that hares were traditionally associated with new life, due to their high fertility rate. Some have theorized that there is a connection between hares and the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre — the goddess from whose name “Easter” may be derived, according to one source.
Eggs, meanwhile, have a more complex and ancient origin.
One theory is that eggs relate to Easter symbolically: Just as a hard shell contained new life, so the tomb of Jesus contained his resurrection body.
According to another legend, an egg merchant named Simon of Cyrene was forced to put down his egg basket in order to help Jesus carry his cross to where he would be crucified. When Simon returned to his basket, he found that his eggs had been miraculously decorated.
What is clear is that by the 13th century, it was customary for Christians to abstain from eating eggs during Lent — the 40-day pre-Easter season.
Hens, of course, did not abstain from laying eggs during Lent, so by Easter Sunday a typical village would have a massive egg surplus — making egg-related festivities convenient and practical even if they lacked a clear logical connection to the biblical text.
The Easter tradition of egg dyeing, though, probably originated in ancient Christian communities in Mesopotamia that colored chicken eggs red to symbolize the blood of Jesus. (To this day, Orthodox congregations continue this practice.)
Christians also may have picked up the egg symbol from Passover — the hardboiled egg is one of the seven symbols set out on the Seder plate.
Indeed, Jesus’ Last Supper was in fact a Passover Seder, a ritual feast in Judaism that marks the Jews’ liberation from Egypt by God.
As for the over $2 billion spent on candy every Easter in the U.S. alone, that, too, has its origins in 19th-century German folk traditions, which involved making sweets and pastries and putting them in colorful bonnets (which later became baskets). Just as with Christmas, the combination of these German customs with industrial innovations and mass commercialism gave us the holiday mass-produced treats and popular rituals we enjoy today.