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The Origins of the Easter Bunny

Rabbit

It’s Easter time and many of us are probably looking forward to indulging in chocolate eggs. And those of us with children may well be telling them that their eggs have been delivered by the Easter Bunny, happily skipping from house-to-house with a basket of treats. But where on earth did this story come from?

Hare Today, Bunny Tomorrow

The first thing to point out is that the Easter Bunny was originally a hare rather than a rabbit. German Lutherans in the 1600s started the tradition of the Osterhase, or Easter Hare, delivering eggs and treats to those children who had been good. Just like Santa, the hare acted as a judge of behaviour, and it only delivered to children deemed worthy of reward. Hares already had a connection to the Church at that time. The Ancient Greeks thought the hare was a hermaphrodite, with both male and female reproductive organs. This supposed ability to reproduce without losing their virginity led to Christians linking hares to the Virgin Mary later on.

Brown hare
German Lutherans began the tradition of a hare bringing treats

Why we now have an Easter Bunny rather than the larger, longer-eared hare, though, is open to debate. Some say that the Church felt hares had too many pagan associations. The Celts, for example, saw it as sacred and a symbol of fertility and abundance. As a result, the Church supposedly replaced it with the rabbit. It is most likely, though, that the two related animals are just seen as very similar and therefore interchangeable, especially as rabbits are more common and easier to see. Rabbits also have pagan links as well, after all. Both certainly have strong associations with spring. Hares, in particular, are more visible at this time of year as females ‘box’ males. And rabbits have strong links to ideas of fertility and hence rebirth.

Rabbits
Rabbits are smaller than hares, with shorter ears and legs

But Why the Eggs?

Of course, neither hares nor rabbits lay eggs, so how did the egg delivery story come about? Eggs have long been associated with spring and rebirth for obvious reasons. They hatch to produce new life and most birds lay eggs in the spring. This idea of rebirth then tied in nicely with the Easter story and Jesus’ resurrection, so eggs became a useful symbol for the festival. Eating eggs during Lent was also forbidden in Medieval times, so many people looked forward to their first egg for 40 days on Easter Sunday.

Brown hare
Brown hares often lie close to the ground in ‘forms’ rather than burrowing like rabbits

The link between eggs and hares comes from a case of mistaken identity. Hares, unlike rabbits, breed out in the open rather than in burrows. They make a shallow scrape in the ground called a form. Breeding lapwings also breed in shallow depressions in the earth, often in the same farmland habitat as hares. Sometimes, they will even use a hare’s form. The confusion arose when people disturbed a hare and saw it running away. They would sometimes find lapwing eggs near the place the hare ran from and assume it was the hare’s eggs they’d found.

Lapwing
Lapwings have declined massively due to habitat loss and changes to farming practices

Happy Easter!

Whether you celebrate Easter or not, hopefully you’ve enjoyed a brief look at the origins of the Easter Bunny and its surprising link to the lapwing, one of our most beautiful, though sadly declining, waders.