The Unlikely Origins of The Easter Bunny, Easter Chick & Easter Eggs
It may surprise many Easter revelers that the traditions associated with the Christian holiday of Easter celebrating the resurrection of Christ first began with the pre-Christian Saxon pagans in what is today the United Kingdom. The Saxons had a spring goddess called “Eostre.” Her feast was celebrated in the spring, about March 21st and her symbolic animal was the spring hare, known for fertility and prolific procreation, and the egg was associated with her and the rebirth at springtime. One of the celebration rituals that children played during the spring holiday honoring Eostre was egg-rolling.
Many historians believe that Pope Gregory, who lived about 500 years after Christ , ordered his Christian missionaries throughout Europe and what would later become the United Kingdom to “absorb” pagan holidays, festivals and religious sites into Christian rituals. The pagan ritual of Eostre was perfectly suited to merge into the Christian adaptation of Easter because the Eostre concept of rebirth from the dead of winter was very similar to the resurrection of Jesus. The egg, in fact, became a Christian symbol for Easter and the resurrection of Christ. The egg represented the rock blocking his tomb, the egg’s shell represented his tomb, and the emerging chick represented Christ’s rebirth.
Throughout most of Christian Europe, the pagan symbols of the spring hare and the egg and chick were quickly adopted as symbols for the Christian Easter. The colorful ritual of decorating eggs also has an intriguing origin. As part of the Lenten season leading up to Easter, early Christians abstained from eating food from animals as the Lenten fast. Yet chickens continued to lay eggs, so eggs were hard-boiled, then decorated to celebrate the Easter season but were not eaten until Easter. Easter egg decorating became a high art in Europe, especially in eastern Europe and Russia, that immigrants brought to America.
A rather bizarre twist on the Easter bunny arrived in America with German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania and brought with them the fantastical notion of an egg-laying hare called “Osterhase” or “Oschter Haws.” Their children made nests in which this creature could lay its colored eggs for Easter. Eventually, the custom spread across the U.S. and the fabled rabbit’s Easter morning deliveries expanded to include chocolate and other types of candy and gifts, while decorated baskets replaced nests. Like leaving cookies for Santa, children often left out carrots for the bunny in case he got hungry from all his hopping.
Easter cards became very popular in the 1800s with colorful depictions of the egg-laying and egg-painting Easter bunny, as well as the Easter chick. And some cards combined the Easter bunny and chick in whimsical narratives to deliver colored Easter eggs to children.
Given the egg’s symbolic significance representing the rock before the tomb, egg rolling became a popular children’s Easter activity in America in the 1800s, recreating the rolling away of the rock in front of Christ's tomb. According to the White House Historical Association, some historians credit first lady Dolley Madison with first proposing the idea of a public egg roll around 1810. There are also accounts of informal egg rolls staged by the children of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson on the White House lawn. The 1878 event hosted by Hayes on the South Lawn, however, stands as the first official White House Easter Egg Roll.
The first public-egg roll was planned on Capitol Hill in 1877 but was rained out. When the egg-rollers tried to return to Capitol Hill the following year, the police turned them away. The District of Columbia’s disappointed children, however, found a warm welcome on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue where President Rutherford B. Hayes instructed his guards to allow the popular pastime to continue on the hillocks in the White House’s backyard.
Presidents regularly watched from the South Portico as families ate picnic lunches on blankets and children played games such as “toss and catch” and “egg picking,” in which they knocked eggs together to see which would crack first. In 1887 President Grover Cleveland personally shook hands with each of the children in the East Room, which afterwards was left littered with crushed eggshells. Two years later, President Benjamin Harrison recruited the United States Marine Band, conducted by John Phillip Sousa, to provide rousing marches for the event. Crowds swelled each year to 50,000 on the South Lawn for the Easter egg roll in 1937.
Only wartime could interfere with the Easter tradition. After being cancelled during World War I, the egg roll was again postponed after the United States entered World War II. Congress, however, agreed to host the event on Capitol Hill in 1942. Post-war food rationing measures and the subsequent renovation of the White House under President Harry Truman resulted in further cancellations. In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower revived the tradition after a 12-year hiatus.
The Easter Bunny made his first appearance at the egg roll in 1969 when a member of first lady Pat Nixon’s staff donned a fleecy white costume, and he quickly proved a bigger star than the President for the children. Five years later, organizers raided the White House kitchen for silverware to stage the first egg-rolling races in which children used spoons to push their eggs in marked lanes.
As with Christmas’s Santa Claus—who came first from the pagan Father Winter, then morphed into the Christian St. Nicholas—the Easter bunny and Easter chick had pagan origins that then became symbolic to the Christian faith. But the Christian symbolism associated with all three and the historical context behind them is, sadly, little known by most in modern America. It is worth remembering that all three are associated with birth and rebirth, sharing gifts and bringing joy, and peace and good will.
Notes from the Frontier wishes you and your loved ones a Blessed and Happy Easter!
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