Wednesday, April 6, 2022
Bible & Archaeology (University of Iowa)

Have you ever seen a group of kids hunting for eggs on a Sunday in the Spring and wondered what kind of crazy rationale would result in, let alone connect, a rabbit that hides eggs to the death and resurrection of Jesus? A platypus perhaps, but a rabbit?

Although both eggs and the hare have ancient traditions that lay behind them, we must return once again to medieval northern Europe to understand the combination.

The hare was reputed by Plutarch, Pliny, and others as being hermaphroditic and thus capable of reproducing without losing its virginity, which probably leads to the many images of hares alongside the Virgin Mary in illuminated manuscripts and paintings found throughout medieval Europe.

Eggs, like that of the phoenix, were symbols of fertility and rebirth in iconography in antiquity, but they would become specifically associated with Easter in medieval Europe. Christians were forbidden from eating eggs during the fasting period of Lent, which ended on Easter Sunday. Eggs would thus become an important part of the Easter feast, even being decorated in ritual colors like red (representing Jesus’s blood) and green (representing rebirth and new growth) still popular among Orthodox Christian communities. While fasting would become less important among German Protestants, traditions like decorating eggs would remain popular.

Holy Family with three hares Dürer
Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), The Holy Family with Three Hares, c. 1496. Woodcut. (Image credit: Wikimedia)

The German Lutherans provide our first known evidence of a tradition where an "Easter Hare" would judge children as either good or bad on the night before the start of Eastertide, giving eggs, candy, and toys to the good ones. This connected Jesus's Easter death and resurrection with the Christmas celebration of his birth, which also began the night before it officially started with a visit from another "magical" judge who rewarded good children. One of the first references to this practice comes from Georg Franck von Franckenau in his 1962 work De ouis paschalibus, or About Easter Eggs.

In the 18th century, German Protestants immigrating to the Pennsylvania Dutch region brought a tradition in which the Osterhase ("Easter Hare") left eggs for children in baskets that they made from their Easter bonnets. And the tradition grew from there.

It is very tempting to connect the hare and egg traditions with the worship of Ēostre, and several have tried to make this argument. The connections with northern Europe/Germanic traditions are intriguing, but St. Bede, the medieval English monk who wrote the famous Ecclesiastical History of the English People, doesn’t provide any information to support that connection.

The best option would be to see these practices as part of a much larger Easter tradition that adapts and relates new peoples to new cultures. While the perceived association with pagan traditions has led some Protestant/Evangelical communities to opt for alternative celebrations to eggs, such as "Resurrection Roles," an understanding of the origins of these traditions demonstrates that they have less to do with paganism, and more to do with Christian culinary traditions in Europe.