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The History Behind Easter Sunday: Where Do Our Favorite Traditions Come From?

Alex Schlee / Staff Writer / 03-31-13

Outside of Thanksgiving and Christmas, Easter Sunday is one of the biggest holidays of the year for many families. It isis the season for egg hunts, obnoxiously-colored pastel decorations, and bunny rabbits everywhere, not to mention Sunday brunch with the family. For many students at Bemidji State University, we’ve been celebrating Easter since we were small enough to fit in the Easter bunny’s lap at the display in the mall, though the history behind the traditions of rabbits and eggs is unknown to many of us.

In early medieval tradition, the Easter bunny was actually portrayed as a hare. It was widely believed at the time that hares could reproduce without losing their virginity, and they were therefore strongly identified with the Virgin Mary.

At the same time, rabbits have been identified with fertility and birth by many other cultures outside of Christianity, and the ancient folklore surrounding them permeated the newer religion during its medieval years.  The strong relationship between rabbits and their springtime antics coincided with the Christian Easter tradition. The two ideas, both involving life and birth, melded together over the years.

The Easter bunny itself can be traced back to the 18th century, according to history.com.  German immigrants who told their children stories of “Das Osterhase,” who apparently was a large hare who would make nests in the bonnets of good children and leave gifts and colored eggs for them.

“Osterhase” literally translates to “Easter hare.”  These gift-filled, hat nests later evolved into the Easter baskets we see children with today, and the gifts left behind by Osterhase transitioned to chocolate and other sugary goodies. Osterhase originated from the legend of Ostara, a Germanic pagan goddess of life, rebirth and fertility, according to about.com.

A similar history lies behind the use of eggs around Easter time. Eggs are a symbol of life and fertility, which goes with the general theme so far. Though the exact origin of coloring eggs is not known, it is believed that the colors relate to newly-bloomed flowers, which are beginning to reappear around this time of year.

Egg decorating helps to bring the colors of spring into the home.  This idea really started to get popular amongst Eastern Orthodox churches which colored eggs red or green around Easter to represent the blood of Christ and new life. The bright pastel colors we see in our egg decor today go with the themes of new, bright flowers emerging after a long winter.

From a Christian perspective, eggs represent Christ’s emergence from his tomb and his resurrection, but the symbol of the egg has deep roots in pagan tradition as well.  Much like the beloved Easter bunny, the Easter egg was an old pagan symbol adopted by Christianity over the years.

Though this history behind our Easter traditions is not by any means unknown, for a lot of people, it simply never occurred to them where the Easter bunny might have come from.  The next time you paint and egg, maybe you will think about the long tradition behind it, and it will make your celebration more interesting.