A search for the origin of the Easter Bunny sent me tumbling down the rabbit hole, and I may not emerge before Sunday.
The origin of the rabbit hole metaphor is much easier to trace. Since 1865, when Lewis Carroll first enchanted readers with his fanciful tale of young Alice entering Wonderland through a hare’s burrow, people have used the phrase “down the rabbit hole” to describe venturing into a surreal state. In the 1960s, the term became associated with drug-induced psychedelic trips. Nowadays, in internet parlance, it signifies an engrossing, time-consuming online experience, sometimes to the extent of obsession.
And there I go, off into an unintended corridor. Like Alice chasing the White Rabbit, I kept getting sidetracked while trailing the elusive Easter Bunny. My online search triggered many childhood memories: chilly Makawao mornings at Po’okela Church, warmed by a steaming cup of hot cocoa and fresh hot cross buns after Easter sunrise services . . . egg hunts at the old Kahului Fairgrounds grandstand, which should have been called egg grabs, because the candy-filled plastic eggs weren’t hidden at all; they were strewn across the football field, and all we had to do was scoop them into our baskets . . . learning color composition at the kitchen table as we experimented with egg dye and wax crayons — yellow plus blue equals green, blue plus red equals purple, purple plus green equals dirty gray.
Easter eggs are regarded as representing the resurrection of Jesus, because eggs have long been symbols of new life. The tradition of coloring eggs is thought to have originated in the 13th century or earlier, when eggs were a forbidden food during Lent. People decorated eggs in anticipation of the end of the fasting period, then consumed their edible artwork on Easter. But what do rabbits have to do with eggs, or Christ, for that matter?
The Center for Children’s Literature and Culture at the University of Florida traces the Easter Bunny’s roots to pre-Christian Germany and a Teutonic goddess named Eostra (also known as Eostre and Ostara), who represented spring and fertility. Her symbol was the rabbit, because of its widely recognized reproductive expertise.
The Encyclopedia Mythica cites a legend in which the goddess changed her pet bird into a rabbit, to the amusement of the children she loved. The magical hare produced brightly colored eggs, which Ostara/Eostra gave to the youngsters. Easter Bunny stories were first documented in the 1500s and, by 1680, the first published tale about an egg-laying rabbit hiding his treasures in a garden appeared. German immigrants to Pennsylvania Dutch country brought these legends with them in the 1700s, along with the custom of making nests in which the rabbit could leave its eggs. The nest-making tradition evolved into basket-decorating and eventually included candies and small gifts alongside the colored eggs.
While it’s widely accepted that the Christian observance of Easter sprang from ancient pagan celebrations of spring, the true origin of the holiday is unclear. Many people attribute Easter to Eostra; after all, the similarity of names seems to prove the point. But Eostra herself is a subject of debate.
The Venerable Bede, a Benedictine monk also known as St. Bede the Venerable, is the only source of documentation of Eostra. Bede mentions the pagan goddess in “The Reckoning of Time,” which he wrote in the year 725. Because she appears nowhere else in written accounts, some scholars believe that Eostra was created by Bede himself. But, as many folklorists (including Jacob Grimm) have pointed out, it seems improbable that Bede, best known for his “Ecclesiastical History of the English People,” would toss a fictional character into his historical and theological works.
So, after many hours in this rabbit hole, I find myself curiouser and curiouser. If you’ll pardon me, I think I just saw the Tooth Fairy fluttering down another path.
* Kathy Collins is a radio personality (The Buzz 107.5 FM), storyteller, actress, emcee and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.