With Easter this weekend, I’ve been looking into the traditions of the Easter Egg and the Easter Bunny. The origins of these are now lost, although it appears that they have been symbols used for festivities around this time of year for thousands of years. In fact, there is an ancient Iranian tradition for decorating eggs to celebrate the Iranian New Year at the Spring Equinox (the day in Spring when there are as many hours of daylight as there are of dark). This is one potential origin for Easter Eggs, coming to the more Christian countries via routes of trade from the Middle East. Indeed, Eastern Orthodox Christianity has long had a tradition of painting eggs red for Easter. The red here is as a sign of the blood of Christ. But why the egg?
The egg in many cultures seems to have symbolic resonance at this time of year. It is generally used as a symbol for rebirth. In the case of the Christian church, that rebirth is the rebirth of Jesus following his crucifixion. In Iran, it’s a symbol of the rebirth of the year. It’s the same in pre-Christian Europe. Spring is a time when life is beginning to come back to the world. The trees are covered in blossom, flowers are blooming, and the birds are sitting on their nests waiting for their eggs to hatch. This last is arguably one of the most visual representations of the beginning of a new life. It is, after all, possible to watch a baby bird hatching from its egg with the naked eye. This makes it easier to represent new life with the image of an egg, which is quite likely how the egg became such a universal symbol of rebirth in the very early days of humanity.
But what about the Easter Bunny? Rabbits don’t lay eggs, so how have they come to be associated with Easter as well? Again, it all comes down to pre-Christian representations of life. First of all, rabbits are reputed for their tremendous ability to reproduce and bring new life into the world. Even today, we have sayings about it. But also rabbits have become associated with this time of the year as well. Spring is when the baby rabbits (or kits) begin to poke their heads above ground for the first time. To early cultures, this would have been an important time, as it allowed them to be able to catch rabbits for food again after the long winter months. But also, it is just a pleasing sight. It made me very happy as I was out walking the other day to hear a rustling in the undergrowth. When I looked, I saw my first baby rabbits of the season, chasing each other round in play. This would have given the same warm feeling thousands of years ago as it did me.
So with two powerful symbols, both associated with the same time of year, it is only natural that they would have become inextricably entwined over the millennia. So yes, whilst technically rabbits and eggs have nothing to do with each other, their associations with Spring have become joined together, giving us the familiar Easter Bunny delivering his delicious chocolate eggs (the chocolate being a modern addition to all this). So the one question which remains is: has the Easter Bunny with his eggs become purely a Christian symbol? Or are there still other meanings associated with it, and is it more a symbol of the time of year than of a religious festival? That one, I will leave up to you to answer.