The Easter Bunny is a commercialized cultural commonplace around the world (though it may be losing ground to the Easter Bilby in Australia), yet for all its familiarity, the Easter Bunny's true origins are a mystery.
Eggs and Bunnies
Eggs and rabbits have been used as traditional symbols of springtime fertility and rebirth by various cultures throughout history. Eggs symbolize new life about to emerge, while hares and rabbits are conspicuous in the spring because they breed... like rabbits. The hare's association with Easter may be a holdover from the ancient pagan spring festivals of Europe. According to Bede, an 8th-century Anglo-Saxon church historian, the British pagans used to celebrate a spring feast in honor of the goddess Eostre, who was represented by the hare.
Eostre and the Hare
When Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) sent missionaries to the British Isles, he instructed them to adapt the existing religious places and festivals for Christian use. He wrote, "Since the people are accustomed, when they assemble for sacrifice, to kill many oxen in sacrifice to the devils, it seems reasonable to appoint a festival for the people by way of exchange. The people must learn to slay their cattle not in honor of the devil, but in honor of God and for their own food…" Because the celebration of the Resurrection replaced the old spring feast of Eostre, the Christian holiday came to be called Easter, and Eostre's pet animal the hare apparently came along for the ride.
The first known mention of the actual Easter Bunny comes from Germany in the 1600s, where the cute little guy was known as the Osterhase, or "Oschter Haws." German immigrants came to America with a tradition in which the kids would build nests around the house out of hats and bonnets, and if they had been good children, Osterhase would leave brightly-colored eggs in the nests. The tradition grew and spread over time, and eventually Osterhase turned into the Easter Bunny and began giving out chocolate and candy as well as eggs.
Easter is still celebrated as a major holiday all around the globe, but the truth of Jesus' gory crucifixion and glorious resurrection is often obscured by the garish cartoon bunny in the stores and the gaudy displays of springtime fashion among the religious. Traditions of cute bunnies, marshmallowy creatures, colored eggs, and little girls in pink dresses are harmless enough, but at the same time we must not let anything obstruct our view of the earth-shattering reality represented by Easter. There's nothing cute or cuddly about the fact that we killed God. When we were his enemies, he came to us, suffered in our place through the horror that was Good Friday, and rose from his grave on Easter Sunday so that we will one day rise from ours. The curse is broken, and we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus because we know we will one day experience it (1 Cor. 15:20-23). Let's be joyful, let's never shrink from speaking about Jesus' death and resurrection, and let's never trivialize it.