Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Possible pre-Christian origin
The word "Easter" is claimed to have originated from the name of a pre-Christian goddess named Eostre, drawing on an isolated remark by the medieval English historian Bede to that effect. It is also said that she was sometimes depicted with a hare's head and is thus the origin of the Easter Bunny.
These claims have been criticised as unreliable, however, as no authentic animal-headed deities appear in Germanic or Celtic cult objects, nor has any representation of Eostre ever been found. Indeed, Bede's remark seems to be the only evidence of Eostre.
Eostre's hypothetical associations with the hare seem to be related to its high fecundity (ability to reproduce quickly). Neopagan sources assert that Eostre is the origin of the Easter Bunny, eggs being a worldwide symbol of fertility. In an attempt to associate the Easter Bunny retroactively with Eostre, a fakelore story has been concocted: Eostre turned her pet bird into a rabbit to entertain some children. The rabbit immediately laid some brightly colored eggs, which the goddess gave to the children.
Another view is that the idea of the Easter Bunny was developed by German Protestants, who wanted to retain or re-introduce the Catholic custom of eating colored eggs for Easter, but did not want to introduce their children to the Catholic rite of fasting, which was the reason for the abundant availability of eggs at Easter time (they were forbidden to Catholics during the fast, and thus eggs laid during the fast were stored until the feast).
The idea of an egg-laying rabbit came to the United States in the 1700s. German immigrants in the Pennsylvania Dutch area told their children about the "Osterhase" (also: "Oschter Haws") or Easter Bunny. Only good children received gifts of coloured eggs in the nests that they had made in their caps and bonnets before Easter. Presumably, the Oschter Haws laid them when they were not looking.
According to American lore, the Easter Bunny leaves baskets of treats (including Easter eggs and assorted chocolates) on Easter morning for good children. This is a common practice even in non-Christian households, as Easter has started to become a more non-sectarian festival, along the lines of Halloween or Valentine's Day.
In Australia, rabbits are a seriously invasive species and are therefore generally considered pests, so there has been a long-running campaign to replace the Easter Bunny with an Easter Bilby, a native marsupial. This campaign has had moderate success, and Easter Bilbies are a common and unremarked sight in many Australian stores around Easter.
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