On the Bunny Trail: In Search of the Easter Bunny cover

On the Bunny Trail: In Search of the Easter Bunny

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The Easter Bunny, like Santa Claus, is the bringer of gifts on a popular American holiday. Throughout the country, the swift little creature is said to deliver decorated eggs to children on Easter. In some variants of this story, the bunny is even said to lay eggs, presenting a challenge to biology teachers everywhere!
So what’s the story on this odd tradition? Let’s take a look.
Note: Some of this research, and an interview with the author, was included in a report on CBS Sunday Morning, which aired Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016.
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These covers from Puck Magazine, from the Easter issues of 1899, 1900, and 1901, were the first to feature Easter Bunnies. Notice the development of the bunnies from regular rabbits in the grass on the margins of the first picture, to a pet rabbit in the second, to the strange anthropomorphic rabbits in the third cover, walking on their hind legs and carrying Easter eggs in their paws. Click for a larger view. See the originals with their bibliographic information here [1899], here [1900], and here [1901].

Is the Easter Bunny Associated with a Pagan Goddess? Probably Not.

One story about the Easter Bunny, which you often encounter on the internet, says that the idea goes back to pagan, pre-Christian Europe, when a rabbit or hare was a companion to a pagan fertility goddess. In one example, a helpful website explains:

Easter eggs and the Easter Bunny both featured largely in the spring festivals of the goddess Ostara. The rabbit (famous for its skill at rapid reproduction) was her sacred animal and brightly colored eggs, chicks, and bunnies were all used at festival time to honor this goddess of fertility and abundance.

In 1902, the evolution of Puck‘s Easter Bunny continued: he was given clothes to wear and a basket for his eggs! Puck also seemed to subscribe to the “fertility goddess” idea, often showing the bunny with a beautiful young woman. See the original here.

Similarly, the Telegraph newspaper states:

It is thought that the Anglo-Saxon Goddess of Spring, Eostre, had a hare as her companion, which symbolised fertility and rebirth.

As appealing as these stories are, though, there’s really no evidence for them. Eostre herself is only known from one written reference, which occurs in the book De Temporum Rationae [The Reckoning of Time] by the medieval cleric known as the Venerable Bede (672-735). Speaking of the Anglo-Saxon name for April, Bede tells us:

Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.

Puck‘s 1903 Easter cover replaced the beautiful woman with a young girl, and eliminated the disapproving monks. The Easter Bunny’s clothes became even more whimsical. See the original here.

That’s all the evidence there is that explicitly concerns Eostre. Although place names and other evidence suggest Bede may have been right that such a Goddess once was worshiped [1], there’s no hare, fertility, or rebirth associated with Eostre in the only ancient account of her—just the Old English name for April and the word “Easter” itself.

[1] The 2011 book Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World by Philip A. Shaw (London: Bristol Classical Press) suggests that Eostre may well have been worshiped by people in Kent. Shaw finds it unlikely that there was a pan-Germanic goddess like Ostara, however.

For the goddess known as Ostara, there’s even less to go on. In fact, a goddess called Ostara isn’t known from ancient sources at all: her existence was proposed by Jacob Grimm (1735-1863) in his Deutsche Mythologie (1835). Grimm, best known as a folklorist and member of the famous “Brothers Grimm,” was also a linguist and mythologist. Working backwards from Bede’s claim about Eostre, Grimm observed that Easter appeared to be called Ostara in Old High German, and conjectured:

This Ostara like the [Anglo-Saxon] Eostre must in the heathen religion have denoted a higher being whose worship was so firmly rooted that the Christian teachers tolerated the name and applied it to one of their own grandest anniversaries.

There is no actual record of such a goddess—no shrine or ancient writing refers to her. Moreover, a much simpler origin for the Old High German name of Easter has since been proposed: much of Germany was Christianized by Anglo-Saxon priests, who (as Bede tells us) already called Easter by a variant of the name, so they probably just brought the name for Easter with them, where it was adapted by Old High German speakers. [2]

[2] See, for example, Sermon, Richard. “From Easter to Ostara: the Reinvention of a Pagan Goddess?” Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness, and Culture 1 (2008): 331-44.

So the existence of Ostara’s cult in Germany was a conjecture made by a folklorist. But her connection to rabbits or hares was even more of an academic stretch. Specifically, in 1874 the mythologist Adolf Holtzmann (1810-1870) (in a book also called Deutsche Mythologie) wrote:

The Easter Hare is inexplicable to to me, but probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara; just as there is a hare on the statue of [the Celtic goddess] Abnoba.” [My translation from German.]

“Ostara,” by Johannes Gehrts, was apparently created in 1884, and published in 1901. The goddess Ēostre/*Ostara flies through the heavens surrounded by Roman-inspired putti, beams of light, and animals. Germanic peoples look up at the goddess from the realm below.

So in sum, Eostre was worshiped in England before Bede’s time, in the 600s—if she ever was worshiped at all. Ostara was invented in 1835 as a possible but unproven German version of Eostre. Finally, the connection between Ostara and a hare wasn’t made until 1874, as a way to make sense of an already popular Easter Bunny tradition.[3]

[3] Another variant of this story, included on this German travel site, holds that Ostara is the name of a festival dedicated to Eostre. That’s likely to be confusion based on the fact that Grimm believed Ostara was both an old name for Easter and a name for a pagan goddess related to Eostre.

We probably shouldn’t be too hard on websites that retell old tales about Eostre and Ostara, because such stories were once widely accepted. (Here is one example each of a respectable book, newspaper, and magazine that told versions of these stories in the period after Holtzmann’s 1874 book.)

But elsewhere on the Internet, in religious tracts or websites about ancient history, you might encounter other claims that were never accepted by scholars: specifically, that Easter is named for Near Eastern goddesses such as Ishtar and Astarte. These claims are based entirely on the superficial resemblance between these names and the word “Easter.”

There is no evidence these claims are true, and the languages involved are not related, so such resemblances are very likely to be coincidental. These sites tend to misquote the evidence I gave above from Bede, Grimm, and Holtzmann, making the association between Ostara, Eostre, and hares genuinely ancient instead of a 19th century conjecture. Most of the other claims made on such sites (for example, that hares or bunnies were associated with Ishtar) are pure invention.

This isn’t to say that hares, rabbits, and eggs haven’t been symbols of springtime and fertility for thousands of years…of course they have.

But rather than explain their association with fertility and their connection to Easter with conjectures about fertility goddesses, it would be simpler and more accurate to say that these connections arise from common observations about eggs, rabbits and hares. Rabbits and hares have large litters in the spring, and eggs likewise become more abundant, so all these symbols are naturally associated with springtime.

All of them are, likewise, obvious fertility symbols, rabbits and hares because they are among the most fertile mammals, and eggs because of their role in reproduction. These observations surely underlie any customs involving eggs, rabbits, or hares in the springtime, whether ancient or modern.

The association is based in everyday lived experience, not religion, so these symbols of springtime can attach themselves to any spring holiday, no matter its religious import. In short, we don’t need a pagan fertility goddess to connect bunnies and eggs with Easter—springtime makes the connection for us all by itself. [4]

[4] A more academic way to express this is that, semiotically, eggs, hares, and rabbits are connected to the springtime indexically rather than symbolically—they are actually present during springtime rather than arbitrarily associated with it. (See this article for more on indexes, icons, and symbols.) This is important because it means the connection is not merely one of cultural convention, but rather exists in nature independent of culture. Thus, two cultures both observing that “rabbits” mean “spring” does not imply any influence of one culture on the other. Even if both pagans and Christians use rabbits as a sign of spring, this does not imply that the pagan religion had any influence on the Christians’ use of the sign.

Is the American Easter Bunny Pennsylvania Dutch? Almost Certainly!

Is the American Easter Bunny Pennsylvania Dutch? Almost Certainly!

Obviously, for Holtzmann to be looking for an explanation for the “Easter Hare” in 1874, such a tradition must have existed in the German-speaking world at that time. In fact, the first clear reference to the tradition comes from Georg Franck von Franckenau’s academic essay De ovis paschalibus [About Easter Eggs] from 1682. This Latin work refers to the German tradition of an Easter Hare:

In Germania Superiore (comprising the contemporary Palatinate, Alsace, and neighboring regions) and in Westphalia, they call these eggs “di hasen-eier” [hare’s-eggs] from the story, told by children and the simple-minded, that a hare (der Oster-Hase [the Easter-Hare]) laid the eggs to hatch hidden in the garden’s grass, bushes, etc., where they are eagerly sought out by the children to the delight of the smiling adults. [My translation from Latin and German.]

Von Franckenau, a noted physician and scientist in his day, goes on to recount how the eggs were often devoured in great quantities without salt, butter, or any other condiment, and how such a feast was bad for the children’s health!

We don’t know exactly when the Easter Bunny came to America, but it was surely in Colonial times, and the “Pennsylvania Dutch” (as the State’s German-speaking residents have long been known) were certainly the first Americans to welcome the Easter Bunny. Alfred Shoemaker, the pioneering Pennsylvania Dutch folklorist, wrote in his book Eastertide in Pennsylvania that that “the Easter rabbit is perhaps the greatest contribution the Pennsylvania Dutch have made to American life.”

He further says that the tradition of the Easter Bunny in the U.S. goes back to “the very first [Pennsylvania Dutch] settlement at Germantown in the late 1680s,” but this was likely an educated guess.

The earliest hard evidence of an American Easter Bunny includes two drawings by the fraktur artist Johann Conrad Gilbert (1734-1812), each showing a leaping hare with a basket of Easter eggs. Winterthur has a detailed blog post about one of these drawings online–read it here. Gilbert immigrated to Pennsylvania from Germany in 1757, and it’s likely he knew of the Easter Hare in Europe, which would place the arrival of the tradition in Pennsylvania at 1757 at the latest. [5]

[5] The drawings are in the collections of Colonial Williamsburg and Winterthur, respectively.

As Gilbert’s artwork makes clear, the early Pennsylvania Dutch tradition, like that of Germany, typically featured a hare, known as the “Oschter Haws” or “Oster Haas,” rather than a rabbit. In Pennsylvania, the word “haws” or “haas,” was mostly translated as “rabbit” rather than “hare,” so when speaking in English, the Pennsylvania Dutch often referred to the “Easter Rabbit.”[6]

[6] Although “hase” is sometimes used colloquially to mean “rabbit” in German, we know the German tradition featured a hare because Von Franckenau named the animal in both German and Latin. We have hares in the continental U.S., but they are rare in Pennsylvania, so translating “hase” as “rabbit” among the Pennsylvania Dutch makes sense.

Courtesy, Winterthur Museum, Fraktur drawing: Easter bunny with eggs by Johann Conrad Gilbert, 1800-1810, Berks County, PA, Watercolor, Ink, Laid paper, Museum purchase with funds provided by the Henry Francis du Pont Collectors Circle, 2011.10

So what do we know of the “Easter Rabbit” tradition among the Pennsylvania Dutch?

Shoemaker explains the basics of the tradition, in which children prepared a nest for the rabbit on Easter Eve, and found it filled with colored eggs on Easter morning, “provided the child was well-behaved”:

Sometimes the children built their nests in the house (usually hiding the nest in a secluded spot, the egg-laying rabbit being somewhat on the shy side) or out in the yard, even sometimes, in the country, out in the barn. Generally speaking the children set their headgear as a nest for the Easter rabbit, the boys their woolen caps or hats and the girls their bonnets. In some families the Oschter Haws was less timid and laid his nest of colored eggs on the child’s plate set at the table. And the boldest of Easter rabbits merely deposited his eggs on the window sills.

What if the child had been naughty, or greedy? Shoemaker quotes informants who recall rabbit droppings, coal, or even horse dung being left in the nests of the undeserving.

Shoemaker also explains that the beliefs about the Easter rabbit differed from sect to sect and family to family:

In the Pennsylvania Dutch country, the Easter rabbit always lays the eggs. The “rationalists” among us tell the children that the bunny “brings” them. Among our strictest religionists, especially the Plain People, children are sometimes not told about the Easter bunny, just as they are not told about Santa Claus, “because,” as they say, “this would be lieing (sic).” [7]

[7] By “Plain People” Shoemaker means Amish, Mennonites, Brethren, and other Anabaptist sects that dress in unadorned or “plain” clothing.

This tradition, complete with variable in levels of belief in the bunny, seem to go back well into the 19th century. A 1950 issue of The Pennsylvania Dutchman featured childhood reminiscences of Joseph H. Dubs (1838-1910), which would date to about 1850:

Easter was the time for colored eggs, and children were told that a rabbit laid them. Though I was present when the eggs were colored, and had no faith in the rabbit, I always insisted on preparing a nest in the garden among the currant bushes; and when I went there next morning I was sure to find what I expected.

Phebe Earle Gibbons, in the 1882 edition of her book Pennsylvania Dutch, provided more details:

If the children have no garden, they make nests in the wood-shed, barn, or house. They gather colored flowers for the rabbit to eat, that it may lay colored eggs. If there be a garden, the eggs are hidden singly in the green grass, box-wood, or elsewhere. On Easter Sunday morning they whistle for the rabbit, and the children imagine that they see him jump the fence. After church, on Easter Sunday morning, they hunt the eggs, and in the afternoon the boys go out in the meadows and crack eggs or play with them like marbles. Or sometimes children are invited to a neighbor’s to hunt eggs.

In place of real eggs dyed in festive colors, nowadays it’s more common for the Easter Bunny to bring candy. Often this takes the form of chocolate eggs, candy eggs, or jellybeans, which are egg-shaped. The candy-egg tradition probably started in Germany too, but came to the U.S. early on, as shown by another 1882 passage from Gibbons:

At Easton a lady spoke of making nests for her two boys by taking plates, ornamenting them with cut paper in the form of a nest, putting into each a large candy egg and colored eggs, and placing a rabbit in one and a chicken in the other, and hiding them for the boys to find. [8]

[8] Gibbons also provides a very amusing (but thoroughly unsupported) description of the Ostara myth, showing that less than a decade after Holtzmann connected the Easter Hare and Ostara, elaborate and fanciful versions of the story circulated among German academics. Gibbons wrote:

Prof. Wackernagel, of Allentown, has kindly pointed out to me the antiquity of the myth. The old German goddess of spring was called Ostara (whence Easter). She rode over the fields in the spring in a wagon drawn by hares.

How did the “Easter Hare” and “Easter Rabbit” become the “Easter Bunny?” Interestingly, throughout the 19th century it was common for English-language American newspapers and magazines to refer to the “Easter Hare” instead of the “Easter Bunny” or “Easter Rabbit.”

In the newspapers presented in the Library’s Chronicling America presentation, “Easter Hare” predominates until 1893, and “Easter Rabbit” becomes more popular thereafter. “Easter Bunny” does not appear at all until 1883, and remains quite rare until the 20th century. Most likely, these changes in the character’s name simply reflect its becoming more integrated into American culture, in which rabbits are more common than hares, and both are often called “bunnies” by children.

This rather terrifying little girl and her poem appeared in the March 22, 1913, Easter Edition of the Daily Capital Journal from Salem, Oregon. I feel duty bound to say: do not treat a rabbit this way! Find the original here.

Whatever we call him (or her), it’s not difficult to see why the Easter Bunny would find a place in America’s heart. Easter is, by some accounts, the most important holiday of the Christian year, and as such can be a very serious holiday for Christians. Like Christmas trees and Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Easter eggs introduce secular, seasonal symbols that all Americans can enjoy, whether Christian or not.

At the same time, these elements introduce whimsy and the spirit of gift-giving, allowing children even in many religious households to have more fun during serious holidays. Not all Christian denominations, and not all parents within any given denomination, approve of the Easter Bunny. Still, at least some American children will no doubt continue to have fun looking for the Easter Bunny out there on the Bunny Trail.