You can thank Germany for all your childhood memories of hunting down colourful eggs, and eating way too many chocolate treats topped with those distinctive long ears. That’s because the Easter Bunny comes from the German tradition of the Osterhase – literally Easter hare.
But according to Manfred Gräfe of the Berlin City Museum Foundation, the exact origins of the Easter Bunny folklore are unknown, and there are a number of different theories.
Gräfe explained to The Local in an email that the hare has a special connection to the Christian Easter season’s themes of resurrection and eternal life. This is because young bunnies are born into the world with “open eyes” – meaning they’re fully developed.
“People used to think that they slept with open eyes, and that they were ‘always awake’ from birth,” Gräfe explained. “Therefore they became a symbol of eternal life, likewise with the egg.”
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One theory that is widely circulated is that the hare was a companion of an Germanic spring goddess named Ostara, for whom the German word for Easter – Ostern – is supposedly named. But Gräfe warns that the actual existence of a goddess Ostara is very much disputed.
More likely, according to the museum foundation, the connection between hare and egg has a very agrarian background.
In the Middle Ages, Green or Maundy Thursday before Easter was typically the end of the business year and therefore when farmers would have to pay their dues to landowners. Due to the Lent time fasting leading up to Easter, they had a surplus of eggs, so they would often pay these dues with cooked eggs and hares they had killed in their fields.
This combination of the hare and eggs thus became enshrined in people’s minds.
By the 17th century, parents were telling their kids the eggs came from Easter bunnies. But foxes, cranes and storks were also sometimes named as the mystical creatures instead, depending on the region. By the end of the Second World War, the bunny had become mainstream.
And naturally the bunny didn’t just stay in Germany, travelling abroad to places like the United States with German or Prussian immigrants.
The tradition of painting eggs for Easter is also quite German: The oldest surviving decorated egg dates back to the fourth century AD, and was discovered in a Romano-Germanic sarcophagus near Worms in Rhineland-Palatinate.