What does a bunny have to do with Easter?
Beyond the candy binge, beyond the jelly beans and foil-wrapped chocolate, beyond the egg rolls and celluloid grass and new bonnets are the symbols of Easter.
Through centuries, certain icons, revisited yearly, symbolize the springtime holiday, considered by some believers to be the most important holiday of Christianity.
It is a time, Christians believe, when Jesus Christ was resurrected after lying three days in a tomb following his death by crucifixion.
There are multiple accounts of Christ’s life in the New Testament but, oddly, none of them mentions a bunny. So, how did a bowtie-wearing rabbit come to symbolize the holiday? Or colored eggs, for that matter.
Though the historical origins of many traditions are murky, these are the leading thoughts on how certain Easter traditions came to be.
For some Christians, Easter eggs signify the three days Christ spent in the tomb — the shell evokes its walls — and, when cracked, his emergence from it. There are several accounts of this in the New Testament, including the one in Luke 24: “Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them. And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre. And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus. And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold, two men stood by them in shining garments: and as they were afraid, and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said unto them, Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen.”
However, as a springtime icon, eggs predate Christianity and were used as symbols of new life in several pagan festivals, including a feast for the Teutonic goddess Eostre. Decorating the eggs is believed to have been part of those festivals.
Some Easter legends hold that Mary Magdalene visited Christ’s tomb, carrying a basket of cooked eggs to share with the mourners there. Upon arriving and finding the tomb empty, the eggs turned red.
A similar story holds that Mary, Christ’s mother, stood at the foot of his cross with a basket of cooked eggs and some of his blood dripped on them, dyeing them red.
Its origins as an Easter symbol are murky and unsubstantiated, but some scholars say that rabbits were an ancient symbol of fertility and new life due to their penchant for procreation.
One of the first mentions of a rabbit incorporated into Christian celebrations of Easter is found in 17th century German texts, which talk about the “Osterhase” (or “Oschter Haws”), a rabbit that lay colored eggs in a nest for good girls and boys. In fact, some believe that Osterhase’s nest is the origin for Easter baskets.
Pennsylvania Dutch settlers brought Osterhase to the New World, where it eventually became the beloved Easter bunny known today.
Lovely butterflies are notable for their vivid wings and winsome ways, but it’s their life cycle that makes them an Easter symbol. In caterpillar stage, they symbolize Jesus Christ’s mortal life on Earth. The cocoon denotes Christ’s crucifixion and burial, and many Christians see their emergence as a butterfly as symbolic of Christ’s resurrection.
The cross is one of the most common Easter symbols and for Christians denotes Jesus Christ’s death at the hands of Roman soldiers and his eventual resurrection. The New Testament offers several accounts of Christ’s crucifixion. Mark 15 reads, “And it was the third hour, and they crucified him. And the superscription of his accusation was written over, THE KING OF THE JEWS. And with him they crucify two thieves; the one on his right hand, and the other on his left. And the Scripture was fulfilled, which saith, And he was numbered with the transgressors.”
These distinctive flowers have come to symbolize Easter for several reasons. They bloom during spring, a time of rebirth and reminiscent of what Christians believe was Jesus Christ’s resurrection from death. And they are white, which Christians believe symbolizes Christ’s purity.
Their trumpet shape alludes to the trumpets, mentioned in the Bible, which will sound before Christ’s second coming: 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 says, “Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”
Aside from being adorable and born in spring, the lamb has been a symbol of Jesus Christ. Throughout the Bible, Christ is called the “Lamb of God,” a reference to his innocence of sin.
For example, John 1:29 says, “The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world!”
Hot cross buns
The longtime tradition of eating hot cross buns during Holy Week, and especially on Good Friday, is first documented in a 16th or 17th century text reading, “Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs, with one or two a penny hot cross buns.”
Some, however, claim the tradition is even older and may have its roots in Christian-appropriated pagan traditions.
The cross on top of the bun symbolizes Jesus Christ’s cross, and though it originally was just made with knife indentations, now it often is made with frosting or chocolate.
Enjoying ham for Easter dinner is a tradition thought to date back to the time before refrigeration.
Animals were slaughtered in fall, and the meat that wasn’t going to be immediately consumed often was cured or smoked to preserve it.
So, ham was a natural fit for the springtime holiday because it was still good at a time when fresh meat was hard to come by.
(Sources: The American Bible Society, discovery.com, history.com, catholicculture.org, mormon.org, smithsonian.com, allthingsgerman.com, mentalfloss.com.)