Have you ever seen that fast-running, long-eared mammal that resembles a large rabbit, having long hind legs and living typically in grassland or open woodland? It is the hare.
De Oschtahaas. In the local Alsatian dialect of my village, this is how the Easter Hare was called. The “Easter Bunny” indeed is a hare, not a rabbit. According to the legend, only good children received gifts of colored eggs in the nests that they made before Easter.
When we were kids, the house of our parents was just beside the farm of our grand-parents. There was a huge garden and an orchard. On Saturday before Easter we used to cross the road to go to the grocery and ask for material to build our nests. They had some great stuff, kind of wooden straw which was used in boxes to protected the packed items against shocks. Then each child was building its nests secretly, so that nobody could come and steel the eggs and chocolate the Easter Hare would bring. I remember that I was always worried about how the “Oschtahaas” would find my nests if they were hidden too carefully.
Some years later, my younger sister used to follow the same tradition with his cousin. They were 7 or 8 years old at that time and had their mind full of foolery or was it just immagination? They built the nests but also hided some traps in the garden, hoping to be able to capture the Easter Bunny!
The Easter Bunny or Easter Rabbit is a character depicted as a rabbit bringing Easter eggs. The Easter Bunny is sometimes depicted with clothes. In legend, the creature carries colored eggs in his basket, candy and sometimes also toys to the homes of children. Actually, in the original tradition, it is not a rabbit but a hare.
Almost 20 centuries ago, in Europe, Saxons used to hold a fertility celebration in honor of the Goddess Eastre, whose sacred animal was a hare. The hare is often associated with moon goddesses; the egg and the haer together represent the god and the goddess, respectively.
Pagan fertility festivals at the time of the Spring equinox were common. It was believed that at this time, male and female energies were balanced.
The Christian church found it easier to absorb those Pagan practices.
So that some 15 centuries later, in the end of the Middle Ages, the Easter Hare was first mentioned in a book by professor Georg Franck of Frankenau in 1682 in his (medical) treatise “De ovis paschalibus – about Easter Eyern”. He is referring to an Alsace and neighboring areas tradition of an Easter Hare bringing Easter Eggs. In his book he described the negative health consequences of excessive consumption of such eggs 🙂
Alsace has always been a German culture area before being integrated into France some 3 centuries ago. Georg Franck studied medicine and anatomy in Strasbourg where he received his M.D. in 1666.
The precise origin of the ancient custom of decorating eggs is not known, although evidently the blooming of many flowers in spring coincides with the use of the fertility symbol of eggs—and eggs boiled with some flowers change their color, bringing the spring into the homes.
German Protestants wanted to retain the Catholic custom of eating colored eggs for Easter, but did not want to introduce their children to the Catholic rite of fasting. Eggs were forbidden to Catholics during the fast of Lent, which was the reason for the abundance of eggs at Easter time.
The tradition of an egg-laying bunny then went to America in the 18th century. Alsatian and German immigrants in the Pennsylvania Dutch area told their children about the “Osterhase”. “Hase” means “hare”, not rabbit.
In those early years of the 21st Century, the tradition of the Osterhase – the Easter Bunny – is still very popular in Alsace. Florists, confectioners, chocolate makers are offering bunnies and colored eggs. Our Alsatian villages, especially Riquewihr, start their first decoration of the year with the Easter Bunny.