From The Archives: The traditions of the Easter bunny

The origins of the Easter bunny started with the perhaps less cuddly hare.

The origins of the Easter bunny started with the perhaps less cuddly hare. - Credit: ANDY CRONK

Despite the fact the pandemic is keeping us all in lockdown, we will still be able to celebrate Easter by buying and eating chocolate Easter eggs.

But why are we eating chocolate eggs and who is the Easter Bunny? As with so many of our old customs the origins of the festival reach back into the ancient past. The Easter bunny began life as the Germanic goddess, Eostre, the goddess of the dawn and the Spring, whose sacred animal was the hare. The origin of the name of the goddess comes from the fact that the sun rises directly in the east at the spring equinox.

The brown hare is native to England and experts believe that rabbits, native to Spain and France, were introduced into Britain by the Normans after 1066. We certainly suspect that rabbits were being farmed in Eynesbury during the medieval period because an area close to the River Ouse is still known today as the ‘coneygeare’. Coney was the old name for a rabbit and a ‘coneygeare’ was a rabbit warren. 

Like the hare, eggs are an ancient symbol of fertility and new life and decorating and giving eggs was a traditional way of celebrating the arrival of spring. As Christianity spread across Europe, older pagan practices merged with newer Christian ones and the egg was adopted as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection from the tomb. 

In Germany, the Easter hare was said to bring a basket of painted eggs to children, and these would then be hidden for them to find. Queen Victoria (whose mother was German) organised egg hunts for her children and this helped to bring the tradition to Britain.

The first chocolate Easter eggs were made in France in the 1720s, but did not arrive in England until 1873 when Fry & Sons made the first English eggs, followed by Cadbury’s in 1875. Gradually the hare morphed into the cuddlier rabbit.

In St Neots, it was considered proper, and also lucky, for women to wear new clothes when they went to church on Easter Sunday. From this popular custom developed the idea of wearing a new hat or Easter bonnet.