Very recently, Cadbury held a contest to select its 2021 Cadbury Bunny. A wide range of people sent in a wide range of submissions for interested individuals to vote upon. One excellent example was a Southwest Florida cat named Pepa, who managed to beat out thousands and thousands of other competitors before finishing fifth. That might sound strange. However, Pepa was far from being the most unusual competitor, seeing as how his counterparts ranged from cows and goats to alpacas and llamas. In fact, it should be mentioned that the 2021 Cadbury Bunny is a tree frog named Betty, who makes for a very memorable choice.
How Did Easter Become Associated with Bunnies?
Cadbury opening up its Cadbury Bunny contest to such a wide range of animals is a wonderful thing. However, it is interesting to note that even though the Easter Bunny is a much-commercialized figure in the present, it has a longstanding connection to the festival that it represents. In fact, some people have claimed that the Easter Bunny predates Easter, though this is a rather contentious statement to say the least.
Regardless, what is clear is that the hare was rich in symbolism for medieval Christians. In part, this is because said creature was the subject of some very strange beliefs that had been passed down from the ancients. For example, hares were sometimes thought to be hermaphrodites. Similarly, hares were sometimes thought to change their sex from years to year. However, the one that would be most relevant would be the belief that hares could give birth while remaining virginal, which was caused by the fact that they are capable of starting a second pregnancy (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100921174210.htm) while their first litter hasn’t been delivered. Combined with the hare’s famous fertility, it was no wonder that it became a symbol of the Virgin Mary, with the result that both hares and rabbits show up in a wide range of Christian art created by a wide range of Christians.
Meanwhile, eggs have been powerful symbols since ancient times as well. In particular, they were associated with the idea of fertility as well as cyclical fertility. As such, it was no coincidence that phoenix eggs became symbols of rebirth in early Christianity. Something that can be explained by the legend that such birds would be reborn from the ashes of their predecessors. However, eggs became connected with Easter through a much simpler route. In short, eggs were a special treat for most medieval Christians. They couldn’t be consumed during Lent, but they could be consumed both before Lent and after Lent. Furthermore, giving eggs a different color was as easy as boiling them with the right flowers, thus making them rich in symbolism as well as pleasing to the senses. This can be seen in how a lot of Eastern Orthodox Christians still color Easter eggs red as a way of representing Jesus’s sacrifice.
Eventually, these two things came together to create the Easter Bunny. Sometimes, it is a hare. Other times, it is a rabbit. Whatever the case, the Easter Bunny is a bringer of treats for children, which can include toys, candies, and colored eggs. As such, it isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that it has often been the Easter version of Santa Claus. Something that is continuing strong in the present.
How Did Easter Come Into Existence Anyways?
As for Easter, well, it is a festival that commemorates the resurrection of Jesus, which is supposed to have happened on the third day after his burial. There are claims that it was inspired by older festivals belonging to older religions. However, while there might be some truth to this, the extent is often much exaggerated.
For instance, one of the most common claims is that Easter was inspired by the cult of Ishtar and Tammuz, which was very widespread in the ancient Mediterranean. As the story goes, the two were married to one another. However, Ishtar was killed when she ventured into the underworld, with the result that she had to be rescued by the other gods under the condition that she sends someone else to take her place in the underworld. She encounters several of her servants but refuses to sacrifice each one of them because they had mourned for her while she was gone. This changes when Ishtar returns home to find her husband Tammuz seated upon her throne in fine clothing while being entertained by slave-girls, which is why she condemned him on the spot. Tammuz’s sister is devastated by his death, so much so that Ishtar eventually begins to mourn as well. Due to this, she decrees that Tammuz will spend half of the year in the living world and half of the year in the underworld by switching places with his sister.
By this point, it should be clear that Tammuz is one of the most famous examples of a dying-and-rising god. Indeed, he is believed to have been the source of inspiration for the Greek Adonis, much as how Ishtar is believed to have been the source of inspiration for the Greek Aphrodite. However, to say that Easter was wholly inspired by the rituals of the cult of Ishtar and Tammuz is a step too far. Certainly, Ishtar and Tammuz oversaw fertility to some extent. However, Ishtar was an extremely powerful goddess who presided over love, war, and political power, meaning that fertility was a relatively minor part of her worship. On top of that, she had nothing to do with either eggs, hares, or rabbits. Instead, Ishtar was associated with doves and lions.
Having said that, certain versions of Easter do seem to have incorporated some influences from pre-existing practices. For instance, it is worth mentioning that the very name of Easter in English and a number of other Germanic languages comes from the name of a Germanic month, which in turn, comes from the name of the Germanic spring goddess Eostre. There are theories that the eggs and the hares came from practices relating to said figure, but those are much less supported. In contrast, the name of Easter in Latin and Greek would be Pascha, which is connected to the festival that most people in the English-speaking world would recognize as Passover.