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Eric Douglas: Osterhase brings eggs for Easter

Hand-painted Russian eggs from Eric Douglas’ personal collection. Courtesy photo

At one time or another, pretty much everyone has asked the question, “What does a rabbit who brings eggs have to do with Easter?”

The follow-up question is, of course, “Why does a rabbit bring eggs in the first place?”

Like all traditions of this sort, there’s a lot of guesswork and speculation about its origins. Many writers, including Jacob Grimm of the Brothers Grimm, say the rabbit was the animal symbol for the pagan goddess of fertility: Eostre. (Recognize the word?)

On the other hand, the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore says there’s no evidence of it. The idea of multiplying like rabbits has long been a symbol of spring, fertility and rebirth.

The rabbit was also a widely used symbol in religious art. Some early writers believed the rabbit was hermaphroditic and could reproduce asexually – without the loss of virginity. That led to an association with the Virgin Mary. The early church often co-opted existing holidays and celebrations to make it easier for new Christians to accept the nascent religion, so Easter got its name and the rabbit symbol was born – no pun intended.

But what about eggs?

One custom is to abstain from eating eggs during Lent. Not wanting to be wasteful, since their chickens kept producing, the only way to preserve those eggs for later was by boiling or roasting them. Likely, the idea of coloring eggs began when they were boiled with flowers that changed their color. Early mentions of decorating eggs for Easter date to the 13th century. In the 19th century, Russian high society began exchanging highly decorated, hand-painted eggs for Easter. The monarchy exchanged jeweled eggs. The most famous of these are the Faberge eggs.

German immigrants to Pennsylvania in the 18th century likely brought the tradition of a hare (yes, the Easter Bunny was originally a hare) that delivered eggs for Easter. Much like Santa Claus, the Easter Hare brought eggs and other brightly colored gifts for good boys and girls. In German, the animal’s name was Osterhase (Easter Hare).

Regardless of the origin of our traditions, whether you fast for Lent, or what brings your gifts on Easter morning, I wish you a Happy Easter.

Of course, just like Christmas, between the colored eggs and candy, take a few minutes to remember the actual reason for the holiday.

Eric Douglas, of Pinch, is the author of “Return to Cayman,” “Heart of the Maya,” “Cayman Cowboys,” “River Town” and other novels. He is also a columnist for Scuba Diving Magazine and a former Charleston Newspapers Metro staff writer. For more information, visit www.booksbyeric.com or contact him at Eric@booksbyeric.com


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