Picture by Helena Nelson-Reed
Happy Easter! Some years ago, I wrote a little about the origins of the Easter Bunny and the name of the holiday. I don’t have a whole lot to add, but there’s some, so I might as well start out this post with something about that. There’s a story I’ve come across a few times about the goddess Eostre having a consort who was a bird transformed into a hare, and hence could lay eggs.
Picture by Johannes Gerhrts
Since most indications are that we really don’t know anything about this goddess other than her name and when her festival was, and even that she was a goddess at all isn’t entirely agreed upon, I assume this is a spurious origin for the Easter Bunny, who seems to have actually originated in seventeenth-century Germany. I’m all for adding to mythology, especially as even the oldest versions varied quite a bit between tellings, but there’s a disturbing trend online of presenting new concepts as authentic classical myth. It is only in English and German that the holiday is known as Easter/Ostara after the pagan festival. In most languages it has the same name as Passover, even though it isn’t celebrated at all like the Jewish holiday. But that’s when Jesus is said to have died, and the odd method for determining its date comes from the lunar calendar, even though various differences mean the two often aren’t at the same time, and that’s without bringing Orthodox Easter into the mix. This year, Easter and Passover actually do overlap.
Anyway, rabbits and hares have long been symbols of fertility, associated, for instance, with the goddess Aphrodite or Venus.
The weird thing is that they can also be a symbol of virginity. Apparently this started because reproductive organs on these animals are difficult to detect, and they can conceive a new litter while still pregnant. This led to an idea popular for centuries that they could impregnate themselves. As such, there’s a connection to Jesus, although not necessarily one people made until fairly recently as far as these things go. There’s a painting by Titian with the Virgin Mary holding a rabbit, making use of this symbolism.
I’m kind of conflating rabbits and hares here; they’re different but related animals. I’d like to say rabbits are the cute ones, but that’s kind of discriminatory. Hares tend to be bigger with longer ears, don’t dig burrows, and don’t form large communities.
I believe a jackrabbit is actually a kind of hare. And a coney is another name for a rabbit, but in North America is more specifically used to refer to a pika instead.
No, they’re more like this.
There’s a popular theory that Coney Island in Brooklyn was named after rabbits, as mentioned in a They Might Be Giants song, but that’s only one of many possibilities. I do WANT it to be true, though.
Early German references are to an Easter Hare; I believe making it a rabbit was an American thing. Come to think of it, the White Rabbit of Wonderland worked for royalty and had servants and a big house, while the March Hare kept dirty dishes sitting on the tea table, so there could be a class distinction in that society.
The phrase “mad as a March hare” is thought to derive from the fact that it’s their mating season. Oh, and eggs seem to be associated with Easter because no one was eating them during Lent, which is a pretty simple explanation without any real story to it. An Easter tradition for me is to listen to this XTC song.
Beth and I watched several Easter specials last year, but this time, we didn’t get started on relevant viewing until quite recently. One thing we watched last night was the Easter episode of Fat Albert, which kind of downplayed Easter itself.
It’s used as an excuse for the gang to clean the junkyard owner’s house, and Rudy (who’s pretty much always the screw-up) accidentally injures the guy by trying to pull a prank with a greased-up ladder. When he’s in the hospital, he loses the will to live, but gets it back when the kids help him out with his debts. Beth pointed out that this idea of being able to heal due to willpower kind of fits with Bill Cosby’s whole thing about how young Black people could pull themselves out of poverty by hitching up their pants. Maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but it’s hard not to evaluate these things through the lens of what we now know about Cosby.
Then we watched some 1955 Easter Seals special, with guests including Jack Benny, Van Johnson, Shirley MacLaine, and Liberace. What’s particularly noteworthy about this is how often people use the word “crippled,” including how you could just make a donation at the post office to “Crippled Children.” Beth said it would make a good drinking game, although neither of us drink much. I know what language is acceptable changes over time, but it did seem like they were kind of othering the kids they were trying to help. I guess that still happens, though. Isn’t Autism Speaks kind of like that?
Last night, we saw Easter Parade, the 1948 film based around the Irving Berlin song. (Christmas wasn’t the only Gentile holiday he profited from.) I actually remember watching part of it when I was around junior high age. Fred Astaire plays Don Hughes, who starts out the movie buying a bunch of gifts for his show business partner Nadine Hale, whom he’s also interested in romantically. There’s one sequence where he distracts a boy at a toy store who wants to buy the same stuffed bunny by playing a bunch of drums. Anyway, Nadine tells Don she took another offer, and based on his friend’s suggestion when they’re both drunk, he decides to try to make a bar dancer into a star, My Fair Lady style. This is Hannah Brown, played by Judy Garland, and the two do a bunch of song-and-dance numbers together, including one where they dress as hoboes. Don seems a little sleazy, doing this whole thing just to get back at his ex-partner, and setting Hannah against her even though they have no reason to care about each other. Of course, the two of them fall in love, but it doesn’t feel that sincere. And Don’s friend keeps going out with whichever of Don’s love interests is on the outs with him. Was this common in the teens when the movie took place, or the forties when it was made? There isn’t really that much Easter in the film, but the holiday does bookend the story, which takes place over the course of about a year. Apparently the Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue is still a thing, but it doesn’t get the attention that the Thanksgiving parade does. Are we as a society more interested in balloons than bonnets?
A few other posts that relate to rabbits and such:
Easter and the Bunny in the Oz booksMy Oz story about the Easter BunnyRabbits in the Mario franchise
Rabbits in other video gamesA bit on the Moon Rabbit