Most people know that Martin Luther kick started the Reformation and got Protestantism rolling. Not too many people know that Luther also inadvertently helped commercialize Easter. It was Martin Luther’s Lutherans who came up with that cute little critter known as the Easter Bunny.
According to history.com “the Easter bunny reportedly was introduced to America by the German immigrants who brought over their stories of an egg-laying hare.” Wikipedia, while not one of my favorite sources for information, is a bit more pointed: “Originating among German Lutherans, the “Easter Hare” originally played the role of a judge, evaluating whether children were good or disobedient in behaviour at the start of the season of Eastertide.”
A German travel website also claims credit for the invention of the Easter Bunny and the name “Easter” as well:
“From the name to the bunny, it’s all German. The name Easter was first appropriated by the Christian calendar. First it was the pagan festival Ostara, celebrated on the vernal equinox, around March 21 in the Northern hemisphere. Ostara was named for the pagan goddess of spring, Eostre. According to legend, she once saved a bird whose wings had frozen during the winter by turning it into a rabbit. Because the rabbit had once been a bird, it could lay eggs. And so it became the Easter Bunny.
“The bunny as a symbol for Easter is first mentioned in writings in 16th century Germany.”
Decorated eggs seem to have found their way into Easter Bunny lore as a result of an older tradition, however. Decorating eggs for Easter is a tradition that dates back to at least the 13th century, according to some sources. One explanation for this custom is that eggs were formerly a forbidden food during the Lenten season. As such people painted and decorated eggs to mark the end of the period of penance and fasting. They would then eat them on Easter as a celebration.
Baskets, Jellybeans, and Peeps
Also according to some sources, the Easter bunny first arrived in America in the 1700s with German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania. They brought with them their tradition of an egg-laying hare called “Osterhase” or “Oschter Haws.” Their children made nests in which this creature could lay its colored eggs. Eventually, the nests became baskets and the custom spread across the U.S. The Easter Bunny’s morning deliveries also expanded to include chocolate and other types of candy and gifts. Some children even left out carrots for the bunny in case he got hungry from all his hopping.
Chocolate Easter bunnies, chocolate covered marshmallow eggs, jelly beans and most recently, Peeps, eventually became part of the mix of goodies. Halloween is still number one when it comes to candy sales, but Easter is now the second best-selling candy holiday in America.
It would seem that it’s just not enough for religious holidays to stay religious holidays anymore. They have to be commercialized in some way, to keep the economy chugging along.
Religious Holy Days or secular holidays?
We tell ourselves that a decorated egg is a symbol of new life and so it ties into Jesus’ Resurrection, or that the evergreen trees we put up at Christmas symbolize eternal life. But the reality is that our religious holidays are gradually losing their religious significance. They are becoming secular holidays, more so than religious ones, that seem to be critical that to our economic well-being.
In the early Middle Ages, before the Reformation, the secular calendar wasn’t even in vogue. As James Hitchcock notes in History of the Catholic Church, “A town, for example, would schedule a trade fair not on September 29 but on “Michaelmas.” People lived primarily in sacred time, in accord with a calendar that commemorated the life of Christ and of His saints on particular days.”
I’m not suggesting a return to the liturgical calendar for marking the days of the year. We can’t turn back time, and, besides that, life in the Middle Ages wasn’t all that great. But I do wonder what would happen if we all decided to tone down our participation in the secular/economic aspects of religious holidays? Would the economy really suffer all that much?