Hopefully Christians all know why we celebrate Easter. The crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection three days later are the most significant events in the history of Christianity.
So how did we get to the multimillion dollar industry featuring bunnies and painted eggs? If you answered that it came from Pagan celebrations you are right. We associate rabbits with spring and countless rabbits are bred for spring adoption by youngsters. Likely most of them will be abandoned or deceased before summer is over, but that’s another story.
Supposedly Eostre, the German Goddess of Spring, traveled with a hare. It symbolized fertility and rebirth and rabbits have quite a reputation for their fecundity.
We have also named the female hormone estrogen after this fertility goddess who was also known by the names of Eastre and Ostara. Later Christians hijacked the rabbit symbol, likely to draw more followers into the fold and the Easter bunny was born.
Eggs are also symbols of fertility for many Pagan rituals. According to numerous sources they were also once forbidden for consumption during the Lenten season. In medieval times they were painted and consumed after Easter. Another association is that early Christians believed egg hatching symbolizes Christ’s resurrection. It sounds like a stretch to me.
So why does a rabbit distribute eggs in decorative baskets no less? Rabbits don’t lay eggs. They don’t even eat them or baby chicks either. Yet, nearly every Christian society has stories of egg toting lagomorphs.
We are all taught from a young age how meek and harmless rabbits are. Most gardeners will sing a different tune. Rabbits can be destructive to young flowers and vegetables. I’ve had many battles with them and generally have lost.
I have to grant rabbits one thing though. They are tasty critters and I’ve eaten my share of them; so have my cats and dogs. I’d have to say my favorite recipe is to cook them with onions and garlic and add sour cream right before serving. It’s delicious!
That said, I don’t think I’ve put much of a dent into their population. Their reproductive productivity is staggering, much like mice and many other small herbivores. They form a staple of food for the whole food chain. Our predator populations greatly suffer during times of low rabbit populations.
Why are rabbits so prolific? Gestation for rabbits is thirty-one days and females can become pregnant almost immediately after giving birth. They are what we call induced ovulators, which means the mere reproductive act causes a female to release eggs. There is no estrous or menstrual cycle.
Rabbits are also efficient with their food, so efficient they often run it through their system a second time. We call that coprophagy and rabbits can salvage large amounts of otherwise lost nutrients that way. Don’t try this at home.
As for their Easter season significance I’ll take a pass. Christ is what should be on the minds of Christians. However, we can still appreciate the contributions rabbits make to the circle of life. It’s also hard to turn down a good chocolate bunny or egg.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.