Easter is the Christian holiday celebrating Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead. It’s also a time for renewal, rebirth, and acknowledgment of the coming of spring.
So why do we celebrate by giving and enjoying chocolate bunnies and all manner of delicious candy eggs? What do these things have to do with Easter at all? And while we’re at it, what’s the answer to the #1 question on every five-year-old’s mind: Where does the Easter Bunny come from?
The origins of the Easter bunny date back to 13th-century Germany. At the time, Christianity wasn’t as prevalent as it would later become, and the people of these lands worshipped many different gods and goddesses.
One such goddess was Eostra, goddess of fertility and spring. As you would expect, she was celebrated during the spring equinox, which happens to fall at about the same time as Easter. Over time, her symbol — the rabbit — began to spread into Easter traditions.
The Easter Bunny’s debut in America was thanks to the Pennsylvania Dutch, who arrived from Germany in the 1700s. At Eastertime, young children would craft nests for their rabbit friend, Osterhase (“Easter Hare” in English), providing a place to lay its colorful eggs. In time, this custom spread across the country, with nests evolving into the baskets filled with the Easter grass we have today. As for the eggs, they were replaced by chocolate, gifts, and candy.
Now our country’s second-largest candy-selling holiday (Halloween is first), Easter accounts for more than 90 million chocolate bunnies produced every year! What was once a regional 13th-century Germanic tradition has hopped its way all over the world.
And that, in an eggshell, is where the Easter Bunny comes from. (Of course, you may opt to give your five-year-old a less historically accurate answer.)
It’s hard to say, since Easter’s second most prevalent symbol, the egg, can also be traced back to the 13th century. At the time, the Catholic Church was much stricter concerning what people were allowed to eat during Lent, the fasting season preceding the Easter holiday. Eggs were a forbidden food, and even dairy products were off-limits. Rather than going to waste, all those extra hen and duck eggs were decorated and displayed as symbols of new life and rebirth.
These religious traditions continue through the present day. In the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches, for example, eggs are dyed red to represent the blood Christ shed on the cross; the hard shell represents the sealed tomb where he was buried, and the act of cracking the shell signifies his resurrection.
By the end of the 18th century, the egg had been adopted into everyday Easter traditions, and it became commonplace to give children egg-shaped toys filled with chocolate and other gifts. It wasn’t until the early 19th century, however, that eggs began to be made from chocolate, first appearing in France and Germany. And it was England’s John Cadbury who created the first rough version of a solid chocolate egg in 1842 — later refined into today’s well-known Cadbury eggs.
Since then, the chocolate egg has come a long way. And to the delight of the world’s children (and plenty of adults), today you can find chocolate Easter eggs in a dizzying array of shapes, sizes, and flavors.
The next time you unwrap a foiled candy egg or chomp into the top of a giant chocolate bunny, you’ll know why those symbols are linked with Easter. By understanding the traditions and how chocolate celebrates and connects back to life, you might find your Easter chocolate tastes sweeter than ever!
Lauren Deitsch is the Research & Development Specialist / Chocolatier at Lake Champlain Chocolates in Burlington, VT, where she works to develop new chocolate recipes every day. She’s a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. In addition to a love for all things chocolate, she enjoys connecting with friends, reading, traveling, hiking, running, and cooking.