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Which came first? The Easter or the egg?

Alex Smith

Little Charlotte finds a keeper

By Alex Smith

My mother has been treating my kids to elaborate Easter egg hunts practically since they were able to walk, just as she did for my older sister and me when we were still toddlers. It's a festive family tradition that never fails to delight my two little children. Few things make them giggle ecstatically as much as scurrying around my mother's lawn, gathering basketfuls of brightly colored plastic eggs, to say nothing of gobbling up the little bits of chocolate hidden in each.

That latter aspect tends to make them bounce off the walls for the next several hours, but as my mom is quick to point out: “Oh, let them… it’s Easter!” My wife and I are usually hovering not too far off, vainly attempting to make sure each child finds a relatively equal amount. My mom invests a painstaking degree of detail in the narrative, leaving clue-laden notes under the alias of the Easter Bunny for my kids to decipher. The whole event is quite a production.

As the holiday approaches, I’ve thinking about the whole ritual of Easter egg-hunting. Though I was raised Roman Catholic, our family was never particularly religious, and it struck me that the whole Easter Bunny thing was a purely secular offshoot of the holiday (unless, of course, there was some passage in the Bible I missed ... which is entirely possible).

But how did the two come to be conjoined? How did the central feast of the Christian liturgical year -- a day that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ  -- become equated with searching for multicolored chocolate eggs left behind by an anthropomorphic rabbit? I figured it had to do with a druidic fertility rite or some such, but really hadn't a firm clue about it.

As I sat in my office ruminating aloud about the whole thing, a coworker spoke up almost as if by divine providence. As it turns out, brand marketing manager Bret Sorkness is something of an expert on the mysterious doings of the Easter Bunny. All this time I'd been sitting but a garishly painted egg's throw from a bona fide authority. Who knew?

Bret had actually crafted an essay on the whole phenomenon back in 2007, and it made for fascinating reading. I was particularly intrigued by the passage below (cryptically titled "What We Don't Know About the Bunny"):

The notion of a rabbit that lays eggs has an uncertain past. It may have simply arisen from confusion of symbolism but, like much of the holiday of Easter itself; it could be a direct heritage from older traditions. In Germanic and Slavic languages, the word "Easter" comes from an ancient pagan goddess of the spring named Eostre. According to legend, Eostre 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 still lay eggs, and that rabbit became the modern Easter Bunny.

The precise origin of the custom of coloring eggs is not known, although it too is ancient; Greeks to this day typically dye their Easter eggs red, the color of blood, in recognition of the renewal of life in springtime (and, later, the blood of the sacrificed Christ). Some also use the color green, in honor of the new foliage emerging after the long "dead" time of winter. Other colors, including the pastels popular in the United States and elsewhere (possibly symbolizing the rainbow), seem to have come along later.

The idea of an egg-laying bunny came to the United States in the 18th century. German immigrants in the Pennsylvania Dutch area told their children about the "Osterhase." "Hase" means "hare", not rabbit, and in Northwest European folklore the "Easter Bunny" indeed is a hare, not a rabbit. According to the legend, only good children received gifts of colored eggs in the nests that they made in their caps and bonnets before Easter.

Regardless of their origins, the practices of egg-decorating, egg-hiding and even egg-rolling have been going on for generations. This coming Easter, The White House will host its 134th Easter Egg Roll. Myriad variations on the tradition will be in full swing around the globe.

While I’m never one to enjoy greeting the day on the early side, I am genuinely looking forward to the telltale peals of giddy, childish laughter that will start my Easter Sunday as I watch my little ones, still clad in pajamas, peering out the window at a lawn festooned with brightly colored Easter eggs.

How does your family celebrate?

Alex Smith is a senior editor at TODAY.com. He prefers his eggs in plain sight, fried and sunny side up.

Norman Smith / Getty Images

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