The religious content of Easter is relatively easy to explain and understand. The holiday’s substance starts to blur, however, when it comes to a certain anthropomorphized bunny, baskets, pastel colors and eggs. There’s far too much in this semantic basket to tackle; let’s start with the crucial question: what’s the difference between a rabbit, a hare and a bunny?
Hares and rabbits are both in the family Leporidae, but they are separate species. Both animals have long ears, powerful back legs and a divided upper lip. Hares are larger than rabbits. They also do not burrow, but make nests in the grass. Hares have exposed nesting sites and are precocial when born, requiring little parental care. They have fur and their eyes open. Rabbits, on the other hand, are born naked, blind and helpless, and live in more secure dens underground. The word hare comes not from hair, but possibly from the West Germanic word khasan or Dutch hase, meaning “gray.” Hares are usually shy and isolated creatures, but their spring mating ritual makes them most conspicuous to humans during March and April. The turn of phrase “mad as a March hare” hints at mating season, when hares can be seen boxing each other as part of their raucous courtship ritual.
Until the 18th century rabbits were called coneys, based on the French cunil, shortened from the Latin cuniculus. Rabbit first referred to the young of coneys until eventually the word took over in popularity. Incidentally, this is also the origin of the name Coney Island or Rabbit Island, the beachside amusement park in New York. It is one of the only references to coney that is still used in North America.
So, how did it become the Easter bunny? German immigrants brought with them the traditions of Kriss Kringle and the Easter hare. The night before Easter children would find a quiet corner in their house and make a nest out of clothing for the Easter hare to come lay eggs. This is the origin of the Easter basket. The word hare was dropped on its way across the Atlantic and the fuzzier, cuddlier word bunny, a diminutive form for young and small animals, was applied in its place.
Why a hare, and not, say, a chicken to lay those Easter eggs? The intensely short gestation period and well-known reproductive speed of hares and rabbits have a long cultural association with spring and fertility. Eggs are also a fertility symbol. During the Lent fast, Catholics traditionally were not allowed to eat eggs, so they became part of the Easter feast.
A note: Welsh rabbit is an English tavern dish of cheese toast that does not contain rabbit meat. The origin of the name isn’t clear, but the dish originated at a time when rabbit meat was the meat of the poor, and the Welsh were among the poorest in England. Thus, their meat wasn’t meat at all but cheese.