Are Jesus and the Easter Bunny Best Pals?

Unravel the origins of Easter folklore, from the beloved Easter Bunny to ancient pagan traditions to discover how Biblical history and astronomy blend.

Rabbits pop up frequently in children's stories and comic strips, and genderless Easter Bunnies have had the pleasant task of bringing us baskets of decorated Easter eggs for many centuries. But what are the origins of Easter folklore and how did Jesus get to take centre-stage with the Easter Bunny. This show explores old Biblical history, astronomy and pagan traditions to find an explanation.


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Today, we are talking about Easter and the way Jesus Christ and the Easter Bunny come together on this commemorative holiday.

Bunnies have been part of children's stories for donkey's years. The most famous of all the bunny characters is Bugs Bunny from Walt Disney's Loony-Tunes cartoons. Little one's are still captivated by these animated characters to this day. Then there is the rather crazy bunny in the movie, "Who framed Roger Rabbit?" starring Bob Hoskins. I remember this was groundbreaking because technology then enabled real humans and animated characters to interact with each other.

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You were listening to the comic bantering between Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Elmar Fudd in Disney's famous Loony-Tunes animated movies. While Bugs Bunny may be the most famous of all children's rabbits, we find many other rabbits in children's fables across the globe. Here's Bob Hoskins enticing the Rabbit to have an alcoholic drink in the animated movie, "Who Framed Rodger Rabbit." The storyline is much the same but I'm sure that kids don't mind that one little bit. It appeals to that level of slap-stick humour:

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We'd be doing him a disfavour if we forgot the White Rabbit in the fictional book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, written in 1865 by the English mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. Alice is feeling bored and drowsy while sitting on the riverbank with her older sister, who is reading a book with no pictures or conversations. She then notices a White Rabbit wearing a waistcoat and pocket watch, talking to itself as it runs past, "Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!" She follows it down a rabbit hole, but suddenly falls a long way to a curious hall with many locked doors of all sizes where she finds a small key to a door too small for her to fit through, but through it she sees an attractive garden. She finds a way to enter the garden where she meets up with many wacky characters. At the Mad Tea Party, the Mad Hatter and the March Hare try to "fix" his watch, proclaiming it to be "exactly two days slow." Through various food they put in the watch (butter, tea, jam, and lemon), the two cause it to go mad, and the Hare smashes it with his mallet. Tim Burton's 2010, slightly dark-humoured rendition of Alice in Wonderland with Johnny Depp playing the Mad Hatter and Helen Bonham Carter the Queen of Hearts is my personal favourite. Listen to the chaotic madness in the Mad Tea Party scene where the Hatter talks to Alice as they walk up and down, hand-in-hand, between the vast collection of teapots and teacups crammed across the entire tabletop. The Scottish voice that utters just one line, "It's the wrong Alice!" is that of the White Rabbit:

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But there is another cute, fluffy rabbit who found its way into our lives — this is the Easter Bunny. This rabbit is not one specific folkloric figure, like Santa Claus, but rather a cast of many different, genderless bunnies who go under the collective name of the Easter Bunny. These bunnies, sometimes depicted wearing clothes, bringing us Easter-egg gifts.

Modern day Easter is another period in our calendar where manufacturers go all out to bolster sales revenues. Many of these consumers in the modern world hardly know what it is that they are celebrating and why Easter, unlike Christmas that falls on the 25th December each year, falls on apparently random days somewhere in the months of March and April. Easter, Christmas, Halloween, Guy Fawkes' and Valentine's Day are occasions hugely exploited commercially. Cadbury's Australian manufacturing plant, as an example, spends eight months a year making Easter eggs to meet consumer demands.

But where did the Easter tradition come from and why do we still bother celebrating it today?

Firstly, we need to brush up a little on our Astronomy and we'll need to know a little about the Old Testament calendar to properly understand how the Easter dates are calculated. You know that the Earth rotates once on its axis, moving from west to east, in a day. It is this rotational spin that gives us day and night. Sometimes a part of the Earth faces the Sun and we call this day. While one part of the Earth faces the Sun, another part, on the opposite side, will be pointing away from the Sun and we call this night. But the Earth has a few other movements too: It slowly moves through space around the Sun, like a stone tied to a piece of string being swirled around. Except of course, there isn't a piece of string tethering the Earth to the Sun and the Earth doesn't go around the Sun nearly as fast as the stone you are swirling. In fact, the Earth orbits the Sun very slowly, taking it an entire year to go around the Sun just once. It is our orbit around the Sun that gives us views of different night-time constellations from one month to the next. Earth's axis is an imaginary pole running from north to south through the centre of the Earth. Had it been perpendicular to Earth's orbital plane, every day and night would have forever nearly been equal. However, as fate would have it, Earth's axis is tilted some 23° off true which means that the amount of sunlight reaching the northern and southern hemispheres changes as the year progresses. For part of the year, the sunlight favours the southern hemisphere, bringing summer to the south and winter to the north and at other times the opposite occurs. We would not have had seasons had the Earth's axis not tilted. What we experience on Earth is an apparent movement of the Sun, from the southern latitudes to the northern ones and back again. The Sun doesn't really move at all, it's an illusion caused by the planet's tilt and its orbit around the Sun. As this summer/winter swing occurs, sometimes the Sun is directly overhead in the south and around six months later, it is directly overhead in the north. The two points that mark the furthest extent north and south are called the Tropic of Cancer (in the north) and the Tropic of Capricorn (in the south). As one travels north along the N1 (the Great North Road linking Cape Town and Cairo) one crosses the Tropic of Capricorn about 50 km south of Louis Trichardt before the Zimbabwe Border. Each of these two extremes is known as a solstice. The Summer Solstice occurs when it reaches the Tropic of cancer and the Winter Solstice when the Sun is overhead the Tropic of Capricorn. The midpoint between these north/south extremes is the Equator. When the Sun is directly overhead the equator, days and nights are nearly equal in length and we call this an Equinox. There are two equinoxes every year, one in March as the Sun appears to be travelling northwards (called the Vernal Equinox) and the other in September as it appears to return to the south (known as the Autumnal Equinox). The Vernal Equinox in March is important when calculating the day Easter will fall on. In 325 AD the Council of Nicaea established that the date of Easter Day should be set for the first Sunday after the first Full Moon occurring on or after the March equinox. That sounds complicated enough and in a moment, I'll tell you why it needs to be this way. The important thing to know from an astronomical point of view is that the Vernal Equinox does not fall on the same day every year — in fact, neither do the two solstices. They drift backwards by 820 seconds each year. The Council of Nicaea knew this and decreed an ecclesiastical approximation of March 21 for all subsequent Vernal Equinoxes used to calculate Easter. Hence the date of Easter Day is set for the first Sunday after the first Full Moon occurring on or after March 21st. I hope I haven't lost you already but I know that you might have an unanswered question dangling over your head, "Why does the Vernal Equinox drift backwards in time by 820 seconds a year?" It's also due to another astronomical phenomenon regarding Earth's movements through space. I mentioned earlier that Earth is tilted some 23° off true with respect to its orbital plane around the Sun. While the angle remains the same, it doesn't stay pointing at the same part of the sky. Instead, it slowly drifts, like a toy top rotating about a fixed spot on the ground. This drift happens very, very slowly, taking 25,772 years to complete one full cycle. This is known as Precession. You could do the mathematics for yourself and you'll find that effects of precession causes the Vernal Equinox to drift backwards in time by 820 seconds. The next March Equinox in Johannesburg, South Africa will be on Tuesday, 20 March 2018, at precisely 18:15 SAST but because of the effects of precession, the 2019 March Equinox will occur 820 seconds earlier than the one 2018.

Whew! I wouldn't be surprised if you don't have brain freeze by now but I still haven't explained to you why the day of Easter should be on the first Sunday after the first New Moon after the March Equinox and how Jesus and the Easter Bunny take centre-stage in this event.

With our complicated astronomical knowledge now in place, we know how to calculate the day upon which Easter falls but how do we explain the appearance of the Easter Bunny. Let's go back to the Vernal Equinox, the one in March, which marks the end of summer in the southern hemisphere and the beginning of spring in the north. This moment was, in ancient times, a time of great celebration as the new season promised to bring fresh crop growth and abundance for the next few summer months. Rabbits and hares are both prolific breeders. Female hares can conceive a second litter of offspring while still pregnant with the first. This phenomenon is known as superfetation. The scientific taxonomic order to which bunnies belong is that of lagomorphs. This order is made up of two living families: hares and rabbits, and pikas. Now I bet you don't know what a pika is. It is a small mammal with short limbs, a very round body, rounded ears, and no external tail. They look like a cross between a rabbit, Guinea Pig and a vole. Lagomorphs mature sexually at an early age and can give birth to several litters a year, hence the saying, "to breed like rabbits" or "to breed like bunnies." It is therefore not surprising that rabbits and hares became fertility symbols and that their springtime mating antics entered into Easter folklore. In ancient times, it was widely believed that the hare was a hermaphrodite, a creature that has both male and female reproductive organs. The idea that a hare could reproduce without loss of virginity led to its association with the Virgin Mary, with hares sometimes occurring in illuminated manuscripts and Northern European paintings of the Virgin and Christ Child. Eggs, like rabbits and hares, are fertility symbols of antiquity. Since birds lay eggs, and rabbits and hares give birth to large litters in the early spring (soon after the Vernal Equinox), these objects became symbols of rising fertility within Mother Nature. In addition, Orthodox churches have a custom of abstaining from eating eggs during the fast of Lent, a solemn religious observance in the Christian calendar that begins approximately six weeks later before and ends on Easter Sunday. The only way to keep eggs from being wasted was to boil or roast them and to eat them on Easter Sunday, to break the fast. Decorating Easter eggs is a tradition dating back into antiquity. A European custom that is still practised today, is to wrap eggs in dried flower petals and leaves bound with string or netting before boiling. The colourant in the flower petals leaches into the eggshells and stains them with some exceptionally beautiful patterns.

Don't you just love children's questioning that leaves parents flabbergasted for answers? Here's a little three-year-old Scottish lass, Ira Nelson, asking her dad, Mark, some really awkward yet poignant questions about the Easter Bunny and Jesus. I hope you understand her deep Scottish accent:

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Just too cute, isn't it?

So we now know why the Easter Bunny makes its appearance at Easter and why it carries eggs in its basket but how does Jesus figure in all of this springtime fertility frolicking? To get the answer, you'll need to refer back to your astronomical knowledge and add a little Biblical history to it.

Jewish, Islamic and Old Testament calendars are what we call Lunar Calendars because they are based on cycles of the Moon. The common calendar we use today, the Gregorian Calendar, is different because it is based on cycles of the Earth around the Sun and not on the cycles of the Moon as it orbits Earth. It takes the Moon a little less than 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes and 3 seconds to complete one lunation, one complete orbit around Earth. Let's round this number down to 29½ days per lunation, to simplify matters. You could, as an example, measure a lunation starting at New Moon and ending 29½ days later at the next New Moon. So which phase of the Moon did designers of Lunar Calendars use to mark the beginning of a lunar month? Strangely, there is no fixed standard. In some calendars, such as the Chinese calendar, the first day of a month is the day when an astronomical New Moon occurs in a particular time zone. In others, such as some Hindu calendars, each month begins on the day after the Full Moon. Others, such as the Hebrew and Islamic calendars, are based on the first sighting of a lunar crescent after a New Moon. Whichever date is selected as the start of a lunar month, the length of the month is always just over 29½ days. Similar to our need to recalibrate our solar calendar by occasionally adding an extra day in leap years, so too must one adjust dates on lunar calendars by making one month hollow (29 days) and the next month full (30 days).

Keeping the idea of a lunar calendar in mind, we must now go back to the time when the Israelites were held captive in Egypt to understand how Jesus is merged with the pagan Vernal celebrations of the return of Spring? The link begins as early as 1513 BC on the night before the Israelites escaped their captivity out of Egypt. The Egypt's Pharaoh remained reluctant to free the Israelites from their captivity in Egypt even after God brought much hardship to the Egyptians — you might remember the plague of locusts; the way God turned the water to blood and some of the other atrociously bad pestilences that were used to soften Pharaoh's reluctance to let the Israelites return to their promised land. The last of the seven plagues was the tipping point for the Egyptian Pharaoh. This is when God sent his angels to destroy all of Egypt's first-born. What separated the Israelites from the Egyptians when the Angel of Death came to destroy all first-born, was a daub of sheep's blood on the door frames of all Israelite inhabitants. This symbol is still found on the door posts of Jewish households today, not as a daub of blood but as a Mezuzah, the decorative casing containing a small piece of parchment inscribed with specific Hebrew verses from the Torah, proclaiming God to be the Lord of Lords. The sheep's blood marking on the door post signalled that the Angel of Death should bypass this household, hence the name Passover. Now here's a vital clue that helps us solve our Easter puzzle: The destruction of Egypt's first-born occurred about the time of full moon soon after the beginning of the barley harvest on the fourteenth day of the lunar month Abib, the start of Old Testament and Jewish New Year. Jesus', like all Jews, celebrated Passover with his twelve disciples in the Upper Room. It was during this holy event when he prophesied about his own death the following day. Wine and unleavened bread were symbols of joy and abundance in the this springtime festive mood but Jesus altered their symbolism by associating these emblems with his pending death and encouraging his followers to propagate the Christian movement. At this Passover meal, the Last Supper, Jesus broke a piece of bread and said, "Take it, this means my body." Then, pouring red wine he added, "Drink, for this means my blood of the covenant." Jesus was crucified the next day and his body laid to rest in a sealed tomb. But when his followers came to pay homage to their slain master, they found the seal broken and the body missing. Jesus had risen from the dead. It is his resurrection that is celebrated on Easter Sunday. It was many days later when Jesus, deliberating with his astonished disciples, ascended to Heaven, a day known as Ascension Day.

As is often the custom, early Christian celebrations were merged with concurrent pagan ones at the time. There is the confluence of the celebration of Christmas (Christ's birth) with the pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. By the way, Jesus wasn't born on the 25th December as we are lead to believe. The date was borrowed from the solstice celebrations. If you would like to learn more about Jesus' actual birthday then listen to Soul Searching Episode 20, titled, "Christmas Special — The Star of Bethlehem" for a full explanation. Easter is no exception as it merges the Christian celebration of Jesus resurrection with the pagan celebrations of the Vernal Equinox. The emblems and symbols from each tradition combined and morphed to give us the symbols we know so well today: The decorated Christmas Tree, and Easter Bunnies bringing us decorated Eggs. Some Christians link the cracking open of hollow Easter eggs symbolically with the unsealing and emptying of Jesus' tomb.

The Christian custom of Easter eggs, specifically, started among the early Christians of Mesopotamia, who stained eggs with red colouring "in memory of the blood of Christ, shed at His execution." Here is an example of a blessing placed upon eggs offered at Easter, "Lord, let the grace of Your blessing come upon these eggs, that they be healthful food for your faithful who eat them in thanksgiving for the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You forever and ever." Although the Christian tradition dyed or painted chicken eggs, a modern custom is to substitute chocolate eggs, or plastic eggs filled with candy such as jelly beans. These eggs, left by the Easter Bunny, can be hidden for children to find on Easter morning. They may also be put in a basket filled with real or artificial straw to resemble a bird's nest.

The most famous and precious of all Easter eggs are the 65 made by the House of Fabergé between 1885 and 1917 for the Russian Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II as Easter gifts for their wives and mothers. Of the 65 known Fabergé eggs, only 57 have survived to the present day. Ten are housed in the Kremlin Armoury in Moscow, Russia; nine are in the Fabergé Museum in Saint Petersburg; five are in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia; the Queen of England has three in her Royal Collection, London; and the rest are divided among various other museums and private collectors. They are priceless artefacts of a bygone era.

So, I suppose it is a bit flippant to end this show this way but what the heck, for you, is Easter really just another welcomed holiday with some Easter Bunny fun and chocolate indulgences or is it about a very different symbolic animal, a lamb — Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb of God?

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