The first missionaries to set foot in Anglo-Saxon England attempted to render Christmas and the celebration of Christ’s resurrection satisfactory to the Saxons by superimposing them upon their own nearest corresponding festivals. Yuletide and Christmas agreed upon many points. Halloween had no hope of being converted to Christianity. Stuck somewhere between the two, Easter remains to this day a botched festival, a schizophrenic calamity. This is largely because the ancient spring festival of renewal and rebirth is unable to accommodate two radically dissimilar heroes.
In the Christian corner, we have Jesus Christ, who was gruesomely tortured to death on Good Friday. Church and state, Jews and Romans, disbelievers and disciples – all social institutions, in fact – united to destroy Jesus in a black symphony of treachery and tyranny. Christ’s alleged “resurrection” offers scant comfort, affixing an unconvincing happy ending to a tale which is otherwise devoid of hope, and causing the reader to suspect that they have been fobbed off and treated like a child. Christ’s story ultimately concludes with a dried out piece of human meat – humiliated, defeated and nailed to two wooden planks.
In the pagan corner, we have the gaudily commercialised remnants of a forgotten Anglo-Saxon folk tale. The vast majority of modern children are no longer aware of the goddess Ēostre’s character and story, but they will remain familiar with her Sancho Panza-style sidekick, the Easter Bunny. Nineteenth-century German immigrants reimagined the Bunny as a floppy-eared, cotton-tailed creature, who lives in a springtime world of primroses and daffodils, delivering brightly coloured eggs to lucky children.
Jesus Christ and the Easter Bunny. They could not be more unalike, and yet they share the same gig. It is rather like mixing a fine, strong malt whisky with banana milkshake. Or like turning up at the party of a friend who insists on playing his Beethoven records, whilst his teenaged daughter keeps switching the music to Justin Bieber’s pop songs.
One may contend that the pagan Bunny has been drained of colour and detail, in order to avoid distracting from the more imposing figure of Christ. For a start, the Bunny remains completely anonymous, having no forename or surname. It is generally reckoned to be a “he,” but only because it has to be something. The creature from the old Saxon legend was a hare, but subsequent accounts settled upon a cottontail rabbit, and any differences between the two species have been reconciled via the indeterminate “bunny.” Yet it remains unclear what manner of bunny we are dealing with. Is it a rabbit/hare of regular characteristics and proportions, or a humanoid creature with the strength and opposable thumbs to, say, open doors?
There is a lot of room for character development, and yet no defining characteristics have ever been successfully fixed to the Easter Bunny. If one types “Easter Bunny” into Google Images, the result is a gallery of undistinguished-looking rabbits/hares, some white and some grey, and occasionally with a dashing touch of Lewis Carroll’s March Hare.
Perhaps the Easter Bunny is a springtime version of Father Christmas, and yet most children have some idea of Santa’s character and circumstances: he is a jovial elderly toymaker who lives in an industrial complex at the North Pole with his wife. They are childless, but Santa has paternalistically adopted his entire workforce of elves and reindeer as a substitute family. By comparison, we do not know where the Easter Bunny lives, whether he has any family or friends, whether he is a wild animal or a pet, or how he came to be recruited as a mascot for Easter. Is he a god, a lesser supernatural being like a fairy, or an ordinary rabbit that has been rewarded his powers through an act of divine intervention? We know nothing about his character, and were Adam a bunny, we would be unable to tell the Easter Bunny from Adam.
Santa only delivers toys to children who are “nice,” but the Bunny delivers his eggs indiscriminately. Not only is he amoral, but he appears to be completely indifferent to the Christian message. No detail of his yearly visit alludes to the crucified Christ. Christianity appears not to have encroached upon his virgin world of flowers and chocolate. The Bunny possibly lacks conscious awareness. What instinct, then, makes him deliver his eggs? And from where does he get them in the first place?
Children will learn that rabbits/hares can create tiny brown balls of their own accord which are as smooth as chocolate eggs. But the average Easter Egg is at least a thousand times bigger than a rabbit’s faeces. Perhaps the Bunny strains to produce a monumental bowel movement in your home, wraps it in coloured paper, and then hides it behind your sofa. Yet this is the sort of behaviour that characterises human senility at its darkest and most distressing.
Conferring with the mythology only makes things worse. It seems that the goddess Ēostre found a dying bird in the winter snow, and that she transformed it into a hare to allow it to survive until spring. The consequent creature had fur and a hare’s libido and it could lay eggs, being apparently a hermaphrodite. In this account, the Easter Bunny is revealed to be a freak of nature, rather like the unfortunate duck-billed platypus.
When I was a child, my parents told me that they bought the Easter Eggs themselves and then left them for the Bunny to hide. They thereby avoided having to explain how a creature less than a foot long could roll millions of Easter Eggs around the world in a single night. But this renders the Bunny even more deranged. Why would he go to such extraordinary lengths to infiltrate your home and play such a pointless prank?
One can only conclude that the Easter Bunny is the most preposterous of all mythological creatures. If you were commissioned to come up with a story about a supernatural rabbit at the drop of a hat, it could not be more brainless than that of the Easter Bunny. And yet this is the whole point of the story. If children accept the existence of the Bunny – despite its almost awesome lack of sense and logic – then the resurrection of Jesus Christ will seem correspondingly sensible. In this respect, one is led towards a comparison that can only be flattering to Christ, and his resurrection thereby assumes a gravity which it is otherwise lacking.
Modern children may be reared on a diet of Most Haunted and Unsolved Mysteries Redux, against which the resurrection of Christ remains distinctly unimpressive as evidence of the paranormal. There is no poltergeist activity, merely a couple of watery apparitions seen by prejudiced witnesses, and the haunting ends abruptly and inconsequentially. A sceptic such as Professor Chris French, turning up on the Good Morning sofa to discuss the case, would grow quite chirpy, and he would scarcely break into a sweat over Christ. If inadequate as a paranormal case study, the resurrection of Christ equally fails as a traditional ghost story. You could hardly tell it around a campfire in the dead of night. M.R. James would relish the gory detail in which Thomas inserts his finger into Christ’s side, but the ghost has otherwise no menace. He does not leave messages in blood or drive anybody to murder (at least directly).
Not only is the Bunny an also-ran, but he has been only entered into the race to make the frontrunner look more prestigious. Ēostre, on the other hand, was immediately disqualified. The purpose of Christ’s sacrifice is to make you feel guilty and humble. In the story of the crucifixion, the whole of human society is shown to be cruelly destructive. Only the aloof Christ, who stands outside of society, can redeem it. Yet Ēostre is more of a servant to humanity, freely delivering spring and raising everybody’s spirits. Christian viciousness could not tolerate this generosity, and yet it retained a role for Ēostre’s furry sidekick. Once the Christians had condemned witches, the Easter Bunny took on the attributes of a familiar. When the Christians developed their ludicrous esteem for celibacy, the Bunny became equated with the rabbit’s uncontrollable sexual desire.
One may laugh at the idea that Christian theology has preserved the Easter Bunny in order to smear paganism. He seems to glow with goodwill and good cheer, to frolic in flowers and pad about in the spring sunshine. Yet children are given this tiny harmless sample of paganism just as they may be inoculated with smallpox, and the Easter Bunny’s senseless life story, his banal world of flowers and chocolate, and his vaguely sinister association with sexual pleasure and witches serve to teach children that paganism is in itself senseless, banal, and vaguely sinister. By comparison, Christ emerges as a serious and profound figure for adult worship. The Easter Bunny is the useful idiot of Christian propaganda. I hope that you will agree and join me in celebrating Easter with a delicious slice of rabbit pie.
[For further reading, please check out this excellent, but adult-content, blog devoted to hares in folklore. Ed.]