If you search for “creepy Easter bunny” on the blogging site Tumblr, you will find a horrifying stream of leering, demonic, and potentially actionable giant rabbits. The bunnies — or rather, grown men in stained plush bunny suits — gaze blankly out of their huge pink eyes and bare their incisors, as small children wail in fear. We prefer to think of the Easter bunny as being cute, and that’s why the creatures in these photos are so disturbing and uncanny: They’re half tiny cute animal, half dirty weird adult human.
Yet the Easter bunny’s cuteness — in fact, the very name “Easter bunny” — wasn’t always a part of the spring holiday. Before Americans started calling it a “bunny,” we called it a “rabbit” — and it began life as an “Easter hare.” The story of how this mythical leporid’s name shifted over time says a lot about how Easter evolved in America — going from a religious holiday with some traditional folkloric elements to a highly commercialized secular one — and what it continues to mean today.
In America’s first decades, under the Puritan influence of its early settlers, Easter was celebrated only quietly, as Washington University religion professor Leigh Eric Schmidt writes in his book, “Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays.” Around the middle of the 19th century, however, the Evangelical Protestant revival and increased immigration from Catholic countries brought a steeply increased public role for Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter. “A few years ago and Easter as a holiday was scarcely thought of, except by the devout,” Schmidt quotes the New York Herald in 1881. “Now all are eager to join in the celebration.”
Broader interest in the holiday also meant updating some traditions that went beyond the liturgical. People around the world had been painting eggs at Easter for centuries — if you give up eggs for Lent, what are you going to do with them but boil them and use them for decorations? — and 19th-century German immigrants imported their “Easter Hare,” or “Osterhase,” which among the Pennsylvania Dutch was called “Oschter Haws.” In a March 1877 article in the Ohio Belmont Chronicle, a correspondent laments that Easter, while “so popular in Europe,” is “but little celebrated in America.” He goes on to explain some of its customs: the egg hunt and the “White Rabbit” or “Easter rabbit,” a Santa Clause-esque figure from German mythology who gives out eggs to good children on Easter morning.
As journalists communicated ethnic Easter traditions to a mainstream audience, the name of the mammal associated (against all natural law) with laying and/or handing out eggs began to shift. “Easter hare” seems to show up specifically in the context of the German tradition. The OED first cites “Household Words” from 1851: “Many, also, were the sugar hares, Easter hares — those fabulous creatures so dear to German children.”
In the US context, “Easter rabbit” took off first, seen earliest in the 1877 Belmont Chronicle quote. “Bunny” began showing up only a few years later, in an 1883 article in the Lancaster, Pa., Daily Intelligencer: “. . . to ‘bunny’ is attributed the laying of the many beautiful eggs which fill the nests that good little boys and girls are apt to find on Easter morning.” “Easter bunny” first appears at most 10 years later, in the Missouri Marble Hill Press: “That Easter bunny was indeed kind.” Yet by the mid-1940s, as Google Books search results show, “Easter bunny” was far more common in America than either “Easter rabbit” or “Easter hare.”
Hare, rabbit, and bunny aren’t, of course, synonymous. The Easter hare and the Easter rabbit are two distinct, although related, animals. A hare is a speedy, long-eared, and oftenquite large wild animal. Rabbits are slower and more compact, with smaller ears. They are more social than hares and make good companions for children.
With the move from Easter rabbit to Easter bunny, however, the animal species doesn’t shift, although the connotations do. “Bunny” — from “bun,” a British dialect word for rabbit or squirrel, according to the OED — is a pet name for rabbit (also for women and children: see Bunny Brown and his Sister Sue, a popular 1910s kids’ book series). Like “kitty” for cat, the very existence of the nickname highlights the animal’s cozy domesticity, its accessibility for city-dwellers: A “rabbit” could be either a wild animal or a pet, but “bunny” moves from pet to toy. The journey from “hare” to “rabbit” to “bunny” is one of escalating tameness and divorce from the rural, folklore-based roots of the holiday.
The name “Easter bunny” was quickly associated with another aspect of the holiday that also became dominant around this time: rampant commercialization. Schmidt’s book describes how sentimentalized Victorian Easter decorations became central to the holiday during the late 19th century, from lavish floral displays in churches to extravagant Easter parades. Exchanging gifts — eggs, toy animals, candy — was part of this elaborate and increasingly expensive ritual.
Wanamaker’s, the dry-goods store that took both Christmas and Easter to a newly bombastic scale of display theatrics, ran an ad in April 1905 in The New York Times under the rubric, “At the Sign of the Easter Bunny,” offering “China Baby with egg” (15 to 35 cents each); “Rabbits in cabbage” (25 cents each); and “Japanese Chickens and Rabbits in carts, boats, automobiles and baskets” (10 and 15 cents each). An 1897 poem in the Kansas City Journal made manifest the link between the great white bunny in the stores and the emptying out of one’s wallet: “Already do the windows show/ The joyous Easter bunny/ And Maud on bonnets new doth blow/ Great wads of Easter money.”
“Bunny,” and all of the fluffy, innocent, candy-pink associations it picked up in the 19th century, became an excellent target for some creative deconstructions in the 20th century. A “Playboy Rabbit” wouldn’t, somehow, have the same transgressive allure; there were mid-century dance crazes with “rabbit” in the name, but none as popular as the “Bunny Hop.” A “bunny-boiler,” after Glenn Close’s famous cooking scene in “Fatal Attraction,” might not sound quite so evil if she were dispatching a hare or a rabbit.
And today’s “creepy Easter bunnies”? They borrow their creepiness not just from their threadbare costumes and empty soulless eyeballs — but also from our associations with “bunny” and the ways that they fail to match up. A “creepy Easter hare,” after all, would be quite a different animal.
Britt Peterson is an Ideas columnist. She lives in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @brittkpeterson.