Forgotten Folktales of Easter
By Jim Ignasher
OK, by a show of hands, how many know why colored eggs, rabbits, and baby chicks, are symbolic of Easter? Or why the lily flower bows its head? And why do we give Easter baskets filled with candy? After all, isn’t Easter a religious holiday?
Perhaps you’ve never given much thought to these questions, and if you have, then you already know that a quick check of the Internet will provide you with the “facts”. Folktales however, can be far more fun, and the following have been culled from 19th century newspapers. These tales have been largely forgotten in modern times, but are worth re-telling. A case in point is one about the Easter Bunny.
Once upon a time there was a kind rabbit who was making his way through the woods when he came upon a nest filled with eggs. A wicked fox had taken the mother, and the rabbit knew the eggs would never hatch without his help. So he decided to sit on the eggs overnight to keep them warm, while he figured out what to do about them. The following morning was Easter Sunday, and the rabbit awoke to find that the eggs had hatched and nest was full of yellow chicks. The babies thought the rabbit was their mother, and the rabbit, knowing they would be helpless without his care, adopted them. And this was how a rabbit came to be affiliated with eggs at Easter.
However, another tale states that the rabbit was originally created as a bird, but Ostara, (also spelled Eostre, and Eastre), the pagan goddess of morning and spring, decided to turn the bird into a rabbit. This is why the Easter Bunny is able to lay colored eggs.
Both legends are Germanic in origin, and German immigrants are credited with introducing what we now call the Easter Bunny to America. However, not many know that the “bunny” was originally a hare. (Yes, there is a difference.) Hares are larger than rabbits, with longer hind legs and ears. And unlike rabbits which live in underground burrows, hares tend to live in a nest above ground.
Over time the hare morphed into a rabbit, maybe because rabbits are cuter, hence, the Easter Bunny.
One folktale told in the form of a poem relates to colored Easter eggs, and tells of a bird living in a tree located just outside the tomb of Jesus. As the bird sat in her nest guarding her ivory-white eggs, she saw Jesus’ body being placed in the tomb and began to sing a mournful song.
The poem, which appeared in an Ohio newspaper in 1863 read in part:
“All night long till the moon was up,
She sat in her moss-wreathed cup.
A song of sorrow as wild and shrill,
As the homeless wind when it roams the hill.
So full of tears, so loud and long,
That the grief of the world seemed turned to song.”
– Author unknown
The bird’s grief continued until she saw an angel come and open the tomb, and when Jesus emerged, risen from the dead, the bird broke into joyous song. Jesus took note and blessed the bird, her eggs, and the nest they rested in.
And thus the poem ends:
“The eggs of that sweet bird change their hue,
And burn with red, and gold, and blue –
Reminding mankind in their simple way
Of the holy marvel of Easter Day.”
Another Easter egg tale tells of a well-to-do woman who lived in the Middle Ages that was forced to leave her castle and live among poor peasants in Germany’s Black Forest region. She brought with her some prized hens, and one Easter had the novel idea to color the eggs and hide them in the nearby woods for the children to find. The youths were astonished to find colored eggs where no chickens had been seen, and concluded they were hare’s eggs left by the “Osterhase”, a.k.a. Easter Bunny.
As one might guess, the Easter basket is symbolic of a nest, and eggs are symbolic of birth, and a new beginning. There was a time when families would put their Easter meal in a basket and bring it to their local church to have it blessed. By the late 19th century chocolate eggs began to replace the real kind, and today we think of an Easter basket as something one gives a child.
Flowers also play a part in Easter symbolism, particularly the white lily. The white lily has been called the “Madonna Flower” and the “Lily of the Virgin”, for legend has it that one day Mary was on her way to the temple to pray and she stopped to pick a lily. As she continued on her way, clutching the lily to her chest, the flower turned pure white.
St. Joseph, the husband of Mary, and father to Jesus, is often represented in art to be holding a white lily.
It’s been said that the Easter lily bows its head, especially if it has a pinkish hue, and there’s a folktale that goes along with this. In the town of Jerusalem is the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed the night before his crucifixion. In the garden were flowers of all kinds, including the white lily, which considered itself to be the most beautiful of all. As Jesus walked past, all flowers but the proud lily bowed in reverence. As he stopped to gaze at the lily, the flower blushed pink, and slowly bowed its head in shame.
There’s also the legend of the Easter miracle of Feldkirch, Austria. The story goes that on Easter morning in 1799, eighteen-thousand French troops appeared on the surrounding highlands in preparation of invading the town. Town leaders quickly assembled and voted to send a delegation to plea for mercy. Then a priest spoke up and urged the townspeople to trust in God, and suggested that every church bell in the town be rung. This was done, and the French interpreted the bells to mean that Austrian troops had arrived to defend the town, so they withdrew, and the town was saved.
How this legend came to be is unknown, but it was widely published in 1910. It’s an historical fact that the Battle of Feldkirch took place on March 23, 1799, and lasted throughout the day. The Austrians won, the French retreated, and the town was saved.
To all, a Happy Easter.