Last Easter and the Easter before that, and for several more Easters, a story circulated both among neopagans and those they wished to educate. It concerned the origin of the Easter Bunny. The story goes something like this:
Once, when the Goddess was late in coming, a little girl found a bird close to death from the cold and turned to Eostre for help. A rainbow bridge appreared and Eostre came, clothed in her red robe of warm, vibrant sunlight which melted the snows. Spring arrived. Because the little bird was wonded beyond repair, Eostre changed it into a snow hare who then brought rainbow eggs. As a sign of spring, Eostre instructed the little girl to watch for the snow hare to come to the woods.
The story is increasingly popular among neopagans, because it provides a solid confirmation of several important points of dogma. Christian traditions are shown to have sprung from Pagan ones; a seemingly innocuous tradition is shown to have a little-known (thus implying that it was repressed) history; and a male God took a festival over from a female Goddess, replacing a celebration of joyous renewal with one of sacrifice and death.
Urban legends about Christian celebrations like Christmas and Easter abound, though I must admit that I had not heard that one before. The rest of the article is worth reading too, though it still does not explain, to my satisfaction at any rate, the origin on the Easter bunny.
I had a pagan upbringing (not a NEOpagan one — my parents were atheists/agnostics). In my childhood we had chocolate Easter eggs and Easter bunnies, so I knew about the Easter bunny before I knew about the resurrection of Christ. Easter bunnies were rabbit shaped chocolates that you ate. That was in the 1940s, before neopaganism was popular, so I very much doubt that it was based on the newer neopagan legend recounted above.
I first investigated the Eostre legend of the origin of the Christian celebration of Pascha when it was told to me, in all seriousness, by a Christian fundamentalist who had got it from a Victorian book called The two Babylons by Alexander Hislop. I latetr encountered (through BBS networks and the internet) several other Fundamentalist or conservative evangelical Christians who cited The two Babylons as the source of their beliefs about “Easter”. Many years later I managed to get hold of a copy of the book, and found that though it was full of quite fanciful stuff, much of it had been quoted out of context or twisted by the Fundamentalists who wanted to show that the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Christ was of pagan origin. I tried to find out more about Eostre, but, like Cavalorn, I got back to the Venerable Bede and got stuck. Christian fundamentalists and neopagans alike seem to see a connection with Ishtar, but there is no historical evidence for it that I can discover.
The fact is that Christians were celebrating the resurrection of Christ, which they called Pascha, long before they encountered the English, who gave the name “Easter” to the festival because of their name for the month in which it was usually celebrated.
But when and where did people begin associating bunnies with it?
Really and historically, I mean, not according to Christian Fundamentalist or Neopagan urban legends.