Hare here: Bunny has just hopped out
The Easter Bunny is really a hare. Fluffy rabbits appeared when some Madison Avenue whiz decided they would be more cuddlesome than a lanky, bony grass skimmer - though I once had a toy hare, poised on wire-framed legs back in the last century.
And what has a hare, the 'stag of the cabbages', 'cropper of herbage', 'Old Turpin, the fast traveller', to do with Easter? The bunny of the supermarket counter, a hollow chocolate figurine but sometimes filled with sweet surprises, has evolved from a mysterious animal favoured by the ancient gods, or, rather, one particular goddess.
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A Northumbrian Christian divine, the Venerable Bede, writing on the Easter festival, suggested the name had been adapted from that of an Anglo-Saxon goddess named Eostre, or Ostara, or Ushas, the Sanskrit for dawn - April was Dawn Month.
Ostara's favourite animal was the hare, Lepus timidus, which carried her lights as Goddess of Dawn. The leaping hare of moon, dawn and Easter represented love, fertility and growth in a new beginning.
In northern Europe, the tradition of the Osterhaus celebration of the rites of spring at the vernal equinox, still lingers. In some parts of Germany there remain stone altars to Ostara though many were toppled by Church decree, being linked to pagan practices involving bonfires and dancing by young people.
In Ireland there is no tradition linking the hare - an giorra - with Eastertide, but there are occasional signs of some European touches. Last week I noticed a fine display in a store foyer of little groups of hare-like animals in various poses. In the past I had seen another shop window with wood-carved hares, of German origin, some holding coloured eggs, among faux hay, twig nests and toy birds.
The eggs and nests are from linking the hare with ground-nesting birds such as lapwings and plovers, now of high conservation concern, and which laid their eggs near grassy 'forms' where young hares or leverets lay still awaiting a mother's return at nightfall. The 'forms' and birds' nests have a similarity and so the folklore of a hare's nest with eggs seems logical: a sharing of space and the body heat of animals, crouched and still, helping with incubation.
Eggs were an important part of Irish diet during the privations of Lent in times past and in Holy Week they were valued in a celebratory way by children, hard-boiled, painted and decorated and kept for 'feasts' and simple pastimes such as egg-rolling down inclines.
But the practice of eating 'real' eggs at Easter did not wane. I remember, from poultry-rearing days, a neighbouring family requesting fresh eggs on Good Friday to eat on Easter Sunday having marked them with a Sign of the Cross.
Many such old customs may now have lapsed, and the fare of Easter Day, following religious ceremony, is usually roast spring lamb - followed by some chocolate surprises such as moulded bunnies. The real hare, meanwhile, rests in its 'form', never having been part of the festive table, and with no need for concern over a plover's domestic arrangements.