Source: Research & Text by Bryan Wright | Colonial Sense
The sale of the reward of merit fraktur at Pook and Pook completed by schoolmaster Johann Conrad Gilbert (1734-1812) who emigrated from Germany in 1757 and settled in Montgomery County Pennsylvania may have sparked an interest to our readers as to how the bunny or rabbit became an indelible symbol of Easter in colonial America. As it turns out so many times you must thank the Pennsylvania Dutch for this great contribution to our country. These are the German immigrants like Heinrich Gudehus who emigrated from Palatinate, Germany in the eighteenth century.
The concept of the the holiday Easter or the Easter bunny was foreign to Quakers, Episcopalians, Catholics, and Presbyterians. It was shunned in the beginning by these religions. For the children of the Pennsylvania Dutch Easter was a great of a pleasure as Christ Kindle on Christmas Eve.
As the cultures assimilated into one larger class of people in the Commonwealth, the numbers of people who celebrated Easter became larger and larger some time after the Civil War. There is evidence of how Easter was viewed in two 1880's newspaper reports:
From the West Chester Village Record of March 27, 1883
The custom of of supplying children with colored eggs in Easter day is a growing one here, although it has not been many years since it was almost an unknown feature of the Easter observance in West Chester. The custom is a German one, introduced into this country in its earliest history and ever since then has been steadily growing in favor among all classes in every part of the country until now it can almost be termed a National custom.
From the Lancaster Intelligencer of April 10, 1882
In the Presbyterian church there was an avoidance of any celebration of the Easter festival.
Phoebe Earle Gibbons wrote in 1882 in Pennsylvania Dutch:
I live in the country, but on last Good-Friday was at Reading, and was surprised to see so many persons going to church. Easter is greatly observed by Reformed and Lutherans. It is the time of confirmation and administering the sacrament; and you may hear of churches in country localities having as high as six hundred communicants. At Easter, of course, eggs greatly abound. At a boarding-house at Allentown I heard of colored eggs being offered to callers or taken to friends. Fragments of egg and of colored shells may be seen on the pavements for about a week.
A little childish myth is found in these more eastern counties, of which I have heard very little in Lancaster County. It is that the rabbit lays the colored eggs. A young man in Reading says that when they were children they always made a nest the evening before Easter Sunday, of an old hat or something similar, which they set near the door for the rabbit to lay the colored eggs in. An old man in a tavern, however, says that it is foolishness, like Bellschnickel. At my own tavern the landlady was coloring eggs, and had bought some canton-flannel rabbits with which to dress the guests' tables at breakfast on Sunday morning.
In Lehigh County a lawyer says that when they were children they would take flax and each make his nest under a bush in the garden. On Easter Sunday morning they would run out and find three eggs of different colors in each nest. Literalness has gone so far in Allentown that I hear of cakes in a baker's window in the form of a rabbit laying eggs.
At Easton a lady spoke of making nests for her two boys by taking plates, ornamenting them with cut paper in the form of a nest, putting into each a large candy egg and colored eggs, and placing a rabbit in one and a chicken in the other, and hiding them for the boys to find.
This myth of the rabbits' eggs is very common among the Moravians. One of my "Dutch" acquaintances, born west of us in Cumberland County, and afterward living in Maryland, says that her mother told them when children to set their bonnets at Easter for nests for the rabbits' eggs.
This is an old German myth. A gentleman from Switzerland says that he heard the fable there, and he thinks that it prevails all over Germany. Many or most of our early German emigrants into Pennsylvania seem to have come from or through the Palatinate. My friend before mentioned, who was born there, thus describes the custom at her former home. If the children have no garden, they make nests in the wood-shed, barn, or house. They gather colored flowers for the rabbit to eat, that it may lay colored eggs. If there be a garden, the eggs are hidden singly in the green grass, box-wood, or elsewhere. On Easter Sunday morning they whistle for the rabbit, and the children imagine that they see him jump the fence. After church, on Easter Sunday morning, they hunt the eggs, and in the afternoon the boys go out in the meadows and crack eggs or play with them like marbles. Or sometimes children are invited to a neighbor's to hunt eggs.
Prof. Wackernagel, of Allentown, has kindly pointed out to me the antiquity of the myth. The old German goddess of spring was called Ostara (whence Easter). She rode over the fields in the spring in a wagon drawn by hares. (Our Pennsylvania rabbit is really a hare, as it does not burrow in the ground.) The egg is an emblem, says the professor, of the resurrection from the dead; so herein he finds heathenism and Christianity blended. However, the author of Das Festliche Yahr (Leipsic, 1863) considers the myth older than Christianity; for he says that in Thuringia, Hesse, Suabia, and Switzerland it is said now, as apparently in ante-Christian tjmes, that the hare or Easter hare lays the eggs. Finally, one of my German friends finds the whole a myth of the renewal of life in the spring.
Children from the earliest settlement in Germantown in the 1680's were always told to prepare a nest for the Oschter Haws (Easter rabbit). The nests were sometimes built in the house in a secluded spot. Other times they were built in the barn or out in the countryside.
Sometimes the boys would use their woolen caps or hats and girls would use their bonnets as a nest for the Easter rabbit to lay the eggs.
They were taught that that Easter rabbit always lays the eggs and during the course of Easter Eve if they were good boys and girls, beautiful colored eggs would appear in the nest that was prepared.
If the children were bad prior to Easter Eve, one author said the parents of the misbehaved children would tell them that the nest would be filled with rabbit pellets. The same author also was told that parents in York County actually placed geils-gnoddla or horse dung in their children's nests because their children set their hats and bonnets out more than once during the year.
By the early the decades of the twentieth century, the Easter rabbit theme spread into all parts of Pennsylvania Another custom, another holiday which began in the Dutch Country of Pennsylvania and eventually spread to the fabric of the nation.