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What is Easter all about? Resurrection or eggs and bunnies?

A hen with a golden egg is displayed in the window of Fortnum & Mason on March 18, 2016, in London, England.
A hen with a golden egg is displayed in the window of Fortnum & Mason on March 18, 2016, in London, England.
Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Walk past any store's Easter display and you're guaranteed to see bunnies, eggs, and candy. What you probably won't see is much evidence of the Easter story itself, as told in the Bible's four Gospels: that Jesus was arrested, beaten, and crucified, only to be resurrected on Easter Sunday.

But Easter is by most accounts the single most significant Christian holiday, since, as the Apostle Paul says, without Jesus's death and resurrection, the entire Christian faith is "in vain."

So how did Easter go from the day Jesus rose again to the day giant bunnies leave pastel-colored eggs all over your house?

The origins of the Easter Bunny

The first historical references we have to an Easter Bunny date to the 16th-century German tale. According to this legend, a mysterious creature named Oschter Haws, or Easter Hare, visited children while they slept and rewarded them for their good behavior (similar to Santa). The children made nests for the hare, which would then lay colored eggs in them.

The tale was then brought to America by Germany immigrants in the 18th century. In the United States, the hare became a rabbit and grew in prominence as books like The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902) and The Easter Bunny That Overslept (1957) were published. In 1971, ABC aired a television special called Here Comes Peter Cottontail based on a 1957 book.

The history of why, exactly, German Protestants came to associate Easter with a magical hare is somewhat murky.

One theory is that hares were traditionally associated with new life, due to their high fertility rate. Some have theorized that there is a connection between hares and the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre —€” the goddess from whose name "Easter" may be derived, according to one source.

The origins of the Easter egg

Of course, neither rabbits nor hares lay eggs, nor are eggs involved in the biblical story of Easter.

One theory is that eggs relate to Easter symbolically: Just as a hard shell contained new life, so the tomb of Jesus contained his resurrection body.

According to another legend, an egg merchant named Simon of Cyrene was forced to put down his egg basket in order to help Jesus carry his cross to where he would be crucified. When Simon returned to his basket, he found that his eggs had been miraculously decorated.

What is clear is that by the 13th century, it was customary for Christians to abstain from eating eggs during Lent — the 40-day pre-Easter season.

Hens, of course, did not abstain from laying eggs during Lent, so by Easter Sunday a typical village would have a massive egg surplus — making egg-related festivities convenient and practical even if they lacked a clear logical connection to the biblical text.

The Easter tradition of egg dyeing, though, probably originated in ancient Christian communities in Mesopotamia that colored chicken eggs red to symbolize the blood of Jesus. (To this day, Orthodox congregations continue this practice.)

Christians also may have picked up the egg symbol from Passover — the hardboiled egg is one of the seven symbols set out on the Seder plate.

Easter and Passover are strongly connected to each other — the Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples just before the crucifixion was a Passover Seder.

After the disciples began proclaiming Jesus's resurrection, they continued to celebrate a yearly Passover in the way Jesus had instructed them to, remembering his death and, more importantly, what his death and resurrection meant for the world.

And now Americans spend $2.2 billion on Easter candy

According to the National Confectioners Association, the first edible Easter eggs date to 19th-century Europe. Germans made the sweets out of sugar and pastries and slipped them into the hats and bonnets that children laid out overnight. (These bonnets were the precursors to baskets.) Easter candy continued to be popular, but it wasn't until the 20th century that innovations in candy production allowed it to become the Easter staple it now is. In the 1930s, people began to associate the oval shape of jelly beans with miniature eggs, thus eternally associating them with Easter.

In 2016, the National Retail Federation estimated Americans would spend almost $16 billion on Easter, including $2.2 billion on candy and more than $1 billion on flowers.

What does all of this have to do with the Easter story?

On the surface, not much.

In fact, this is one of the reasons some Christians approach the modern trappings of the holiday with caution. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, told Christianity Today a few years ago: "All the Easter eggs and the Easter bunny are even more extraneous to the purpose of Easter than Santa is to Christmas. ... I wonder whether even some Christian churches are making the connection between Christ's death and resurrection and victory over sin — the linchpin doctrine of Christianity."

Mohler's concern may be misplaced, though. According to a 2012 poll, seven out of 10 American adults celebrate Easter as a religious holiday.

The evolution of Easter celebrations demonstrates that while the stories of Christianity are timeless, they have an adaptability that opens them up to the many cultures they come into contact with.

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