bolich bunny

Perhaps the oldest American folk art representation of the Easter bunny, this drawing by Revolutionary War veteran Johannes Bolich was sketched in Brunswick Township, Berks County -- now Schuylkill County -- probably in the 1790s.

Originally published April 14, 2014.

The Easter Bunny has something in common with the Belsnickle.

Both are Pennsylvania Dutch traditions.

Many Easter traditions — including the symbolic egg and hare — predate Christianity. The notion of an egg-laying rabbit can be traced to Germany, and it came to America with the Pennsylvania Dutch immigrants who settled in and around Lancaster County.

According to an article posted on the Free Library of Philadelphia website, Georg Franck von Frankenau first wrote about the tradition of a hare bringing Easter eggs in “De ovis paschalibus,” or “About Easter Eggs,” in 1682. Other sources suggest the Germans had an Easter hare tradition dating to the 1500s.

But it was the Pennsylvania Dutch who brought the tradition of the Oschter Haws, or Easter hare, to America. Children, the article says, believed if they were good,  an Easter hare would lay eggs in the grass for them to find.

Long before the days of Easter baskets, eggs might be left by the hare in special nests prepared by children in their own hats and bonnets. In other cases, the hare left colorful eggs on window sills, or outside in beds of saffron.

The custom was a hard sell to non-Germanic locals. Easter didn’t catch on nationally until the early 1900s.

The Lancaster Intelligencer, on April 10, 1882, reported that “in the Presbyterian church there was an avoidance of any celebration of the Easter festival.” Alfred Lewis Shoemaker wrote in “Eastertide in Pennsylvania: A Folk-cultural Study,” that it “seems to have been the influence of the laity that changed the position of the anti-Easter denominations.”

In fact, Shoemaker wrote, “Childhood’s greatest pleasure in the Dutch Country, next to the visit of the Christ-Kindel on Christmas Eve, has been — from the very first settlement at Germantown in the late 1680s on — to prepare a nest for the Oschter Haws (Easter rabbit). The children have always been taught that the Oschter Haws would come during the course of Easter Eve and lay — provided the child was well behaved — a nest full of beautifully colored Easter eggs.”

Related story: Real live Easter bunnies don't make great gifts.



Tom Knapp is a general assignment reporter whose coverage includes Lancaster County heritage, entertainment, libraries and animals. He can be reached at tknapp@lnpnews.com or (717) 481-6107. You can also follow @TKnapp66 on Twitter.