Food & Drink

Why We Eat Chocolate Bunnies on Easter

chocolate bunny
opailin/Shutterstock

Every year, at the culmination of the Christian season of Lent, millions of children across America will bite the head off a rabbit in gleeful celebration while their parents look on, hearts swelling with a sense of pastel-tinted holiday pride. You probably know that the rabbits in question are chocolate, and not living, adorable lumps of flesh and fur (but they weren't always! Yikes!), but what you probably don't know is why the de facto Easter treat -- apologies to the peeps who love Peeps -- is a bunny-shaped block of chocolate.

It's kind of something you always simply accepted and didn't care to dig into, right? After all, your hands were probably full of chocolate -- indifference would be understandable. But if Easter is primarily regarded as a Christian holiday, celebrating Jesus' best all-time magic trick, where do cocoa woodland creatures fit in?

This Sunday, take it upon yourself to uncover your own personal Easter egg (and simultaneously gain an instant anecdote to impress your friends with, over ham-brunch). There is, in fact, an interesting -- and not too convoluted, I promise -- answer as to why we feed our children chocolate bunnies during Easter.

And it involves the Pennsylvania Dutch. Of course. 

Obviously, the Easter Bunny has nothing to do with Jesus

If you've ever suffered through years Sunday school, or watched Passion of the Christ, you can probably infer that the giant bunny mascot that so dominates modern Easter iconography isn't exactly biblical. But, like so many Western holidays, pagan tradition and Christian theology have melded to create a mashed-up celebration with both religious and secular facets. Think about the unlikely Christmas duo of little baby Jesus and pagan-based tree decorating.

Springtime is generally and historically recognized as the season most associated with fertility. And one argument asserts that bunnies have long become associated with fertility (you know the expression), and thus became a symbol of spring -- and by extension, spring holidays. On a more specific note, the Germanic pagan fertility goddess Ostara (which would be a badass name for an all-female black metal band, by the way) actually kept a hare as her Disney-esque animal sidekick. The word "Easter" is derived from her name, and every April those crazy pagans would hold a festival celebrating the goddess, which naturally came to include rabbit symbols. 

And eventually, the holiday and rabbit lore gave birth to the fictional "Oster Haws," a magic bunny that would deliver presents to children on the goddess' holiday. Starting around 1600, kids would build small "nests" where parents would place brightly colored eggs that the Oster Haws allegedly laid... for some biologically unsound reason. Sound familiar?

This tradition eventually spread to the Americas by German immigrants, most notably the Pennsylvania Dutch, who, when they weren't churning butter, were serendipitously helping to mold one of modern Western culture's most profitable and recognizable symbols of holiday commercialization. Nice!

 

chocolate bunny
Africa Studio/Shutterstock

All right, well how does chocolate fit in here?

It didn't take long for the early Easter bunny tradition of building nests to turn into building baskets filled with candy and treats. And in the 18th century, it was fairly normal for children celebrating the holiday to receive paper or cardboard rabbits stuffed with treats. In the late 19th century, as the Germanic-centric Easter celebrations became more widespread in the states, the Industrial Revolution turned chocolate into a much more affordable, accessible snack for the masses. So, instead of stuffing paper rabbits with candy, parents were able to make the rabbits out of chocolate.

The most notable early example -- and probably the launch point for the chocolate rabbit seeping into mainstream culture -- happened when Pennsylvania drugstore owner Robert L. Strohecker (probably influenced from nearby Pennsylvania Dutch culture) featured a 5-foot-tall chocolate rabbit in his display window on Easter. His epithet at the Museum of Chocolate even reads "father' of the chocolate Easter bunny." Early 20th-century newspaper articles tout the emergence of the chocolate Easter bunny as a bona fide holiday tradition, and now-common riffs on the traditional bunny shape began to emerge as early the 1920s, like this roaring '20s hare plucking away at a guitar.

As the pagan traditions and the Christian meaning of the holiday began to meld into one giant smorgasbord of springtime celebration, the chocolate Easter bunny joined Jesus' side as one of the main icons of Easter Sunday. Currently, over 90 million chocolate bunnies are created every year to facilitate the holiday's demands (and also, 76% of Americans say they bite the ears off first).

And case you were wondering, most modern chocolate bunnies are hollow for a practical reason, apparently (and not just to dash the hopes and dreams of chocoholic children).  “If you had a larger-size bunny and it was solid chocolate, it would be like a brick; you’d be breaking teeth,” Mark Schlott, vice president of operations at R.M. Palmer in Reading, Pennsylvania (one of American's largest manufacturers of chocolate bunnies) told Smithsonian.com. Hm. Sounds like a cop out, huh?

All in all, let's put merits of hollow vs solid bunnies aside, and just be thankful our parents had something besides Peeps to stuff in our pagan-inspired, spring holiday, fertility goddess-worshipping pastel baskets every April. 

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Wil Fulton is a staff writer for Thrillist. He considers himself to be something of a fertility goddess, too. Follow him: @wilfulton.