Like the groundhog of Groundhog Day, the Easter bunny of Easter came to the United States through German immigrants.
In the early 19th century, storyteller Jacob Grimm popularized that the Easter bunny finds its roots with the pagan goddess Eostre, the goddess of spring. The story goes that Eostre, unable to heal a wounded bird, transformed it into a bunny that, remarkably, laid colored eggs. However, no historical texts confirm this view; the earliest account comes from Grimm’s tale.
Instead, the tradition of the Easter bunny began with German Lutherans in the 15th century. Originally a hare called Osterhase – the Easter hare – functioned in much the same way as the Santa Claus of Christmas, leaving baskets of candy, toys, and eggs for good children.
Why a rabbit/hare? For one, rabbits, prolific reproducers, have long symbolized fertility. Furthermore, the legacy of ancient Greek misconceptions and confusion over the biology of rabbits led to their association with virginity, thus linking them to the Virgin Mary. Some Christian paintings, including Titian’s The Madonna of the Rabbit, depict rabbits near the Virgin Mary, Christ, and other Christian figures.
The Easter practice of boiling and dying eggs has two explanations: 1) the association of eggs with fertility, and 2) the Lenten fast. During Lent in the Middle Ages, some Christians would abstain from eating animal-derived products such as milk and eggs. During the Lenten season, they would boil and sometimes decorate eggs to preserve until the end of the fast.
By the time German Lutherans emigrated to America in the 18th and 19th centuries, the practice of abstaining from eggs during Lent had subsided, but the boiling and decorating of eggs during the Easter season stuck, as well as the folklore of the Osterhase.