Pat Guffey's rabbits

Some stuffed toy rabbits from Pat Guffey’s collection.

“Here Comes Peter Cottontail” is known as one of the most popular Easter songs of all time, and is used a great deal for TV commercials during the Easter period. This song was composed in 1949 by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins; it was first recorded by Mervin Shiner in 1950 on the Decca record label, and reached #8 on the Billboard Hot 100. Nelson and Rollins asked Gene Autry to record “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” because of the popularity of Autry’s Christmas songs, “Here Comes Santa Claus” and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” Autry’s version of the Nelson and Rollins song was recorded in 1950 on the Columbia label and reached number 3 on the U.S. Billboard Hot Country Singles; it reached number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

The name Peter Cottontail comes from a fictional rabbit in the works of Thornton Burgess, who was an author from Springfield, Massachusetts. During 1910, Burgess began a series entitled, Old Mother West Wind; included in the cast of animals was Peter Rabbit. Then, in 1914, in The Adventures of Peter Cottontail, Peter Rabbit was unhappy with his name because it sounded plain. As the story goes, his name was changed briefly to Peter Cottontail because he felt this name made him sound more important. He began putting on airs to be important, but his friends teased him about this, so Peter soon went back to his original name.

According to my research, the Easter Bunny as a symbol of Easter is believed to have its origins in Alsace and Southwestern Germany. The first mention of the bunny was in German writings in the 1600’s. Also, the first edible Easter Bunnies were made of pastry and sugar, and were introduced in Germany during the early 1800’s. It was during the 1700’s that German settlers introduced the Easter Bunny to America after arriving in the Pennsylvania Dutch country. According to the German tradition, children would build brightly colored nests, mostly out of caps and bonnets, in secluded areas of their homes. If the children had been good, brightly colored eggs would be laid in the nest as a gift. (Does this tradition sound familiar?) Over a period of time, the tradition has evolved into the hiding of baskets instead of using a nest made of caps or bonnets.

In addition to rabbits and hares, eggs are also fertility symbols from before the Middle Ages, and have become synonymous with fertility of the earth at the Vernal Equinox (the time when the sun crosses the equator, making night and day of equal length in all parts of the earth). These symbols of being fruitful seem to have merit because birds lay eggs in spring and rabbits and hares give birth to large litters in the early spring. There is also a saying “mad as a March hare” which refers to the mating dances of the males fighting over the females in early spring.

It is interesting to note that eggs and rabbits also have a relationship. The German Protestants tried to keep the Catholic custom of eating colored eggs for Easter, but did not want their children to be introduced to the Catholic rite of fasting. Eggs were forbidden to Catholics during the fast of Lent, which was why they had an abundance of eggs at Easter. However, the idea of an egg-laying bunny was brought to the United States in the eighteenth century by German immigrants in the Pennsylvania Dutch country. These immigrants told their children about the “Osterhas,” or “Oschter Haws.” The word “Hase” means “hare,” not rabbit, and in the Northwest European folklore the “Easter Bunny” is a hare, and not a rabbit. Their legend states that only good children would receive gifts of colored eggs in the nests they made in their caps and bonnets before Easter. The German and Amish legends were believed to be established in European folklore relating to hares raising their young at ground level and the finding of plovers’ nests nearby, which were abandoned because of predators. (A plover is a shore bird of North America with a short tail and long, pointed wings.) Hares use a hollow called a form instead of a burrow, and the nests of the birds look similar to those forms used by the hares; therefore, when eggs were found in what resembled hare forms, people had the misconception that the hare laid eggs in the spring.

Even though the date for Easter has nothing to do with the Easter Bunny or Peter Cottontail, it makes interesting research. Easter is really an entire season of the Christian church year, and is not on a set date every year as most other holidays are. Instead, it is always celebrated on the Sunday immediately following the Paschal (Passover) Full Moon date of the year. According to the Ecclesiastical tables, the Paschal Full Moon is the first Ecclesiastical Full Moon date after March 20. Easter dates can range from March 22 through April 25 in Western Christianity because the Paschal Full Moon can vary as much as two days from the date of the actual full moon, with dates being from March 21 to April 18.

As we prepare for Easter, each one of us needs to remember the significance of the season, and why we celebrate. It is no accident that the events surrounding the life and death of Christ happened during this time of year. God gives us the spring season for newness of life and a time of renewal; anyone can see that just by looking outside at the new growth of the earth. Also, it is no accident that allows so many of the animal young to be born this time of year; God has a plan and it is still in use. Even though Easter is a serious time, we can still have fun with Peter Cottontail and Easter eggs if we keep in mind the significance of the season!

It is also interesting to remember the traditions which have been passed down in families from the earliest ancestors to present-day descendents. As your Rhea County Historian, I remind you to learn from the past in order to live in the present and prepare for the future.