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Hoppin’ Down the Bunny Trail: American Easter Traditions & Collectibles

by Donald Brian Johnson (04/05/12).

The bunny family takes a breather. German wood carving, 1960s, 2 ½-inches high by 4-inches long. $15-$20.

‘Here Comes Peter Cottontail,
Hoppin’ down the bunny trail,
Hippity, hoppity, Easter’s on its way!’

— “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” by Steve Nelson & Jack Rollins, 1950

That Gene Autry. First, the cowboy crooner set his sights on Christmas, giving us the lowdown on “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer” and offering the timely reminder, “Here Comes Santa Claus.” Then, Gene sidled on down the trail a piece, until he found another holiday worth celebrating. The result: 1950’s bouncy “Here Comes Peter Cottontail.”

Rustlin’ up another holiday hit: Gene Autry, “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” vocalist. TV Guide’s Cowboy Album, early 1950s. $5-$7. (All photos by Donald-Brian Johnson.)

Other than the title song, the movie wasn’t really about Easter — but oh, those stars, and all those terrific Irving Berlin tunes! Easter Parade ad, 1948. $5-$7.

The song “Easter Parade” was also featured in an earlier Irving Berlin screen hit, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, 1938. Sheet music, $15-$20.

Holiday-happy Irving Berlin put all his eggs in one basket, too. “Easter Parade” started off as a song, then became the title of the 1948 Judy Garland/Fred Astaire movie smash. No bunnies, just a tuneful tribute to a beloved Easter Sunday tradition: folks decked out in bandbox finery, strolling down Fifth Avenue. (Berlin was a master of reinvention. When his early composition “Smile, and Show Your Dimple” flopped, he put it away until 1933, when “Easter Parade”—the same tune with new lyrics—debuted.)

Sprightly songs are one thing. But marshmallow Peeps? Beribboned bonnets? Frisky bunnies delivering candy-stuffed baskets? Just how did a major Christian holiday become teamed up with such unlikely springtime bedfellows? Well, it all started with “Eostre.”

Fuzzy duckling Easter wishes, Mastercraft card, 1946. $5-$10.

Spring Flings
Eostre was the early Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring. In the second century A.D., as Christian missionaries took on the task of converting northern tribes, even the most devoted converts still clung to long-held pagan practices, such as the lively spring feast honoring Eostre and nature’s rebirth. Since the observance of Christ’s Resurrection roughly coincided with the timing of “Eostre’s” festival, the new celebration supplanted the old. The title, however, remained (sort of); “Eostre” was transformed into “Easter.”

Incidentally, although the term “Easter Sunday” seems a given, it wasn’t always so. Before the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., folks could have just as easily been celebrating “Easter Friday” or “Easter Tuesday.” The Council’s “Easter Rule” solidified the observance of Easter as “the first Sunday occurring after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox.” Just to muddy the waters a bit, that “full moon” the Council referred to is the ecclesiastical full moon, not the astronomical one; they’re not always the same. However, since the ecclesiastical vernal equinox was firmly set as March 21, Easter from then on could only occur on a Sunday between March 22nd and April 25th.

(That’s right. As early as March 22nd. So, in those years when it seems like they’re setting out the Easter eggs cheek-by-jowl with the Valentine hearts, they probably are.)

Gradually, Easter’s religious aspects were joined and complemented by secular traditions, celebrating spring as a season of rebirth and renewal. And, from the early 1900s onward, many of those traditions, and the accompanying collectibles, have enjoyed their greatest popularity in America.

Bunny Tales
In addition to lending her name to the Easter celebration, Eostre also left behind a more cuddly reminder of past glories: her earthly symbol, the rabbit.

The Easter bunny gets busy! Grinnell card, 1945, $5-$10.

Renowned for their extra-large families, rabbits were sure shoo-ins as representatives of the fertility of spring. German writers of the 1500s first pegged the rabbit as an Easter tie-in for the Christian era, and pastry-and-sugar “Easter bunnies” quickly became favorites throughout the land.

The tradition of the “Oschter Haws” (“Easter Hare”) also began in Germany. Children would create small nests of straw, (sometimes using their hats to hold them), and place these nests about the house. On Easter morning, especially well-behaved kinder would find the nests filled with brightly colored eggs, courtesy of the Easter Hare. (Due to an as-yet-to-be-explained anatomical miracle, tradition has always held that Mr. Haws actually lays the eggs himself.)

The “Oschter Haws” made his way to the United States in the 1700s, thanks to the Pennsylvania Dutch. Americanized as “The Easter Bunny,” he continues to make his annual rounds, although Easter baskets—packed with luridly colored “Easter grass” and delectable sweets—have supplanted egg-filled straw nests. Today, the Bunny even finds himself part of the Easter décor: figurals of every type are available, from plastic to plush. The Bunny also made his way onto the Easter candy menu. According to the National Confectioners Association, 90 million chocolate Easter Bunnies are produced each year; 76 percent of Americans believe these delicacies should be eaten “ears first.”

Egg-cellent Choices
Nowadays, finding an Easter basket filled only with hard-boiled eggs, no matter how brightly colored, would lead to wails on Easter morning (“What? No candy?”). The Easter egg, however, has remained the preeminent symbol of spring and new life since ancient times.

In medieval Europe, as a gesture of self-denial, eggs were not eaten during Lent, but boiled or preserved for later use. When Easter rolled around, the time was eggs-actly right for the consumption and exchange of these treasured Easter eggs. Adding to the fun: dazzlingly decorated eggshells, carefully crafted during the dreary days of Lent.

Which came first, the bunny or the egg? Five-inch ceramic bunny with carrot, and egg, both unmarked, $10-$15 and $5-$10, respectively.

Long before the days of dip-in dye kits, a variety of means were used to achieve eggs-pert results:

• The earliest decorated Easter eggs were color-stained with flower petals. Wealthier folks wrapped theirs in gold leaf;
• Austrians wrapped eggs in vegetation before boiling. Intricate patterns were revealed when the plants were later removed;
• Eye-catching eggs from Eastern Europe employed multiple dyes to create color variance. During this time-consuming process, wax was applied to protect pristine, and previously dyed areas, on the eggs. (Today, the wax crayon in an egg-dye kit serves a similar purpose);
• For Easter-eggers with steady hands (and lots of patience), the most challenging decorated eggs are those hollowed out, then emblazoned with intricate shell detail. The hollowing process involves carefully piercing the shell of an uncooked egg with a needle, then blowing out the contents. Armenian artisans, masters of this craft, decorated their hollow eggs with religious icons. In Germany, such hollow eggs were often hung on “Easter trees.”

As with the Easter Bunny, art imitated nature. Over the centuries, representations of “real” Easter eggs have ranged from priceless Fabergé eggs fashioned for the court of Imperial Russia (a gem-laden “surprise” awaited within each egg) to the pull-apart plastic eggs of today, stuffed with jelly beans (or, for luckier little ones, quarters).

There are also Easter egg traditions that still hold sway in America, such as the Latvian “egg tap”: paired-off players tap the ends of their decorated eggs together; the winner is the final player whose egg remains unbroken. And, what would Easter Sunday be without the traditional “egg roll” at the White House, as determined youngsters try their best to propel uncooperative ovals down a soggy lawn?

Of course, for confirmed chocoholics, the best kind of Easter egg is an Easter egg made entirely of chocolate. A favorite since the early 1800s, the chocolate egg, in all its permutations, remain today’s best-selling Easter candy.

Honeycomb chick table decoration, egg dye kit, and metal eggs with Easter decals. New-oldstock from Campbell’s Department Store, Bridgewater, Iowa, late 1940s. Chick and dye kit, $15-$20 each; eggs $5-$7 each.

Easter Standards Time
Compiling a comprehensive list of secular Easter traditions can prove as elusive as scooping up all that leftover Easter grass: no matter how many strands you find, there are sure to be one or two you’ve missed. Some of the most beloved:

Easter cards: To boost sales, a printer in Victorian England spruced up generic spring greeting cards with bunnies. Today, while not leading the Easter parade, Easter cards follow Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day cards in popularity.
Easter lilies:Early Christians viewed the lily as a symbol of purity. This white trumpet lily made its U.S. debut in the early 1900s, by way of Bermuda.

“I could write a sonnet, about your Easter bonnet.” “Valerie” lady head vase by Betty Lou Nichols, topped off with a seasonal floral array, 5-1/4” high, $150-$175.

Easter edibles: Hot Cross Buns (the name is self-explanatory), were first introduced by medieval monks, as Lenten offerings for the poor. And, unlikely as it seems, the humble pretzel first gained fame as an Easter goodie: its twists symbolized prayer-crossed arms.
Easter candy: In overall candy sales, Easter runs a close second to Halloween: we devour a little less thab $2 billion worth annually. Among the lip-smacking favorites: Peeps. Every Easter, consumers choke down more than 700 million of these marshmallow confections, and there are even fan websites dedicated to them. Yellow chicks are the most popular, although there are Peep bunnies and eggs, too. It takes 6 minutes to make a Peep. In 1953, it took 27 hours. Outpacing the Peeps, however, are jellybeans. Sixteen billion are gobbled up each Easter Sunday (and swept up for weeks afterward). Boston candy maker William Schrafft came up with the concept during the Civil War; customers were encouraged to send these nearly indestructible treats to soldiers.
Easter parades: The “Easter Parade” has its underpinnings in religious custom: newly-baptized early Christians donned new clothing for Easter, as a sign of religious rebirth, and medieval churchgoers processed from church on Easter Sunday morn, led by their Easter candle-toting celebrant. Today’s best-known “Easter Parade” takes place on New York’s Fifth Avenue. There are no floats, no beauty queens, and no political hopefuls. Instead, most of this busy midtown thoroughfare is simply blocked off to traffic. Crowds, many emerging from services at the churches lining the avenue, enjoy a leisurely “walkabout” in their Easter finery.
Easter bonnets: It’s long been considered “good luck” to wear something new at Easter. Eighteenth-century author “Poor Robin” advised, “At Easter, let your clothes be new, or else be sure you will it rue.” Even in the direst days of the Depression, a new Easter bonnet (or, at least a refurbished old one) remained within the range of most pocketbooks. As the inimitable Irving Berlin put it: “In your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it, / You’ll be the grandest lady in the Easter Parade.” (Unless, of course, you were Fred Astaire. In that case, a top hat did the trick, and you were the “grandest fella!”)

Spring Fever
Finding mid-20th century Easter memorabilia in pristine condition keeps today’s collectors hopping; as with many holiday collectibles, such items were not intended for long-term use. Fortunately, many bits of Easteriana were preserved as family heirlooms, taken out and displayed each year, then carefully tucked away till another spring. That means that even vintage paper ephemera—such as greeting cards, Ideals magazines and “honeycomb” table centerpieces—can still be obtained in displayable condition. Faring even better are the sturdier “hard goods”—the plastic candy dispensers, velveteen rabbits and the like, which once filled Easter baskets to overflowing.

Spring feeding time! Betty Lou Nichols’ “Goose Girls,” “Inga,” “Gretel,” and “Heidi,” plus two hungry “Geese.” Girls, 5 ½-inches high, $50 – $75 each; Geese, 2 ¼- to 5-inches high, $75-$100 each.

Decked out in their Easter best: “Dolly Duck” and “Flossie Bunny” ceramics by Betty Lou Nichols, 1950s. 7 ½- to 8- inches high, $75-$100 each.

For those whose spring decorating scheme calls for more than just an overabundance of bunnies, related seasonal items easily expand the definition of Easter collectibles. Ceramic chickens, winsome lambs, “lady head” vases (in flower-bedecked Easter bonnets) and demure fabric shepherdesses can be combined with specific Easter-themed items to create a pleasingly unified décor. Best of all, many of these Easter and spring collectibles pop up regularly at estate and garage sales; most (except for those Fabergé eggs, which you’re not going to find anyway), remain surprisingly good buys.

This Easter, put some spring in your step. Revive an old Easter tradition, or begin a new one all your own. Dust off and display those seasonal family heirlooms, or stop off at a yard sale, and acquire a few of someone else’s. While you’re at it, go right ahead and bite the ears off that chocolate bunny. You know you want to. And by now, he’s used to it.

Happy Easter!

Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous Schiffer books on mid 20th-century design, including the recently released “Postwar Pop.” Please address inquiries (or chocolate bunnies) to: donaldbrian@msn.com. This article originally appeared Treasures Magazine, published by Pioneer Communications Inc.

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