Easter is a celebration of many things to many people, which most holidays become as they transition through centuries and cultures. There is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion by the ancient Romans and then there is the celebration of a magical rabbit who delivers baskets brimming with candy and colored eggs.
What are the connections here?
The easiest answer may be the passage of time, as ancient customs shift into modern tradition. Many theorize the holiday of Easter began with and takes its name from a forgotten Anglo-Saxon goddess named Eoster, a deity associated with rabbits, eggs and the coming of spring. Some legends tell of her transformation from bird to rabbit, an egg-laying rabbit. But there currently exists little evidence to support her existence. Others tie the symbols of Easter to early Christianity.
For instance, two stories tie Mary Magdalene to the tradition of coloring Easter eggs. The first places Mary Magdalene in Rome and in conversation with Emperor Tiberius. When Mary proclaims that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, the emperor replies that Jesus could no more return to life than an egg suddenly turns red, illustrating his point by indicating a nearby egg. The egg promptly turns red, of course. The other story describes her visiting the body of Jesus after the crucifixion with a basket of eggs in tow and the eggs miraculously turning red.
Could this be the origin of the Easter Basket?
Possibly. Some trace the Easter Basket to the farmers of ancient civilizations, who would, come Spring, carry baskets of seedlings to be blessed at temples, hoping to ensure a strong crop by seeking favor from the gods. Over time, these seedlings might be replaced by other foods symbolic of spring renewal, such as eggs.
The centuries-old Polish celebration Święconka, which translates to “The blessing of the Easter baskets,” involves assembling and decorating a beautiful Easter basket, filled with an assortment of Easter foods, to be taken to the church and blessed for the holiday. The baskets traditionally contain eggs, bread, lamb, salt, horseradish and ham, and the priests have a specific prayer for each item.
Another Easter Basket has for centuries been carried by the German Osterhase (Easter Hare), the most direct antecedent to the modern Easter Bunny and Basket. The figure of the Easter Hare played a role similar to Santa Claus, passing judgment on children and rewarding the worthy with colored eggs, candy and toys which the Hare carried in its basket.
The difficulty in analyzing a holiday as old and storied as Easter is that there are too many stories, each important and moving in its own way. The Easter Rabbit may come from a tale of Jesus befriending a small long-eared friend or may come from a forgotten pagan goddess, but if we step back and look at the imagery of Easter more generally, the meaning is clearer. Easter is a celebration of rebirth. The earth may seem a cold and deathly place during the harsh cold of the winter months, but come spring a miracle occurs. The light of the sun seems stronger, warmer; the sun hangs higher in the sky, making the days longer. The snow and ice melt and beneath the muddy earth life begins anew, buds sprout and flowers bloom, the miracle of life repeated per annum.
Within this general framework, the symbolism of the elements of Easter grows clearer: the basket, the womb; the rabbit, conception; the egg, new life. The chocolate? A bonus.