The Easter Bunny derives from an ancient association of hares, rabbits, and eggs with the fertile season of spring. Since rabbits and hares are prolific breeders that often produce large litters in the springtime, and birds lay their eggs around the same time, both have served as symbols of fertility in Western Europe since antiquity. The Easter Bunny combines these two events in the form of an egg-laying rabbit that heralds the season of new growth and life after the barren winter.
The Easter Bunny seems to have started in Germany, where it is discussed in writing as early as the 16th century. German folklorist Jakob Grimm also wrote about German Easter customs in the 19th century, linking them to an ancient holiday known as Ostara, possibly also the name of a pagan goddess. In Western Europe, the Easter Bunny is a hare, called the Osterhase in German. Dutch settlers brought this tradition to the United States in the 18th century.
In Dutch Pennsylvania, the Oschter Haws was a figure that brought holiday gifts to children, much like Christ-Kindel, later to become Santa Claus, during Christmas. Children would build nests in their hats or bonnets for the hare to lay her colored eggs in, and only good children would receive a visit. This tradition of nest building eventually gave way to the modern tradition of the Easter basket, which often includes paper or plastic "grass." Today, some families instruct their children to leave carrots for the Easter Bunny on Easter eve, much as milk and cookies are often left out for Santa Claus.
The Easter Bunny is believed to lay colored eggs, and egg coloring is also an ancient springtime practice steeped in symbolism. In Greece, eggs are dyed red, the color of blood and of life in many Eastern cultures, symbolic of the new life in spring and associated in Christian times with the blood of Christ shed during the Easter season. Green is another popular color, referencing the abundance of new plant life and growth in the spring. Nowadays, the Easter Bunny gives eggs in all different colors, possibly symbolic of the rainbow, another sign of hope and new life, especially in the Judeo-Christian faith.