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Ask SAM: How did the Easter Bunny get the name Peter Cottontail?

Ask SAM: How did the Easter Bunny get the name Peter Cottontail?

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Q: How did the Easter Bunny get the name Peter Cottontail? I mean, I know why a rabbit would be referred to as having a “cotton tail,” but how did that specific name come about?

B.B.

Answer: The name actually derives from a 1914 children’s book, “The Adventures of Peter Cottontail” by children’s story author Thornton Burgess. The character’s actual name was “Peter Rabbit,” and he originated with writer Beatrix Potter, who named the character after her childhood pet rabbit Peter Piper.

“Burgess tried briefly to call his rabbit Peter Cottontail,” according to a 1944 article in Life magazine. “But he went back to Peter Rabbit for, as Peter himself said, ‘There’s nothing like the old name after all.’”

He continued to write about the character as Peter Rabbit, but the temporary nickname took off separately, perhaps helped along in 1949 by a popular Easter song, “Here Comes Peter Cottontail, “ written by Jack Rollins and Steven Nelson, the same duo who later wrote “Frosty the Snowman.”

Q: Where did the tradition of the Easter Bunny come from?

J.H.

Answer: In his book “Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, “ author Charles Panati traces the origins to pre-Christian customs celebrating the goddess Eastre, who was worshiped by Anglo-Saxons through her earthly symbol, the hare.

Eastre was the goddess of springtime, and rabbits were often associated with fertility. Second-century Christian missionaries learned of the celebrations in honor of her when they were trying to convert the Teutonic tribes north of Rome.

“Whenever possible, the missionaries did not interfere too strongly with entrenched customs,” according to Panati. “Rather, quietly — and often ingeniously — they attempted to transform pagan practices into ceremonies that harmonized with Christian doctrine.”

If converts took part in a Christian ceremony on a day when no other people were celebrating, they could become targets for persecution. But if a Christian rite took place on the same day as a similar custom, it was less obvious.

Also, having similar customs would make it easier to convince people to adopt new ways — and, perhaps, convert to Christianity.

Over time, more and more people converted to Christianity. The rabbits came along for the ride, and the Easter Bunny eventually became the egg-delivering scamp we know today, eggs also being a traditional symbol of fertility and the renewal of life.

Q: What is the story behind the Easter lily?

R.B.

Answer: Lilies are mentioned several times in the Bible, including Jesus’ reference in Matthew 6:28: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.” Some religious traditions say that white lilies sprang up from drops of Jesus’ sweat during his crucifixion or that lilies were found in Mary’s tomb three days after her death. Church paintings of Mary and the baby Jesus often featured lilies as symbols of purity.

Easter lilies gained widespread popularity (and, presumably, their name) because they bloom around Easter time.

Email: AskSAM@wsjournal.com

Online: journalnow.com/asksam

Write: Ask SAM, 418 N. Marshall St., Winston-Salem, NC 27101 

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