Each year, in the days leading up to Easter, parents and young children flock to malls across the country to visit the Easter Bunny. At the Kandi Mall in Willmar, it's no exception.
Katlin Sams took her 2 ½-year-old son, Connor Iverson, to see the bunny himself earlier this week. Although Connor is too young to really understand the Easter Bunny, Sams said he "just loves going."
"He always gets really excited to see the Easter Bunny," Sams said. "It's probably more for me than for him, but he does love it."
While today the Easter Bunny has become as synonymous with Easter as Santa Claus is with Christmas, the bunny actually originated as the "Easter Hare" in Europe in the 18th century, according to the National Confectioners Association. German settlers in America believed that the Easter Hare would bring colored eggs to good children on Easter morning.
Eventually, in the 19th century, the Easter Hare became the Easter Bunny, and today he still symbolizes the beginning of new life in spring -- and, of course, leaves Easter baskets filled with eggs, candy and surprises for children on Easter morning.
For many Christian parents celebrating Easter, it can be difficult to balance the Easter Bunny and the commercial aspects of the holiday with the religious meaning behind Easter.
Senior pastor Dan Johnson at First Covenant Church in Willmar said for these parents, it's important to stress the true message of Easter and make the other activities secondary.
"For a believer, Easter is where the rubber meets the road," Johnson said. "All of that fulfillment takes places through the cross and Resurrection. The key is to make this spirituality a real lifestyle. Make Easter more than simply going to church. Make it a regular part of life."
At the same time, Johnson said it's not necessary to shelter children from other parts of the holiday, such as the Easter Bunny or decorating eggs.
"Those things are fun. They're not a big deal," Johnson said. "It doesn't need to be a conflict."
Pastor Dean Johnson at Calvary Lutheran Church in Willmar also agrees that parents don't need to choose one or the other. The Easter Bunny can be a part of the holiday too, he said.
"I don't see a problem with parents recognizing the Easter Bunny," Dean Johnson said. "But parents also need to tell their children that the religious meaning of Easter is that of Jesus' Resurrection. That's where parental guidance comes in. If children are only ever exposed to Easter egg hunts and the Easter Bunny -- and not to church -- then that's what they'll believe in."
The religious meaning behind Easter can be a complex topic for children to understand. It may actually be easier for parents to explain the Easter Bunny than to explain Jesus dying and living again, Dean Johnson said. That's where a simple, honest conversation with children can make the difference.
"The best conversation is at the table, with the television and cell phones turned off," Dean Johnson said. "Ask children what they see and experience at Easter. Ask them if they understand, and have those conversations."
In response to a Tribune Facebook question, Christina Breems Vander Pol said that her Christian family has "really never thought of the Easter Bunny as having anything to do with Easter."
"We recognize it as part of a celebration of spring, which somehow got attached to the Christian celebration of Easter," she wrote on Facebook. "We do give the kids 'Easter baskets,' but focus on symbols best fitting our celebration of new life in Christ and minimize celebration of the spring season."
Fun Easter trivia
The first chocolate eggs were made in Europe in the early 19th century and remain among the most popular treats associated with Easter.
90 million chocolate Easter bunnies are made for Easter each year.
16 billion jelly beans are made for Easter.
Each day, 5 million marshmallow chicks and bunnies are produced in preparation for Easter.
Easter is the second top-selling confectionery holiday behind only Halloween.
88 percent of adults carry on the Easter tradition of creating Easter baskets for their kids.
76 percent of people eat the ears on chocolate bunnies first.
Red jelly beans are kids' favorite.
- Information from the National Confectioners Association, candyusa.com