As we shake off the gloomy chill of winter and as Easter draws near, a passage from Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince surfaces from the depths of my memory: "One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes."
If there was ever a metaphor for looking at life through the eyes of a child, it is found in the activities associated with the Easter Bunny. Think of everything that a child learns effortlessly and spontaneously from immersion in this irresistible tradition: our need for love and laughter, family and togetherness; the power of belief and the rewards of sharing; the promise and joyful fulfilment of new beginnings.
Literary historians trace the story to a fable from 17th-century Germany. A poor woman dyes some eggs during a famine and hides them in a nest at the edge of her garden as an Easter gift for her children. Just as they discover the nest, a big rabbit hops away. The story soon spreads that the animal left the eggs.
Over the years, this story was honed and polished, says psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, by the "minds and spirits and needs and wisdom" of people who found its message magical and appealing. There is a certain grace in the gift of life and sustenance and its mysterious association with such a gentle and generous creature. In honouring that grace by repeating the rabbit's gift, parents honour the child.
In many countries, Easter is a religious festival celebrated in church, but in the UK it is mainly celebrated in secular ways that include modern permutations of the bunny folklore.
Many Christians identify the egg - symbolic of regeneration - with the empty tomb of Jesus. A bird hatches from the confines of the shell, reminding believers that Jesus emerged from the tomb with the promise of eternal life.
The rabbit, which symbolises fertility, along with white lilies, which symbolise the purity of the Virgin Mary, and the lamb, reminiscent of Jesus as the Lamb of God, also mirror important religious themes.
But some of these symbols have found their way into more secular activities: Easter egg colouring, egg hunts, egg rolling contests, egg dances, parades, gifts of sweets, family gatherings and special meals, clothing oneself in fresh finery, and even songs such as Here Comes Peter Cottontail and Irving Berlin's Easter Parade. They all in some way amplify the message of hope, re-emergence and rebirth.
For the child, of course, the focal point is no doubt the anticipated visit from the wild creature with soft eyes and oversized ears. What is the elusive magic that lies at the heart of this cherished legend? Like most fantasies, the simple story holds a wealth of meanings.
Hungry to believe
One explanation of the Easter Bunny's appeal is that the myth satisfies a hunger to believe and fantasise and create - an impulse that is strong in all children. The miraculous rabbit entices them to wonder and gives them an opportunity to indulge their love for animals and for mythological creatures possessing extraordinary, beneficent powers. It provides tantalising glimpses of an ideal world where kindness, peace and generosity prevail.
Thus, many believe that the story of the Easter Bunny, as we know it today, softens psychic ground as it seeps into a child's unconscious. C.S. Lewis called this "a sort of pre-baptism of the imagination", an unconscious acceptance of the ineffable that eventually makes it easier for the child to take the more conscious leap of faith that opens the mind to the spiritual.
Another explanation is that the stories we absorb when we are young bind us to them. Children carry memories of the Easter Bunny like a secret talisman. The story and the activities and rewards associated with it (there are, after all, egg- or bunny-shaped chocolates involved) are pleasurable to children; a boon, a harvest of treats. The egg hunt encourages children to go forth and seek life's unexpected bounty within a protected, sanctioned and supported environment.
While egg hunts and a rabbit do not ordinarily figure as thrilling events in the adult world, behind that tradition are many centuries of deep religious implications, as well as fulfilment of childhood needs and the establishment of a foundation for adult spiritual development.
Even the Church came to recognise the symbolism of coloured eggs (early Christians of Mesopotamia stained them crimson to honour the blood Christ shed at his crucifixion) and adopted the custom. In 1610, Pope Paul V proclaimed the following prayer: "Bless, O Lord! We beseech thee, this thy creature of eggs, that it may become a wholesome sustenance to thy faithful servants, eating it in thankfulness to thee on account of the resurrection of the Lord."
The giving of Easter eggs is a long-standing tradition in Italy. Last year, an Italian chocolate company gave Benedict XVI a 2m-high egg weighing 250kg and decorated with the Pope's coat of arms. He gave it to a juvenile detention centre in Rome.
Despite the power of a papal blessing, some well-intentioned parents do refuse to promulgate the Easter Bunny tradition. They may argue that bunnies and egg hunts have little to do with the sanctity of Easter, and that perpetuating this fantasy sets children up for an unkind awakening years later.
Others point out that the festivities contain vestiges of pagan spring festivals, and it is true that the hare or rabbit was a favourite animal of Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring.
But the logic that imaginary characters are ultimately "disappointing" or "disillusioning" for children who eventually learn the difference between fact and fiction does not seem well supported. Santa Claus rules Christmas and does not seem to have created a mass wave of cynicism in the world's adults, despite them learning at some point that he was not real.
Fantasy is an important part of a child's way of understanding the world: eliminating such tales will not squash the impulse to imagine. In fact, depriving a child of a magical experience ultimately detracts from our own reputation as parents; something very special can arise in children when they realise much later that their parents conspired to set up and maintain this elaborate fantasy purely for the happiness of their children.
The effort of building a pleasurable tradition can create in children a deeply ingrained sense of self-worth, a lasting affirmation of how important their welfare and happiness are to the family and to their parents in particular. And children learn what gladness comes from giving joy. I can no more imagine a life without fantasy than I can imagine a life without love.
Only now that I have raised a family of my own do I understand how much delight my parents derived from seeing my excitement as we dyed or painted hard-boiled eggs with bright colours in preparation for the holiday, my anticipation the evening before the hunt as I imagined a lovable white bunny hiding them among the grass and flowers, and my wide-eyed glee on Easter morning as I competed with other children to collect the most treasures in my basket.
"Blessed be the hand that prepares a pleasure for a child," said Douglas Jerrold, 19th- century English dramatist. "For there is no saying when or where it may bloom forth."
Dale Salwak is professor of English at Citrus College, California, and author of Teaching Life: letters from a life in literature (University of Iowa Press, 2008)
Ages 5-7: Easter images
Use Ibuzzybea's Easter traditions lotto to start a discussion.
Ages 7-11: What is Easter?
Try debskapick's Easter-themed quiz in French and Spanish.
Ages 11-14: Calling all eggheads
See Easter eggs roll off the production line at the Cadbury factory.
Ages 14-16: Whodunnit?
Who killed the Easter Bunny? Find out with ZiFrog's game.
Ages 16-18: Christianity
Explore different ways of being a Christian in durgamata's lessons.