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Show me the bunny: Easter fires in Texas

By Paul Slade
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Murder Ballads
Secret London

The postcard I bought in Fredericksburg that September afternoon shows a man and a woman dressed in fluffy rabbit costumes, their upright ears protruding a good ten inches into the air. They're standing in a Texas field at dead of night, with an eight-foot cross erected immediately behind them. The man, who seems be holding a large stick, is bending to speak to a small boy wearing a rabbit costume of his own, who listens with rapt attention. The whole scene is back-lit by an eerie red glow from the bonfire flames licking around the cross's base.
I'd read about these cards back in San Antonio, where I was spending part of my 2000 holiday. My Texas guidebook promised I would find the cards both "cheap and hilarious" so, when I found myself on a coach tour which included a few hours stop-over in Fredericksburg, I decided I'd better try to get hold of one. We arrived in the town about lunchtime, the bus decanted us next to a restaurant called Wheeler's, and off I went.
While everyone else ate, I started scouring Fredericksburg's gift shops. The whole town seemed to be crammed into a single street of souvenir stores and restaurants, all clearly aimed at the tourist trade. There were plenty of postcards showing chocolate-box views of the town's older buildings, but that was all. Soon, the only store I hadn't tried was Dooley's, a no-frills five-and-dime stranded in a sea of more upmarket outlets.
I couldn't find anything there at first either, and it was only because I knew this was my last chance that I asked the old dear behind the till if she could help me. She thought for a moment, then led me back to the postcard rack and started digging through the cards at the back of its least accessible section. The card she produced was the one I've just described.
She seemed surprised to see it herself, and insisted on solemnly reading out its explanatory caption before letting me pay. "Easter fires burn each year in Fredericksburg," she intoned. "Legend tells that a pioneer mother whose children were frightened by Indian signal fires on surrounding hills calmed them by telling them they were Easter rabbits boiling eggs." The information seemed new to her, but she evidently didn't think it was anything worth getting excited about.

Was I the only one who saw a burning cross in the Deep South and thought of the Klan?

Back in London, I started investigating Fredericksburg's history and folklore. The town, about 70 miles northwest of San Antonio, was founded in 1846 by German pioneers. Early the following year, colonist John Meusebach led a negotiating party to talk peace with the local Indians, hoping to cement the uneasy truce they had enjoyed so far into a formal and more lasting treaty. One Fredericksburg legend insists that, while these talks were in progress, a pioneer mother back in the town found her children were frightened by Comanche signal fires on the surrounding hills. It was Easter Eve, so she reassured them by explaining that the fires were lit by the Easter Bunny to boil the eggs it would later decorate and deliver to all Fredericksburg's good little boys and girls.
The peace treaty was successfully signed and - according to the legend at least - everyone lived happily ever after. Ever since 1946, Fredericksburg's residents - adults and children alike - have commemorated this story by dressing up in rabbit costumes and setting fires of their own on Cross Mountain, a local landmark, and as many as 21 other hills surrounding the town.
In fact, Fredericksburg's Easter Fires Pageant has its true roots in far older pagan ceremonies designed to herald the rebirth of Spring. About half the pioneers who first settled Fredericksburg came there from the German provinces of Westphalia and Lower Saxony, where Easter fires have been lit on the hillsides since pre-Christian times. These fires would have been dedicated to Eostre, the Teutonic goddess of dawn whose April festival gave the Christian Easter its name, and who is traditionally depicted with a rabbit to symbolise fertility (1). We also know that the real Meusebach treaty talks of 1847 took place a full month before the Easter date which Fredericksburg legend demands - although this proximity may still be close enough to explain why the treaty tale got mixed up with Easter celebrations in later re-tellings (2).
Further research revealed that my postcard's picture had been taken on top of Cross Mountain, that up to 150 bunnies took part in the pageant every year, and that the associated tourist trade increased Fredericksburg's population from 8,000 to 12,000 overnight and contributed over $500,000 a year to the town's economy (3, 4). One US website I discovered awarded the event a maximum ten out ten on its Religious Fervour scale and announced that the whole ceremony "sounds pretty scary to us" (5).
I knew none of this as I stood in Dooley's waiting for my change, but the card already had me hooked. Only small-town America, it seemed to me, could muster the genuine innocence required to conduct Fredericksburg's Easter celebrations with a straight face. The store clerk who was now ringing up my purchase had seen nothing remotely remarkable or absurd about the ritual it described. And yet surely I wasn't the only one who found that a burning cross in America's Deep South made me think of the Ku Klux Klan? Populating that image with a cast of cute bunnies seemed as incongruous as staging a lynching in Disneyland. Obviously, this was a ceremony I had to see for myself.

Six months later, my taxi dropped me off outside Fredericksburg Lodge, a long two-storey building with metal stairs up to an elevated walkway along the building's poolside wall. I checked in, and collected the key to an upstairs room looking out over the pool and the parking lot to a large chilli restaurant opposite. It was late Thursday afternoon by then, and I wanted to make a start on organising myself for Saturday's pageant so I threw my bag in the corner of the room, slotted a tape into my Walkman, and went straight out again to re-acquaint myself with the town.

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Machetes and motorbikes egg on the madness

Fredericksburg was not alone in going slightly mad at this time of year. America, being such a heavily Christian society, takes Easter very seriously, and makes far more fuss about the festival than Britain does. Here's just a few of the Easter stories I saw reported in the San Antonio Express-News during my Fredericksburg stay:

* Police outriders in Fresno, California, wore rabbit ears atop their helmets while providing a motorcycle escort for the town's Easter Bunny (13/4/01).

* Residents of San Antonio, Texas, camped out in the city's Brackenridge Park for three nights just to secure a good table for their Easter Sunday breakfast picnic. One camper remembered being threatened by a machete-wielding lunatic over his spot on a previous Easter weekend (13/4/01).

* Newspapers all over the US refused to print cartoonist Johnny Hart's Easter Sunday BC strip because it showed the candles of a Jewish menorah being extinguished one by one until they formed a Christian cross. Hart was quoted as saying that "Jews and Muslims who don't accept Jesus will burn in hell" (14/4/01).

* Actors portraying Christ in various San Antonio re-enactments of the crucifixion included Roy Juarez (Offerings of Peace Church), Felicito Flores (San Antonio Cathedral) and Brandon Fender (Livingway Christian Church). Juarez spent nine hours tied to an upright cross as part of his own depiction (14/4/01).

* Darryl Schraeder wore a full Easter Bunny costume while using his motorcycle to deliver Easter baskets to a nursing home in Fayetteville, North Carolina (15/4/01).

* A Baptist minister named Fred Phelps planned to picket Easter Sunday services at San Antonio churches which he believed were "queer-friendly". Gay and lesbian groups responded by asking their own supporters to pledge a set sum of money to gay-approved charities for every minute Phelps' protests continued in the city (14/4/01).

* In Washington, DC, President George W Bush spent Easter Monday supervising the annual White House Easter Egg Roll (16/4/01).