- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 27, 2002

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — The Easter Bunny is making tracks on Santa Claus' turf, using one of the biggest Christian holidays as an opportunity to lure little tykes and their parents to the mall.

A majority of malls that hire Santas for December now are hiring bunnies for at least two weeks before Easter, and children who visit the bunny have growing expectations that he will leave toys along with candy in their Easter baskets.

"We are seeing a lot of pressure through marketing to begin to expect a level of present-giving that [children] get at Christmas," said Chris Byrne, a New York toy consultant and editor of the Toy Report.

Some see it as the crass commercialization of a day set aside to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But for many parents, it's just springtime fun for their children.

Amber Carr's 4-year-old daughter, Anastasia, even wrote a letter to the Easter Bunny asking for gifts and treats.

On Easter Sunday, she will get a basket and a present, but she won't be going to church.

"It's too complicated," said Mrs. Carr, of Randolph, Maine. She and her husband were raised with different religious backgrounds and decided not to participate in either as adults, she said.

Daniel Akin, dean of theology at the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Ky., sees the arrival of the mall bunny as just one more example of the commercial exploitation of Christianity.

"When Easter is reduced to nothing more than a bunny, Easter eggs and chocolate, we have reached a tragic day, because that is not what Easter was about to begin with, and it's not what it should be about today," he said.

But the Rev. Eric Shafer, communications director of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, says the Easter Bunny is a golden opportunity to spread the Christian word, like a good ad campaign.

"Many churches have Easter egg hunts," he said. "The real question is: Do you complain what secular society has done with religious symbols or do you use it as an opportunity? I say the latter."

Retailers say Easter has become the second-biggest toy-giving holiday after Christmas.

The big bunny is a way for malls to lure customers, said Bonnie Fluck, spokeswoman for Cherry Hill Photo Enterprises in New Jersey, which provides Santas and bunnies for more than 230 malls across the country.

"It's not really the same draw as Santa," she says.

Nonetheless, more parents seem to be making special trips to shopping centers to line up with their toddlers for photos with the white-tailed, pink-eared bunny.

Peggy MacLeod of Newfield repeatedly pushed her 2-year-old daughter, Casey Monahan, toward the bunny at the Maine Mall, hoping to get a photo typically ranging from $9 to $35. But little Casey, like many other toddlers, protested.

"Noooooo. I don't like the bunny," she cried.

"I'm more excited to have a picture with the bunny than she is," her mother said, leaving empty-handed.

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