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Explaining this Easter Rabbit business before Obama's Egg Roll

April 12, 2009 | 12:12 am

The Easter Bunny on break

This is a very dead weekend at the Obama White House -- no official functions -- until tomorrow's big festive doings.

This year Americans have a fresh, well-spoken Democratic president and his attractive young family newly arrived in the White House, bringing an exciting sense of change and promise to the land after eight years of Republican rule. So the annual White House Easter Egg Roll is much different.

Under First Lady Michelle Obama's guidance, the ticket distribution even went online, meaning thousands of new excited Easter Egg Rollers with spoons will show up on the presidential grounds to do strange things to eggs in the grass.

In an Easter season a long time ago in 1975, someone named Joe Biden was barely halfway through his first Senate term. And another someone named Barack Obama was about to turn 14, having been born in 1961 with not a penny in political funds to his name.

That year of 1961 was a time when Americans had a fresh, well-spoken Democratic president and his attractive young family newly arrived in the White House, bringing an exciting sense of change and promise after eight years of Republican rule.

That new Democratic president made a fateful decision in the year of Obama's birth, as a holding action to send an enlarged bundle of American military advisors to a faraway foreign land, full of corruption, to help train a local army to fight a stubborn guerrilla insurgency that some said threatened American national security back home.

So now it's Easter season 1975. That band of advisors had turned into a costly full-scale military....

Vietnamese Tent City on Guam 1975 

...action with a half-million troops and fighting and losses that divided the country and did not go well. In fact, it had gone so not well that American troops had largely left, the locally trained army had collapsed and in April of 1975 thousands and thousands of new immigrants -- refugees, actually -- were suddenly swarming onto American shores fleeing the fall of Saigon and South Vietnam.

We found ourself in a large tent on Guam, helping shepherd two colleagues, Vietnamese interpreters, and their very extended families from the panic of an evacuation flight to the strange unknown newness of their involuntarily chosen homeland. None of these 27 people had ever been outside Vietnam.

New clothes. Ample food. Documentation underway. Surrounded by 120,000 other refugees, they had many questions. OK, we said, shoot. What do you want to know about America?

The families had assembled in a jammed circle, the elderly forsaking the cots to squat on the dirt floor. Well, said the bilingual son, please to tell us about this Rabbit Holiday?

The what?

The holiday involving sacred rabbits that they'd heard about on the radio. And the religious candy. 

Easter? Well, sure, we said innocently and quite naively, that's easy. The candy isn't religious and the rabbits are not really sacred. They're called bunnies, which is like an affectionate word for rabbit. This news was translated for the throng, which tried to say bunny unsuccessfully.

How does one honor these bunnies?

Ah, well, it's not so much honoring the bunnies. But here's how it works. Most families go out and buy a couple of dozen eggs and, uh, make that maybe 24 eggs.

Question from the back: What kind of eggs?

Uh, oval eggs. What do you mean?

Snake eggs? Bird eggs?

No, chicken eggs. From chickens.

That is many eggs.

Well, every house has a refrigerator. Murmurs and nods. They'd heard of such things.

OK, so the day before Easter the families...

Excuse. What date is Easter please?

2009 White House Easter egg

Well, it changes every year. But it's always a Sunday. Translation. No reaction.

So the American families gather in the kitchen and they boil the eggs to make them hard and then they draw on them with wax pens and dip them in bowls of bad-smelling colored stuff that gets spilled somewhere and ruins at least one child's T-shirt. To make the eggs all different colors.

By now, our cultural lesson and the running interpretation had drawn an enlarged crowd. And its members were packing in, waiting to hear the point of all this.

They color the eggs?

Yes, yes color them.

Why are they colored?

Well, uh, it's pretty probably.

What colors do you make these chicken eggs?

No specific color really. Just all kinds of springtime colors -- greens and yellows and pink. This required reminders about spring meaning the end of winter to a tropical crowd whose seasons were measured by the heat of the rains.

What do the people do with these eggs?

Well, they put them in little baskets lined with fake grass.

That's it?

Well, we continued, slower now, hearing this increasingly bizarre tale emerging from our own mouth.

And in the morning, we said, the parents, uh, tell the children that a giant rabbit sneaked into their house during the night and hid the chicken eggs all over.

Profound silence.

Before translation, these details were repeated back for verification.

A giant rabbit? 

Well, you see, it's just a story. The parents actually hide the eggs. They just tell the children the Easter Bunny hid them.

Translation. Dead silence. Stunned silence. Very polite. But very dead. Long time.

An elder in the back had a question. How big are American rabbits?

Well, no, see, they're the same size as rabbits everywhere else. It's just a story. Nobody's ever actually seen the Easter Bunny. But I imagine he'd need to be big enough to hide the eggs. In the story. That the parents tell. To the children. For fun. Every year.

More silence.

And why do the parents tell the children this lie?

See, it's a game, you see. It's not really lying. Well, I guess it is. But it's for fun. Then the children get all excited and run around and find most of the eggs and put them in their basket. With the fake grass.

Continued silence. 

A question: Are they always chicken eggs?

Yes. Yes, pretty much always chicken eggs. Never heard of any other kind, actually. Except candy eggs. Oh, we forgot. So the excited children run around looking for the hidden chicken eggs and the youngster with the most chicken eggs wins.

Wins what?

Nothing really. It's just a game.

Then what?

Well, uh, usually the children get lots of candy. That's the candy you were asking about. They even have chocolate rabbits.

Chocolate rabbits?

Yes, chocolate rab...no, no, not chocolate rabbits. But candy rabbits made out of chocolate. Rabbit-shaped chocolates. And eggs, chocolate eggs.

Chocolate eggs?

Well, not real chocolate eggs. But egg-shaped chocolates. Like the rabbits. But there are no real rabbits. None at all. Just pretend bunnies. The candy's real. And the colored chicken eggs are real. But the Easter Bunny isn't.

Then what?

Well, many people get dressed in their best clothes and go to church and perhaps a restaurant and that's pretty much it.

What happens to the eggs?

The eggs? Well, uh, they go in the refrigerator and end up in school lunches every day for several weeks. And the family dog finds the missed eggs eventually. Yup. That's pretty much it.

All this was dutifully translated.

And the crowd stared hard at the storyteller from this strange, exotic land called America. And the storyteller smiled and decided then and there to let someone else on another day tell these newcomers the tale of the fat man with the magic sleigh who comes down something called a chimney.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo: (Easter Bunny on break); U.S. Navy (Vietnamese refugee tent city Guam 1975); The White House (Official Obama green Easter egg).

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