SALT LAKE CITY — With Easter coming this Sunday, there are plenty of costumed Easter Bunnies at malls and shops. But have you ever wondered who's behind the mask?
“I have one little girl who comes every year faithfully to see me,” Harding said in a recent phone interview. “Last year, I got a new bunny suit where I'm a girl and not a boy bunny, and she told her mom that she knew it was the same bunny inside.
“She always brings me flowers or a little card that she's drawn for me or something. All the little kids do — it's great. They're a lot of fun. They're never mean. It's just pure innocence and the belief in something bigger, I guess.”
As a former Easter party organizer, Harding was in need of a bunny character and decided to get a suit herself. For 30 years since then, Harding has been playing the role of the Easter Bunny at malls, schools, private parties and grocery stores. While Harding isn't a full-time bunny — she’s the owner of the Commercial Driver's Licence driving school Utah Trucking Academy — she continues to “do what she (does),” she said, for the joy of it.
“Bunny never talks,” Harding explained. “I shake my head and interact. I've had kids that are really afraid of me, so I just sit down on the floor and scrunch closer to them, so I'm at their level. And then they come and sit with me.”
Harding's two costumes, custom-made by “a gentleman in Wisconsin,” she said, have seen more than just ordinary shops and malls. Putting the costumes to good use, Harding has visited schools for the disabled and, with the assistance of her daughter — “my mini-bunny” — reads to young kids in elementary schools.
“I've had blind kids that can feel the bunny,” Harding said. “Every little child touches my heart in some way.”
For the most part, a costumed Easter Bunny brings delight to children. But as anyone who has dealt with small children knows, the unpredictable — a giant, clothed rabbit that looks unlike any other worldly creature — can be scary for some kids.
“Some of them run,” Harding said. “If they're 2, they run. If they're babies, they're OK because I'm fluffy and soft and they sleep. At 3, 4, 5, they're really sweet. They're just adorable. When they get to be around 10, they're … skeptical.”
But for the children that Harding does manage to connect with, her loving attitude comes through.
“(A girl’s) mom wanted to take her to have breakfast with the Easter Bunny at the Grand America — and she refused to go because she knew the real Easter Bunny was going to be at Trolley,” Harding said about a young girl who comes to see her every year.
“Even my own granddaughter — she knows it's me. But, she's 5, and last year she told her dad, 'I know grandma came down in the middle of the night and hid everything and then left.'”
America's Easter Bunny tradition likely came over with early German immigrants, according to History.com, whose children would make nests in which a mythological rabbit could leave its colored eggs. The tradition evolved over time to include leaving chocolates and other goodies. Similar to Santa on Christmas — who also travels with presents — the bunny vaguely resembles the original religious intention of the Easter holiday and acts as a bringer of springtime and renewal.
But for those who celebrate Easter differently, Harding said, the bunny costume can come as a surprise.
“Especially at (places like) Trolley Square, I've noticed different cultures that come in. Even adults that have never experienced the culture, seeing their reactions (is incredible),” Harding said. “I adopted a (child) from Japan, and she's never heard of the Easter Bunny. To this day, she doesn’t know I'm the bunny in the suit. We've kept it from her.”
As the owner of a semitruck driving school, Harding may come off as an unlikely Easter Bunny. But it turns out, the gig has proven to have transferable skills.
“My day job is like dealing with preschoolers — so my bunny job transfers over to dealing with adult men,” Harding joked.
What lead Harding to commit to this 30-year gig as a costumed bunny? Among other characters that Harding has portrayed, including Mrs. Claus and the Cat in the Hat, the Easter Bunny holds a special place in her memories.Comment on this story
“When I was little, I just always loved Easter," she said. "I remember waking up and seeing a little basket on the table and the eggs were hidden," Harding recalled. "I was the youngest by long way from my brothers, so they let me have the whole day to myself — and (I was) the only girl. It was kind of my day.”
“Now, we do the normal thing (to celebrate) — is that funny or what? I don't do any gigs on Easter because I spend it with my family,” Harding said.
But beyond personal fulfillment, there's a larger purpose behind Harding's bunny costume.
“I think what’s important about the job is giving faith back to humans," she said. "You know, that not everything is bad and horrible. That there's some happiness, some light. … Everything doesn't have to be so serious.”