Easter is a religious festival when Christians commemorate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Unlike Christmas Easter is a movable feast. Easter is celebrated on a Sunday between 22 March and 25 April. In comparison with Christmas the celebrations at Easter are more subdued. Easter is, however, the most important as well as the oldest Christian festival. The importance of Easter is reflected in the fact that all other movable feasts (e.g. Ascension, Pentecost, etc.) depend upon the Easter date.
The English word Easter, as well as the German Ostern, derive from the Old High German ostarun. Ostarun refers to a pagan spring festival and a spring goddess who is called Eostrae in Old English. The pagan reference in the name of this important Christian festival may be surprising, but it indicates how much pagan traditions and customs were incorporated into Christian ones with the advent of Christianity.
In pagan times the year's cycle with its four seasons came to represent life's cycle of birth, growth, maturity and death. Spring, being the time of birth or rebirth, symbolized a new beginning and thus acquired a very positive meaning. Like the Celts, the ancient Germans celebrated the end of winter with spring festivals and various rituals. Christians, however, did not celebrate the rebirth of nature but the rebirth, or rather, the resurrection of Christ.
Interestingly, most of today's Easter traditions can still be divided into those of pagan and those of Christian origin. The Easter bunny and Easter eggs, for instance, are of pagan origin whereas the tradition of fasting before Easter is based on the Bible.
2. Christian Easter Traditions
The Easter period begins on Ash Wednesday which also marks the end of the Carnival season in Germany. In the past, practicing Catholics were supposed to eat neither meat, eggs nor dairy products during this time. Few Catholics observe these rules so strictly now. Most people simply try to avoid sweets and other treats during Lent. Protestantism does not observe any ongoing fasting period like Lent and thus Protestants do not observe these restrictions. They are, however, supposed to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
The sixth Sunday after Ash Wednesday is Palm Sunday (Palmsonntag). It is the beginning of Passiontide, that is the week leading up to Easter. Palm Sunday celebrations are based on the account of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. (John, 12.12.On the next day much people that were come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jersualem. 13.Took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord.). In reference to the story in the Bible palm leaves are blessed and used in the Palm Sunday processions taking place on this day.
Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday is called Gründonnerstag in German. The name derives from greinen which means to wail, to grieve. Maundy Thursday recalls the Last Supper, Jesus' arrest and imprisonment. Although the word Gründonnerstag did not derive from the German word for the color green (grün) a tradition of eating primarily green dishes developed. These are dishes in which the main ingredient is either spinach, kale, or some other green vegetable. In some areas green soups are made from seven or nine different herbs. According to superstitious belief people eating these dishes would remain healthy for the rest of the year. Maundy Thursday is also the day when church bells ring for the last time until Easter Sunday.
Good Friday (Karfreitag) commemorates the death of Jesus Christ. The word derives from the Old High German noun kara (worry, sorrow) and the verb karon (to worry about, to care about). For Protestants, Good Friday is the most important day of the Church year, because they believe that resurrection for mankind was only made possible by and through Jesus' death. Catholic doctrine views things differently and therefore less meaning is attached to this particular day. In former times, when the relationship between the churches in Germany was not as peaceful as it is today, Catholics showed their irreverence for the day by doing their spring cleaning, painting their houses or fertilizing their land. Needless to say the Protestants retaliated in a similar vein on Catholic holidays. (There are 27.6 million Protestants and 27.5 million Roman Catholics living in Germany today.)
In predominantly catholic areas of Germany Good Friday processions (Karfreitagsprozessionen) are often held. Some parishes also invite their members to participate in a Kreuzwegandacht, that is to walk in prayer along a way where the stations of the Cross are marked by wooden crosses. Kreuzwegandachten take place at 3 p.m. as this is said to be the hour of Jesus' death.
Easter Sunday (Ostersonntag) recalls Christ's resurrection and therefore is a day of celebration for Christians. Since eggs were at one time forbidden during Lent they were given as a special treat on Easter Sunday. Many people also eat lamb dishes for dinner. Sometimes housewives bake an elaborate cake in the shape of a lamb or rabbit and offer it to family and friends who come to visit on this day.
Another well-known activity on Easter Sunday is the egg hunt (Eiersuchen). If the weather is fine, parents hide the eggs outside, i.e. in their garden, a park, etc.; if it is too cold the egg hunt is held inside. If several children are participating in the egg hunt their varying ability to spot the (mostly chocolaty) treasures can quickly lead to a major family crisis so parents try to minimize the danger by allocating certain rooms or parts of the garden to different children.
The so called Kreuzritt is a local tradition in eastern Germany. On Easter Sunday Catholic Sorbs (a slavic minority that has been living in Germany for centuries) hold a procession on horseback. The men, who all wear a black jacket and top hat, ride from one village to the next to announce the news of the resurrection. They carry a cross (Kreuz), church flags, and statues with them. Only men can participate in the procession which lasts from late morning or noon until the late afternoon. The size of the eight processions held every year varies. In 1991 the smallest procession had 50, the largest 370 participants. The men ride to their neighboring villages in a big circle. The processions attract huge crowds every Easter and are very popular with the local people. Sorbish men often start to take part in the procession when they are still in school and continue to do so throughout their life. The Kreuzritt is another example of an Easter tradition of pagan origin. During pagan times people used to walk or ride in a big 'magical' circle around their property in spring to ward off harm in the coming year. This tradition was later adapted to Christian belief and was still quite common until the Reformation. Very few regions kept the tradition after the Reformation and none - apart from the Sorbs - until today.
3. Other Traditions and Customs
Some of the best-known Easter traditions, like Easter eggs and Easter bunnies, are pagan traditions. Both the egg and the rabbit are symbols of fertility. During the Middle Ages eggs were used as a means of paying tax and thus of considerable value. Eggs were usually dyed red as a symbol for love or the blood of Christ. The multiple techniques of dyeing and decorating Easter eggs developed from the 17th century onward. The Easter bunny used to be a local tradition before it became a well-known symbol for Easter all over the world. Apparently the bunny was first spotted in the Rhineland Palatinate and Alsace in the 17th century. It became increasingly popular when it started to appear in children' books, but landed its big break in its chocolaty form.
Most Germans still dye some eggs at Easter and often keep nicely decorated ones (bought or homemade) for years. Shortly before Easter people often get some catkins or twigs of forsythia and put them into a vase so that they start blossoming. The twigs are then decorated with Easter eggs and put into the living room. In some areas, where the weather is good enough, people also decorate a shrub or a small tree with Easter eggs.
Although Easter eggs have been popular throughout Europe for a long time, the tradition of dying, etching and generally decorating them is particularly strong in central and eastern Europe. Some decorated eggs, like the ones made in the Marburg region in Hesse, are small works of art. These hand decorated eggs are very difficult to make and require a high degree of skill and workmanship. Since the eggs are not made for consumption they are first boiled until very hard. Then melted beeswax is applied. The script used to decorate them is old Gothic and the patterns are hundreds of years old. Once the wax has been applied the eggs are dipped into a bath of (hot) dye. They have to be taken out at exactly the right time to ensure full coloring of the egg without melting the wax and ruining the pattern. A similar but more elaborate method is used in Poland and the Ukraine. The so called Pisanki eggs are prepared in a very similar way, but dyed several times instead of just once.
The first Sunday after Ash Wednesday is known as Funkensonntag (Sparking Sunday) in some areas of Germany. In these areas big fires are often lit on the day. This tradition is essentially a pagan one and dates back to the ancient Germans ' worship of the sun. The fire, as a symbol for the sun, is supposed to bring on the warmer season and help the seeds to grow.
A similar tradition is that of the Easter fire. These fires, however, are lit on Easter Sunday on the top of mountains. Although the Christian Church tried hard to abolish this pagan custom during the Middle Ages, it survives until this day. When the Church realized it would not succeed in abolishing the custom it incorporated the Easter fire into Christian belief by associating it with the column of fire in the desert (Ex. 13.21; 14.24) and the resurrection of Christ. The ancient Germans lit fires to ward off the gods of storm, thunder and tempest. Both Protestant and Catholics light fires and have kept the tradition to this day. The fact that there is no difference in regions (i.e. denomination) indicates as well that this is indeed a pagan custom. In some places a figure (often made of straw) symbolizing winter was thrown into the fire. In early Christian times this figure was said to symbolize Judas the traitor.
A variation of this tradition can be seen in Hallenberg on Good Friday. Young men walk along the path where the various stations are marked with crosses after dark. Carrying torches all the way they climb a nearby mountain and when they reach the peak they light the Easter fire on top. On the following day the young men of the town meet at 11 p.m. on the market square. Shortly before midnight all the street lights are switched off. When the clock on the church tower has chimed twelve times the townspeople sing an old Easter hymn. Once the song is finished the men make a deafening noise with rattles of all kinds. They then proceed by forming a parade and walk through the streets of the town. Men with torches are followed by others carrying three huge crosses and so called Chinese lantern trees. When the men disperse at the early hours of the morning they usually retreat into one of the local pubs which do not close this night.
Another well-known tradition is the Osterräderlauf at Lüdge. On Easter Sunday giant wooden wheels made of oak are filled with straw. The straw is then lit and the wheels are pushed down a mountain towards a river. The rolling flames are quite spectacular and attract big crowds every year.
On Easter Monday many Easter and Easter egg markets are held all over Germany. The markets offer all kinds of handmade Easter decorations. Often special techniques of decorating Easter eggs are shown.
In a region called the Fränkische Schweiz (north Franconia) people in small towns and villages decorate their wells with flowers, wreaths and colored eggs. This customs dates back to the time when water was relatively scarce in the area and therefore highly treasured. According to superstitious belief, water blessed at Easter had healing effects, protected health and crops, and warded off harm in general.
According to a poll conducted in the mid nineties, the very old and often pagan Easter traditions are still very much kept today. The vast majority of Germans decorate their house at Easter, dye and decorate eggs and hide some for their children. However, only half of the population still attends mass at Easter and even fewer bake an Easter lamb. Generally speaking, northern Germans are less likely to keep up Easter traditions than their southern counterparts. This indicates that for some reason Easter unlike Christmas did not become a national as well as a religious feast. Ultimately it depends largely on the individual family how much they celebrate Easter and which traditions they keep.