Story and photos by Bianca Sowders
ANSBACH, Germany (March 8, 2016) – Easter Sunday is the oldest and most important holiday of Christianity, and most cultures in the world – including that of Franconia in Germany – celebrate the holiday in distinct ways.
Based on the first full moon in spring, the date of Easter varies every year, and in Germany the Friday before Easter, “Good Friday,” and the Monday after are observed as federal holidays. Shops and businesses are closed on holidays; shoppers will crowd the stores on the Saturday in between (March 26) to stock up on groceries.
This year Good Friday takes place March 25, Easter Sunday takes place March 27, and Easter Monday takes place March 28.
School children normally get to enjoy a two-week break starting the week prior to Easter. This gives parents and children an opportunity to celebrate the local traditions and prepare for the holiday.
As winter slowly loses its grip on the Franconian landscape, people are getting ready for spring. Mops and dust cloths are wielded for annual spring cleaning, windows and doors are thrown open to air out the homes. Pillows, blankets and rugs are hanging in the sunshine from window frames and balcony railings to freshen up. Bushes, trees and hedges are given a fresh trim before the song birds move in to build their nests.
Spring and Easter season in Franconia is a time for renewal and awakening just like everywhere else; the locals follow ancient rituals and celebrate the beginning of the new season with some old, treasured traditions. Many homeowners will hang colorful eggs on their yet leafless front yard bushes. As in many other countries, the prominent symbols of Easter in Germany are eggs and the bunny.
A few weeks before Easter many Franconian communities adorn their well or fountain with fresh spring greens and hand-painted colorful eggs. The origins of the “Osterbrunnen” tradition can be traced back to the Fränkische Schweiz (“Franconian Switzerland”), a region located between the cities of Bamberg, Bayreuth and Forchheim, from where it spread to other areas. Tourists flock to the Fränkische Schweiz as participants of Osterbrunnen tours. Hikers and bikers combine their outings with stops at different locations to admire the detailed and artful arrangements on the wells and fountains. The tourist offices of the region offer different routes and locations for visitors. For a sample list of Osterbrunnen villages, visit “Fraenkische-Schweiz Osterbrunnen list” or “Osterbrunnen list”
The Easter holiday season in Germany starts with the beginning of Holy Week on Palmsonntag (Palm Sunday, March 20), the Sunday before Easter. A favorite pastime for children during Holy Week is to blow out the egg yolk and color eggs to decorate budding tree branches in a vase or to dye hard-boiled chicken eggs for the breakfast table on Easter morning. Gründonnerstag (Holy or Maundy Thursday, March 24) is the classic day for spring cleaning and decorating. Cut branches of bushes and trees are brought inside, put in a vase and decorated with colorful eggs. Traditional food on “Green Thursday” includes spinach, kale, cress, leek, chives and green herbs, based on an old belief that eating green-colored food that day would keep one safe for the rest of the year.
Easter markets take place all over the region, sometimes for a few weeks, sometimes just for a day. One of the longer-lasting and larger ones is the Easter market in Nürnberg, located downtown on the Hauptmarkt, scheduled for March 11 through 28 (closed Good Friday, March 25). Smaller markets take place in many communities, where vendors typically offer Easter decorations, household products, wood and ceramic crafts, curtains, clothes, books and more.
Another tradition is the “Osterkrippe” or “Passionskrippe,” an Easter diorama with scenes depicting different stations in the passion story of Jesus. The chapel on Staffelberg in Bad Staffelstein houses a life-size “Osterkrippe” display, which is more than 250 years old and attracts thousands of pilgrims every year. Bamberg’s “Krippenfreunde” show an exhibition of “Osterkrippen,” small scenarios or dioramas similar to the Christmas nativity scenes, in the Maternkapelle March 19 through April 4 (Krippenfreunde Bamberg). For the longest time “Passionskrippen” were displayed in churches during lent season, but the tradition got lost with wars raging in Europe in the 20th century. The Bamberger Krippenfreunde were the first to revive the tradition in the 1990s.
Good Friday, a nationwide holiday called “Karfreitag” in German, is also known as “Quiet Friday” as church bells are not rung until Sunday; instead groups of young people walk around wielding “Ratschen,” noise-makers sometimes looking like a football rattle, calling the villagers to church.
Fasting rules on Good Friday used to be much stricter than today. Alcohol and meat were strictly forbidden. Many families still eat fish on Good Friday. In Franconia the regional carp is a popular Good Friday dish.
Many communities conduct a procession, reenacting the suffering of Jesus. Neunkirchen am Brand (near Forchheim) and Lohr am Main are upholding a tradition from the 17th century by carrying life-size Jesus statues through town. The processions are not considered a festivity, but offer a chance for quiet reflection for participants and audience.
Often churches and communities light a bonfire Saturday or Sunday night. Sacred oils are burned in the fire, and the flame is used to light the Easter candles. The villages often compete for the largest wood pile and brightest fire, and in rural areas it is necessary to guard the piled-up wood during the nights prior to prevent an untimely kindling by rivals from neighboring villages.
The Osterhase (Easter bunny) brings eggs and sweets on Easter Sunday to the children, who have to search for them indoors or outdoors. The Freilandmuseum Bad Windsheim hosts an Easter egg hunt for children on Easter Sunday, March 27, between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., where children can find more than 1,000 hidden eggs and some nests. To learn more about the open-air museum in Bad Windsheim, visit Freilandmuseum.
A large Easter dinner is typically served on Sunday. Lamb, rabbit or poultry are popular dishes. An ‘Osterlamm,’ a lamb-shaped cake, is often baked for Sunday. The Easter celebrations are continued with an additional federal holiday on Monday, which is often used for short day trips and visits to other family members.
In some towns residents meet for Easter games, such as “Eierhodeln,” a game where hard-boiled eggs are rolled down a track made of two rakes, or “Eierwalchen,” a game where the hard-boiled eggs are hurled down a hill as fast and undamaged as possible. Another popular Easter game is “Eierpicken,” a simple game where two hard-boiled eggs are banged together at the tips; the winner with the undamaged egg gets to keep the other’s egg.
For more current Easter events and activities in the region, visit “Was ist los in Franken?” in the Ansbach Hometown Herald or check into the Facebook site of USAG Ansbach Community Relations.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: The author of this article was born and raised in the region of Franconia; information about many of the above cited traditions is based on personal experience.]