Story by Bianca Sowders
ANSBACH, Germany (March 18, 2021) – As winter slowly loses its grip on the Franconian landscape, people are getting ready for spring. Mops and dust cloths are wielded for an 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 sills and balcony railings to freshen up. Bushes, trees and hedges are given a fresh trim before 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 and 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.
School children 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 holidays.
Based on the first full moon in spring, the dates of Easter varies every year; Good Friday, or Karfreitag in German, and the Monday after Easter, called Ostermontag, are observed as federal holidays in Germany. Shops and businesses are closed on those holidays, but shoppers will crowd the stores on the Saturday in between to stock up on groceries. Public transportation schedules will change to reflect holiday hours.
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 to tour the villages for Osterbrunnen. 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.
The Easter holiday season in Germany starts with the beginning of Holy Week on Palmsonntag, the Sunday before Easter. A favorite pastime for children during Holy Week is to color emptied 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) is the traditional day for spring cleaning and decorating.
Fresh branches, cut from 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 the consumer safe for the rest of the year.
Local bakeries offer a sweet bread with raisins and almonds called Osterbrot. It is often enjoyed with butter and sweet jam.
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 call villagers to church by walking around with “Ratschen,” wooden noise-makers that look like a football rattle.
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.
Some churches and communities light a bonfire Saturday or Sunday night, called Osterfeuer. 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 often 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.
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 continue 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 people bang hard-boiled eggs together at the tips; the winner with the undamaged egg gets to keep the other’s egg.
[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. Most parts of this article have been published previously.]