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Sunday 12 April 2009

A moveable feast

Easter traditions in Germany, 2009

The Easter festival - Pagan/Christian rituals

For the past twenty years I have been moving between Budapest and Norwich to celebrate Easter. These are my two favourite places to celebrate my favourite time of the year, either with my own family or with those whom I consider my second families.

This year I am in neither of these cities, I am actually in Germany for the Easter festival, for the very first time, I believe, since I moved here in 1993.

Not only am I in Germany but I am staying in a small village with very strong Catholic traditions, though it is difficult to separate the Pagan from the Christian customs at this time of the year.

Eggs and hares

The Easter eggs had been painted ready to take their place on the Easter table on Easter Sunday morning, or ready to be hidden in nests by the “Easter Hare” in the garden, for the younger children in the family to find.

The “nests” probably symbolising the flat “form” on the earth where a hare raises its young. Why the eggs are decorated is uncertain. Perhaps as symbol of the coming of spring, or a fertility symbol from Pagan times. No one is sure.

Here, as in England, Lent begins after Shrove Tuesday the day by which all the fat in the household has to be consumed. This also means all dairy products including eggs, which may not be eaten again until Easter Sunday. Throughout Lent the hens do not automatically stop laying eggs, those laid over the five weeks would have traditionally been hard boiled so as not to be wasted. These eggs were then decorated on Holy Saturday to be eaten on Sunday morning, symbolising the end of fasting.

This custom continues all over the world and here in Northern Germany (where I am spending this Easter) we were decorating our eggs on Saturday too. This morning they adorned a very springlike breakfast table.

In some areas of Germany, especially in Bavaria where I live, painted eggs are hung outside on a tree beside the front door of the house. In Hungary twigs for the “Easter tree” are brought indoors a few days before, so that buds can begin to show signs of green. These will then be decorated with small, painted wooden eggs.


Last night for the first time I experienced the "Easter fire". The young men of the village spent Holy Saturday driving tractors around the area, collecting the discarded Christmas trees and garden rubbish from the neighbourhood. They also work with the local forester to clear unwanted saplings from the surrounding plantations and with all this debris an enormous mound is built on the hill above the village. This year it stood about nine metres high and thirty metres long, and from a distance it looked as if a new hill had emerged from the landscape.

At 8 o’clock on Saturday evening the fire was sending flames high into the sky, pretty sparks flying across the surrounding fields. Crowds began gathering, drawn by the flames. Villagers stood around the burning mountain their faces glowing in the warmth, friends met and chatted for a few hours in the orange darkness, enjoying a completely different festival to Christmas. It is because of this special atmosphere that I prefer to return to my family and friends at Easter, no presents, no pomp, no parties, just family and friends together for a quiet time.

The huge fire is built on the hill to celebrate the bringing of new light into the church by the lighting of the Paschal candle, a flame being brought from the fire down into the village church. In the early morning mass held after the Easter vigil this flame is used to light the Paschal candle which will burn throughout Penticost, for the next seven weeks.

I hope that I have got this story right!

As was the case with all the other questions that I asked about the Easter traditions, I received many different answers from the locals. When I asked about the origin of the Easter eggs and the painting of them, and then the hare distributing them, it was all a bit of a mish-mash. To me the fire ritual appears more Pagan than anything else, the painted eggs could symbolise fertility or could have been a means of keeping children busy during the quiet days of contemplation before Easter Sunday. As there is the glut of hard boiled eggs after five weeks of Lent then this seems a very likely explanation!

One person told me that the fire is lit from the flame of the candle another told it the other way round. The fire lighting the candle seems more likely as the fire is on Saturday and the candle begins burning on Sunday

Someone else told me that the fire is lit to chase away the winter, another indication of how Pagan and Christian rituals have become entwined in all cultures

This year winter went away on its own accord before the coming of Easter, the fire had no need to go chasing!

After months of freezing temperatures and lots of snow we have now been basking in spring sunshine for two whole weeks.

Now ring out the bells

At 5.30 this sunny Sunday morning the church bells began to peel once more. Since Maundy Friday they have been silent, the 7am and the 7pm peels that usually summon the farmers twice daily to and from the fields were not to be heard. Instead the workers needed to rely on the sun (or, these days, on their alarm clocks) to get them to their ploughs on time.

I didn’t get up with the bells, but I enjoyed how the early sun streamed through the window, reminding me of those eternally long summer holidays of childhood when the sun only stopped shining on that first September day when winter uniform was put on for the first day of the autumn term. I tried to leap out of bed as then to get on with all that there is to do in the day. Today I have a holiday, I have time for myself, time to write, time to paint and time to walk in the spring sunshine.

Time to wish everyone a Happy Easter.


Easter traditions -

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