Germany, Easter and Holy Week in

Germany, Easter and Holy Week in

Over the centuries the German folk imagination has produced much Easter lore and numerous related customs. Many writers believe that the American Easter Bunny got its start in old German folklore concerning an Easter hare.

Palm Sunday

Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, which Germans call Palm- sonntag. Palm Sunday processions once marked the opening of Holy Week in Germany. At the rear of these processions came the palmesel, or "palm donkey," a wooden donkey on wheels with a carved figure of Jesus sitting on its back. Sometimes, in lieu of a palm donkey, the local priest might sometimes ride a real donkey at the tail end of the procession. The parade of churchgoers crossed through the village and circled the church before entering for Sunday morning services. This custom inspired Germans to describe those who are late to church or late in getting up on Palm Sunday as "palm donkeys."

Palm branches are an important Palm Sunday symbol, carried in religious processions in many different countries. Since few palm trees grow in Germany willow, birch, box, yew, hazel, and holly branches are used instead. In some places people decorate these branches. For example, in the Black Forest region people stripped branches and then festooned them with pussy willows, hearts, crosses, greenery, and ribbons. In Bavaria a traditional Palm Sunday decoration required twelve different kinds of branches to be joined together to make a "tree." Decorated with glass beads, the trees were brought to church to be blessed and later set up in fields where folklore insisted that they increased the chance of a good harvest. A decoration made of tree branches and often shaped like a cross, called a gemeindepalm or "parish palm," stands in many German churches on Palm Sunday.

According to German folk tradition, "palm" branches that have been blessed in church have special powers. In some places people brought them home to keep ill fortune away from the household. In other locales tradition required more of a person. There people had to eat pussy willow buds to acquire their blessing. Another old tradition recommended scattering twigs from these Palm Sunday branches across one's fields as a means of turning away lightning strikes.

Crooked Wednesday

Germans sometimes refer to Wednesday of Holy Week as "Crooked Wednesday" (see also Spy Wednesday). The name recalls the Christian folk tradition identifying Wednesday as the day on which Judas turned Jesus over to the authorities.

Green Thursday

Germans call the Thursday of Holy Week, Gründonnerstag, or "Green Thursday" (see also Maundy Thursday). Some commentators believe, however, that Germans originally named the day "Crying Thursday" or "Mourning Thursday." They argue that the original name was based on an old medieval word, greinen, meaning "to cry." Eventually it slurred into grün, meaning "green." Another set of commentators believe that the name Green Thursday refers to the old custom of admitting penitents, who bore green branches as a sign of their joy, back into church on this day (for more on penitence, see Repentance). Some researchers believe that this custom gave rise to an old Latin name for the day, Dies viridium or "Day of the Green Ones."

German tradition calls for eating green foods, such as kale, spinach, cress, leeks, chives, and herbs, on Maundy Thursday. Folklore suggested that following this tradition brought good luck for the coming year. America's Pennsylvania Dutch, descendents of German immigrants, also followed the tradition of eating green foods on Maundy Thursday. In some parts of Germany people also eat "Judas ears," honey-filled rolls, on this day. Another old Green Thursday folk tradition declared it the proper day to bathe, do laundry, and clean the house in preparation for Easter. Indeed in some parts of Europe, the day was known as "Clean Thursday."

Good Friday

Germans have two names for Good Friday. The Old High German word kara, meaning "care," forms the basis of the name Karfreitag, Care Friday or Friday of Mourning. Stiller Freitag, another name for the day, means Quiet Friday. Many Germans observe this solemn holiday as a day of fasting. Good Friday has also long been associated with the performance of German Passion plays, folk plays dramatizing the events leading up to Jesus' crucifixion. Though few survived into the late twentieth century, the famous Passion play at Oberammergau in Bavaria still takes place every ten years.

Roman Catholic churches do not ring their bells on Good Friday. An old German custom invited lay people to replace the sound of church bells with wooden rattles, an invitation that many took up with gusto. In past times the noisy clatter of these rattles, instead of the chiming of church bells, called people to church services on this day. This custom inspired the people of Swabia to describe local loudmouths as having "a mouth like a Good Friday rattle."

German superstitions associated with Good Friday include the belief that it is a particularly good day to sow flowers. Another superstition affirms that hair cut on Good Friday will grow back luxuriously. One more bit of folklore associated with Good Friday teaches that if one cools hot iron in water on this day, the water will have the power to cure warts. Yet another old Good Friday folk tradition frowned on the drinking of alcohol, an abstinence which served to remind those who observed it that Jesus thirsted as he hung on the cross. In a similar vein folk custom forbade the slaughtering of animals on Good Friday. What's more, blacksmiths refused to touch hammer and nails on this day, remembering the awful purpose to which these had been put on the first Good Friday.

Holy Saturday

In some parts of Germany children once gathered to "hunt Judas" on Holy Saturday (see also Judas, Burning of). In Westphalia boys armed with wooden rattles performed this task rather noisily near midnight on Holy Saturday, whereas in Silesia children drove the local bell ringer, who played the role of Judas, out of town on Easter Sunday morning. Children also busied themselves in gathering wood for the Easter bonfire, a task which many began earlier in the week (see also Easter Fires). German folklore advised that the smoke from these bonfires improved the eyes of the elderly, who were therefore encouraged to attend these smoky events. Afterwards people brought the cinders and ashes home in the belief that they could ward misfortune away from the homestead, keep mice out of the fields, and protect cattle from disease.

Easter Sunday

Many egg-related games and customs are associated with Easter Sunday in Germany. In past centuries, courting couples used to exchange fancy Easter eggs as a token of their love. Another old custom encouraged children to go from house to house on Easter morning, singing for dyed eggs and fancy beads (gebildbrote). Today some German children prepare for the day by building a nest for the Easter Bunny to lay his eggs in. In some parts of Germany, however, a different kind of animal brings candies and dyed eggs to children. In Upper Bavaria the cockerel makes these deliveries, in Franconia and Thuringia it is the fox, in Bad Salzungen in the state of Hesse it's the crane, and in Hanover the cuckoo. Sometimes children make a gift of a special egg to their parents, writing on it a promise to do some household task that would please their mother and father. Easter egg hunts also take place on this day, as well as egg-rolling and eggtapping games.

Many Germans go to church on Easter Sunday morning, although fewer attend Easter services than Christmas services. In past centuries pastors entertained the Easter morning congregation with funny sermons in order to elicit laughter, thereby sustaining the good humor viewed as appropriate to this celebration. This custom later came to be seen as irreverent and so disappeared.

German Easter decorations feature fresh spring flowers, especially the daffodil, and willow branches. Egg trees, branches or actual trees decorated with Easter eggs, also appear around Easter time. German immigrants brought this custom with them to the United States, where many Americans not of German descent adopted it as well. Special cakes and breads baked in the shape of a lamb often appear on German Easter tables. As Easter approaches, bakeries and confectioner's shops proudly display these symbols of the season. The lamb usually carries a religious banner bearing the image of a cross or lamb, while a ribbon and bell circles the lamb's neck.

An old piece of German folklore, also found in other European countries, teaches that Easter water confers health and beauty, as well as a certain magic. One old folk charm for beauty required a girl to rise early on Easter, fetch a bucket of fresh water, and bathe in it - all without saying a word. A similarly constructed Easter Sunday love charm promised girls that if on this day they brought a bucket of spring water home without looking back, talking, or being seen, they could see the face of their future love reflected in the water's surface. Another old wives' tale told that for a single instant between Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter morning, rivers ran with wine in honor of the Resurrection. Farmers wishing to confer an Easter baptism, or Ostertaufe, on their crops collected fresh running water on Easter Sunday morning and sprinkled it over their fields, a practice which folklore suggested could enhance the harvest.

Another collection of German Easter lore concerns the power of the sun on Easter morning. An old luck charm advises that if one stands by an east-facing window at sunrise with an elder branch in hand, the first rays of the Easter sun will bring one luck. Another folk belief, common throughout Europe, suggests that the sun dances for joy on Easter morning. In past times people would rise early on Easter Sunday to greet the joyous holiday at sunrise and to perhaps catch a glimpse of this marvel (see also Sunrise Service).

Further Reading

Hudgins, Sharon. "A Special Flock." The World and I 16, 4 (April 2000): 134. Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter the World Over. Philadelphia, PA: Chilton Book Company, 1971. Russ, Jennifer M. German Festivals and Customs. London, England: Oswald Wolff, 1982. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. Festivals of Western Europe. 1958. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1994. Thonger, Richard. A Calendar of German Customs. London, England: Oswald Wolff, 1966.

Web Sites

"Easter," a brief article on German Easter customs posted by the Germany embassy in Ottawa, Canada:

The following searchable site offers a range of information on German culture:
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002