Four years ago, my husband Tony and I had the privilege of celebrating Easter twice: first in Germany, then one week later, in Jordan.
This story is about our experience of Easter with our extended family in the southern German state of Bavaria in April 2012. We stayed with them for 11 days. During that time, they showed us many of Bavaria’s historic and revered sites. They also invited us to share in their family’s Easter traditions. In so doing, we learnt much about the religious heritage and culture – and the food – of the people of Bavaria.
In another post I will share how we celebrated Easter in Jordan the following week in April 2012.
Easter (Ostern in German) is an important religious and cultural festival in Germany.
Bavaria, Germany’s largest state, is famous internationally for its beer and wine festivals (especially Munich’s Oktoberfest), Christmas markets and the Bayreuth music festival.
What is not so well-known are Bavaria’s rich Christian heritage and customs, maintained and respected by its people, the majority of which are Roman Catholic.
Bavaria (Bayern in German) boasts numerous churches and monasteries, centuries old.
Many of these are tourist attractions. But they are much more than that. These buildings and sites are still revered places of worship and/or pilgrimage for believers, witness to the deeply held Christian faith of the Bavarian people.
Some of these historic churches were severely damaged during Allied air raids during World War II, and have been painstakingly and lovingly restored to their former glory.
One example is Munich’s landmark cathedral (Dom), die Frauenkirche (Cathedral Church of our Lady), built between 1468 and 1488 in late Gothic style. With its signature 98 metre high twin “onion” towers, the building rises above Munich’s old town skyline. It is huge: It was built to accommodate 20,000 worshippers! After the war, it was extensively rebuilt, in stages, with repairs finally completed in 1994.
Another example is Nuremburg’s St Sebaldus Church. A huge Gothic building with twin towers, it is Nuremburg’s oldest church. Built in the 13th century as a Roman Catholic Church, it became a Lutheran Church in 1525 following the Reformation. The church was repeatedly bombed between January and April 1945, and badly damaged. It was rebuilt during the 1950s. On our visit to this church on the Tuesday after Easter, we were inspired and greatly moved as we became aware of the extent of the restoration project. St Sebaldus Church is a great testimony to the faith, determination and courage of the Christian community of Nuremburg.
Most of Bavaria’s monasteries are well preserved and still inhabited by members of their original religious order.
We visited one such monastery at the beginning of Holy Week (the week before Easter Sunday): Frauenwörth, located on “die Fraueninsel” (The Women’s Island) in the Chiemsee (a large freshwater lake). The monastery church, with its iconic bell tower, was consecrated in 782 AD. The small island, with a total surface area of just 12 hectares, is still home to an active Benedictine convent of about 30 nuns. No cars are permitted on the island; one walks everywhere. Besides the monastery, there are about 50 houses and 250 inhabitants on the island. The monastery covers about one-third of its area.
During our visit to Fraueninsel, we strolled the circumference of the island, soaking up its serenity and natural beauty. We visited the restored monastery church, which is open to the public, and the Klosterladen (Convent Book and Gift Shop), which is operated by the nuns.
At the bookshop, Tony found a DVD of Handel’s “Messiah“, which he purchased, with much glee. Tony loves Handel’s “Messiah”! For more than 2 years he had been searching for a high-quality recording of this English-language oratorio.
George Frideric Handel was born in Halle, Germany, but spent most of his life in England. He composed the music for “Messiah” in 1741 to accompany Charles Jennens’ text, extracts from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. “Messiah” focusses on Jesus’ birth and ministry (Part 1), Jesus’ death and resurrection (Part 2) and the final resurrection (Part 3).
Handel’s “Messiah” was first performed in Dublin on April 13, 1742, 19 days after Easter, the time of year where its message properly belongs!
The people of Bavaria have a number of symbols and traditions associated with Easter, some unfamiliar to us (Australians).
One is the “Easter Lamb”, a rich madeira cake baked in a mold tin, in the shape of a lamb. The cake is shared by families, traditionally, on Easter Sunday. We ate our Easter lamb cake during Holy Week. We laughed, because our family’s “Easter Lamb” had a little accident, a bump on its nose!
I loved this symbol so much that when we visited Regensburg on Easter Saturday, I bought an Easter lamb mold cake tin to bring home to Australia, so I could make my own “Easter Lamb” the following year!
In the New Testament, John the Baptist is recorded as saying of Jesus: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). In fact, Part 2 of Handel’s “Messiah”, which focuses on Jesus’ death and resurrection, begins with the choir singing these words from John’s gospel.
Also, in the last book of the Bible, Jesus is referred to as “the lamb who was slain” (Revelation 5:12).
Whether one is a Christian or not, Easter is still a special time of the year for the German people.
In the northern hemisphere, Easter coincides with the advent of Spring, when deciduous trees and shrubs burst into life, budding or sprouting their new greenery. Flowers in garden beds or pots add splashes of vibrant colour to streets, town squares, parks and gardens. After a long, cold Winter, this is a time of renewal, anticipation and excitement.
Everywhere in Bavaria, in the city or countryside, in public spaces or home gardens, we observed the “Easter egg tree” (Ostereierbaum in German). This is not a new species of tree, but an outdoor tree or bush, or cut branches brought inside, decorated with colourful dyed eggs hung on the branches. All the eggs are mouth-blown (leaving just the shell). Some of the eggs we saw, especially those hung indoors, were adorned with beads, ribbon, lace or crochet. This custom, unfamiliar in Australia, is centuries old and very popular in Germany.
Eggs (Eier in German) are one of the main symbols of Easter in Germany.
Not chocolate eggs in shiny brightly-coloured foil wrapping or in extravagantly presented box sets (as is common in the shops in Australia leading up to Easter), but real eggs. In fact, during our stay in Bavaria during Easter in 2012, we didn’t see chocolate eggs at all. We saw the odd “bunny” or two in public places, but these were not included in our family’s Easter celebrations.
The German tradition of decorating and giving eggs at Easter is centuries old. It was initially a pagan practice associated with Spring festivities; in pre-Christian times, the egg symbolized fertility and new life. As a Christian symbol, the egg is meant to remind believers of Jesus’ resurrection, which we celebrate on Easter Sunday.
It is common for German families to get together at Eastertime.
As in most Western Christian countries, a four-day long weekend, including two national holidays (Good Friday and Easter Monday), gives families an opportunity to meet, share traditional food and drink, give gifts (including real Easter eggs) and, if Christians, worship together. Even those who don’t go to church regularly attend church services at Easter. Churches in Germany, as in Australia, are often packed at Eastertime.
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In a little village about 30 minutes’ drive from Munich, Good Friday dawned cold, misty and overcast. The outside temperature was 5 degrees Celcius, so Tony and I were more than happy to stay inside. Our host, Michael, asked us to help him in the kitchen. He hadn’t told us what it was he wanted us to do: That was a surprise.
On the stove in a large saucepan half-full of water were two dozen hard-boiled eggs, cooling. On the kitchen bench, Michael had placed everything he needed to colour and decorate the eggs: cups, spoons, a knife, scissors, stockings, food colouring, and ferns, leaves and flowers freshly picked from the garden.
It was now plain to us that Michael was going to show us how he prepares the Easter eggs, and we were to be his helpers.
Michael told us that the hard-boiled eggs, along with speck (a type of bacon), bread, salt, apples and a candle, will be taken to church on Easter Sunday to be blessed by the priest, then brought home to be eaten by the family (the candle excepted, of course!).
Tony and I watched in awe as Michael worked with the eggs. It was a painstaking task, but fun and fascinating to watch. He bedecked some of the eggs with leaf motifs, others with flowers. He laboured happily, with our assistance, for 2 hours. He told us he did this task religiously every year – it was part of the annual Easter ritual for his family.
At 2.30 pm, it was still cold when we left the house to take the short walk up the hill to the Parish Church. The mist had cleared, the sun was peeping through the retreating clouds and patches of blue sky were visible. The Good Friday service was scheduled to commence at 3.00 pm, and we arrived with time to spare.
The service was conducted in the little convent chapel adjacent to the main church building. About 40 people attended, in addition to the nuns from the convent, filling the small space. It was a German-language Holy Communion service. Given that Tony and I speak and understand very little German, what we really appreciated about this service was the narration and dramatization of the entire account of Jesus’ arrest through to Jesus’s burial, as recorded in John’s Gospel. It was awesome – a very moving experience.
During the liturgy, instead of altar bells, the attendants used wooden clappers, which when shaken made a knocking noise. Using the clappers is a Good Friday tradition, we were told.
After the service, Tony and I went into the main church, to take a look. It was very beautifully adorned – restrained, not overdone. The altar was decked with lots of greenery, in preparation for Easter Sunday services, we were told.
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During Lent, the 40 day-period from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, many Roman Catholics in Bavaria refrain from eating certain foods such as chocolate, meat, eggs or milk, and from drinking alcohol, as a way of acknowledging Jesus’ passion and self-sacrifice. Easter Sunday marks the end of Lent: It is a time to celebrate, and all manner of food and drink is permissible.
Bavaria is known for its great food – soups with dumplings (Knödeln), meat and potato dishes, sauerkraut, sausages, cheese, pretzels, apple strudel and much more. During our 11 days in Bavaria in 2012, we sampled many examples of Bavarian cuisine.
We soon became aware that many of the Easter traditions and customs of the Bavarian people involve food and drink.
On Good Friday evening, Michael prepared a traditional Bavarian meal of whole fish, potatoes and silverbeet. According to Roman Catholic custom, fish may be eaten on Good Friday, but no meat.
On Easter Sunday, our extended family began the day with a special breakfast. In pride of place on the neatly-set table were the two dozen coloured and decorated hard-boiled eggs, bread, speck, salt and apples (all of which had been blessed by the priest) and coffee. The Easter candle was lit. When everyone gathered, there was lots of noisy chatter, laughter and fun, and amongst the younger ones cracking the shells of the hard-boiled eggs on one another’s foreheads! Apparently, cracking the shells of red-coloured hard-boiled eggs is a tradition that symbolizes the opening of Jesus’ tomb on Easter Day.
The family continued their Easter Sunday celebrations by dining for lunch at a traditional Bavarian restaurant. Tony ordered baked venison with a dumpling, cranberry sauce and a mixed salad; I ordered grilled fish with potatoes. Tony and I don’t drink alcohol, but most of the other adults in our party enjoyed a beer or two with their meal. Bavarians love their beer.
On Easter Sunday, after lunch, Tony and I and a couple of family members took a boat trip down the River Danube, from Kelheim to Weltenburg. The 40-minute scenic trip took us through the Danube Gorge, “The Weltenburger Enge”, the narrowest (and deepest) part of the River Danube, just 18 metres wide, with steep limestone cliffs rising from the water’s edge either side.
Our destination was Weltenburg Abbey, the oldest Benedictine monastery in Bavaria. Founded in 620 AD by Columbian monks, it has been a Benedictine monastery since the 8th century. Weltenburg Abbey was the missionary centre of the region. The monastery is still operational today, the monks responsible for two parishes and active in farming and adult education.
On arriving at our destination, we disembarked and strolled up the pathway by the river to the abbey courtyard. Majestic Baroque buildings line the huge courtyard. At one end is a restaurant and beer garden; at the other end the abbey church. Although plain on the outside, the abbey church has a highly ornate interior, typical of the late Baroque period. It was built by the Asam Brothers between 1716 and 1739, and dedicated to Saint George. It is still used as a place of worship today.
The site also houses the Weltenburg Abbey Brewery, which is possibly the oldest monastic brewery in the world (dating from the 11th century). The brewery is known for its nine different varieties of beer. As teetotallers, Tony and I didn’t appreciate the significance of Weltenburg’s beer-making pedigree. However, we realized that breweries such as this, with their long history and monastic connection, are highly prized by beer-loving Bavarians.
A few days earlier, during Holy Week, Tony and I had dined with our hosts at the Andechs Monastery (Kloster Andechs) restaurant. The restaurant is attached to the monastery brewery, which is the largest business enterprise of the Benedictine monks of St Boniface in Munich and Andechs and the major source of funding for the monks’ pastoral, cultural and social commitments.
On the beer coasters in the Andechs Monastery restaurant, we noted the phrase “Genuß für Leib & Seele” which our hosts translated as “Enjoyment for body and soul”.
The phrase, “Enjoyment for body and soul”, encapsulates what Tony and I learnt about Bavarian Easter traditions and customs, and about Bavarian religion and culture generally, during the 11 days we spent with our extended family in Bavaria at Eastertime in 2012. We concluded that:
The Easter traditions and customs many Bavarian Christian families maintain are intended for their good: to bless each person who participates in them, and to keep the faithful strong and healthy, both physically and spiritually.