How to celebrate Easter like a German
No country in the world does a seasonal celebration quite like Germany - and Easter is no exception. From Easter trees and painted eggs to Good Friday hush and chocolate hunts, here’s our guide to celebrating Easter like a German, and some top tips on where to see the locals in action.
1. Decorate an Easter Tree
If you merrily put up a Christmas tree each year, you’re going to love the German tradition of the Easter Tree, a spray of branches (typically budding fruit tree boughs) hung with pretty decorations like hand-blown and painted eggs.
The most famous specimen of this custom was the Saalfeld Easter Egg Tree in Thuringia. Every year between 1965 and 2015, a married couple lovingly decorated an apple tree in their garden with hand-decorated eggs, to mark the national holiday.
As the tree grew, so did their collection of decorations. By the time they retired in 2015, they had more than 10.000 delicate eggs to hang up each year, a process that took about two weeks. The Saafelder Ostereierbaum attracted thousands of visitors each year. Since 2016, residents of Saalfeld have taken up the mantle and nowadays decorate trees in the nearby Schlosspark.
Image credit: AndrewPoison via Wikimedia (Public Domain)
2. Paint some eggs
Another delightful German Easter tradition is the humble painted egg. The process involves dipping hard-boiled eggs in dye and then hand painting them or coating them in shrinkable wrappers. They make a pretty table centrepiece, but are still good to eat for a few days after - though some people choose to play egg tapping or egg rolling with them instead.
The Sorbs, a cultural minority in Brandenburg, are some of the most famous egg decorators in the world, and every year showcase their delicate, painstaking wax painting techniques at the Spreewald Museum in Lübbenau - in case you wanted to pick up some tips.
3. Keep it quiet on Good Friday
In German, Good Friday is known as Karfreitag, which literally translates as “sorrowful Friday”. This is the day that, in the Christian tradition, people would reflect mournfully on Jesus’s crucifixion, and so in many places across the country it’s a quiet day. Traditionally, this meant that church bells, songs, music and even dancing were banned on Good Friday.
These solemn origins of Good Friday are most famously observed in the southwestern town of Bensheim in Hesse, which each year stages a procession to reenact the crucifixion of Christ, one of the biggest of its kind in the world. The tradition was started by Italian migrants in the 1980s and is nowadays attended by thousands of people each year.
4. Light a bonfire
Germans up and down the country will be lighting bonfires on the night before Easter Sunday. The custom is originally pagan, and was a means of chasing away the last chills of winter and welcoming the arrival of spring, but was adopted by Christians to represent the resurrection of Christ.
If you don’t have a suitable place to spark up a blaze, many towns and cities in Germany light enormous fires in public spaces for the crowds to enjoy. The most famous and impressive is on the banks of the River Elbe in the Blankenese district of Hamburg. In Lügde in North Rhine-Westphalia, the locals cast burning wheels of oak and straw down a hillside each year on Easter Sunday.
5. Get the Easter Bunny in to organise an egg hunt
You may already do an Easter egg hunt each year, but did you know that this is a tradition you have the Germans to thank for? Both hares and eggs have been symbols of fertility and renewal - and by association, spring - since ancient times, but it was German Protestants who first started to tell of a mythical Easter bunny who gave coloured eggs to well-behaved children, similar to Nikolaus or Santa Claus at Christmas.
In some regions, the Easter gift-givers were foxes, roosters, cranes or storks, but by the end of the Second World War the bunny had become the most popular version of the myth, and it was exported to the United States and further afield with German immigrants. Nowadays, people all over the world go on hunts to find eggs, sweets and small gifts hidden by the Easter Bunny.
Every year, the German city of Weimar organises a mass Easter egg hunt for the children, a tradition that dates all the way back to the 18th century, when it was introduced by Johann Wolfgang Goethe, a famous German poet.
6. Eat lamb
On the Thursday before Easter (Gründonnerstag or Maundy Thursday), tradition dictates that you eat something green, and on Good Friday, fish is on the menu. On Easter Sunday, however, it’s all about the lambs.
In Christianity, the lamb is the symbol of Jesus Christ, who was the “Lamb of God” sent to die in sacrifice for humanity’s sins. Lamb is therefore a traditional dish to eat in Germany over Easter. If you’re not a meat-eater, you could partake in one of the Sweet Easter lambs made from cake and powdered sugar that pop up in bakeries all over the country.
7. Go for a walk (and look for an Easter Fountain)
While for many people Easter is still a traditional religious holiday, for more secular households in Germany it’s more about the food and celebrating the arrival of spring. Plenty of people therefore like to walk off all that chocolate with a trip to the great outdoors. You’ll probably see lots of people descending on national parks and other green spaces on Easter Monday to stretch their legs.
In certain parts of the country, you might be lucky enough to come across a decorated Easter Fountain on your walk. The tradition of decorating fountains with Easter eggs started in the early 20th century in Franconian Switzerland in Bavaria - apparently in an attempt to attract tourists to the region - but has since spread across southern and central Germany. One of the biggest decorated fountains is to be found in the town of Biberbach, which has twice made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for its Osterbrunnen, decorated with more than 10.000 painted eggs.