As we enter spring, we look toward Easter! Easter is one of the most important Christian holidays, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is held on the Sunday immediately following the first full moon of the vernal equinox. That’s why Easter is earlier some years and later in other years.
With over 60% of Germans being Christian, Easter is a huge holiday in Germany . It’s such an important event that Friday to Monday of Easter weekend is a national holiday. (Four day weekend? Sign me up!)
Just like in America, German households are covered in images of the Easter bunny, with baskets filled with fluorescent green colored shredded paper and multi-colored plastic eggs. In fact, eggs and bunnies are not actually Hallmark-created symbols of Easter. The egg and bunny are symbols of fertility and new birth in the pagan tradition. They were commonly used to mark the beginning of spring .
Similar to Americans, Germans participate in several egg-related Easter activities. There is of course the decorating of the eggs by dipping them into a variety of beautiful dyes. In some parts of Germany, it is tradition to paint the eggs and then hide them in a basket for the Easter bunny. When the children go to look for the eggs on Easter Sunday, they find that they have been replaced by chocolate, other candy, and Easter presents .
Another Easter tradition is the Easter bonfire. In the pagan tradition, it was thought that everyone and everything within reach of the bonfire’s light would be protected from ill health and bad fortune. To Christians, it signified fertility and the resurrection of Christ. Nowadays, it is tradition for Germans to gather with their friends around bonfires made from old, dried out Christmas trees. What a good time to drink a German beer !
As with Christians everywhere, most families come together to attend church services and finish the Easter festivities with a large meal together. It’s a time to celebrate the coming of spring and new beginnings. A typical Easter meal might consist of eggs (of course), lamb with mint jelly, chicken, and Easter basket chocolate for dessert.
Speaking of Church, there are several sacred music selections that are commonly performed on Easter and during the services leading up to Easter (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil.) Easter is a great time for singers (and other musicians) as there are passions being performed in churches everywhere. More performances mean more paid opportunities for singers!
Here are some of the most notable German Easter pieces:
There are any number of passions performed on Good Friday, passions written as early as Bach’s time and passions written as recently as this year. Passions are traditionally performed on Good Friday to tell the story of Pilate, the people, and the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross.
St. Matthew Passion by J. S. Bach
You will hear the St. Matthew Passion in several churches on Good Friday. The text is from chapters 26-27 of the Gospel of Matthew (translated in German by Martin Luther.) This passion utilizes soloists, a double choir, and a double orchestra. The arias and recitatives are interspersed between chorales. The entire work focuses on the suffering of Jesus. You can hear it in its entirety here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P21qlB0K-Bs
St. John Passion by J.S. Bach
This is the other famous passion that Bach wrote. He wrote five passions total, with only the St. Matthew and St. John Passions surviving. Bach wrote it in his first year as the director of the St. Nicholas church (Nikolaikirche) in Leipzig. The first half is meant to be sung before the sermon, and the second half immediately following the sermon. The work seems to be more extravagant than the St. Matthew Passion. The St. John Passion is the passion as told in the Gospel of John. It utilizes solos, a four part choir, Basso Continuo, and pairs of flutes and oboes. You can watch it in its entirety here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wTm_KdxqPPk
The Easter Oratorio by Bach
This piece by Bach is not nearly as well known as his St. Matthew or St. John Passions. It was performed on Easter Sunday in 1725. It contains mostly solo arias and recitative, until the end when it closes with a chorus . See it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWcpB15Ta2w
Not to mention, aside from vocal works, there were some magnificent instrumental pieces written by Austrian and German composers.
Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection” by Gustav Mahler
Mahler expanded upon a short piece he had written about the afterlife to create this larger symphony. In this work, we can hear the influence of the music of Beethoven, Wagner, and Bruckner, cementing Mahler’s reputation as one of the great composers of his time. Watch the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra perform it here : https://youtu.be/sHsFIv8VA7w
The Seven Last Words of our Saviour on the Cross by Joseph Haydn
This work was commissioned by a church to accompany seven readings during an Easter service. It was adapted into a string quartet, and then later into an oratorio . You can listen to the oratorio version here: https://youtu.be/-cPchmU-pB4 and the string quartet version here: https://youtu.be/pcmF2z_Z3_c
All in all, Easter in Germany holds many similarities to Easter in America. There are some major differences, such as the Easter bonfire and the act of the family hiding decorated eggs for the Easter bunny to find. However, the most important traditions are the same - celebrating the resurrection of Christ, coming together as a family, and eating all the bunny shaped chocolate you can fit in your stomach.
What are your Easter traditions? Be sure to share them in the comments! If you are interested in German culture, add your name to our email list and we will send our blog directly to your inbox. Happy Easter!
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