History of Easter and colored eggs, German Customs

By Teri Weiss
Special to The Citizen

Easter is celebrated as a religious holiday, recognized as the triumph of life over death and light over darkness. It is a feast of joy and color, flowers, music and ringing church bells.

Scholars assume the name Easter is derived from Oestara, goddess of rebirth and renewal. Pre-Christian Saxons observed the spring equinox with a festival honoring Eostre, a deity associated with eggs and hares.

The timing for Easter on the church calendar was fixed to the Sunday after the first full moon of spring in AD 325 by the Roman Emperor Constantine (who may also be responsible for starting the traditional Easter Parade The seven days before Easter were called ‘White Week.’  All recently christened persons wore fresh white clothes as a sign of their new life, believing that baptismal gowns worn on Easter Sunday would bring good luck.

Easter, Christ’s Resurrection, has been depicted for centuries with images of crosses, lambs, spring flowers, bunnies and eggs. Yes, the simple egg is one of the oldest and most universal symbols of rebirth and new life, a widely used token for spring, dating back nearly five thousand years.

The ancient Egyptians and Persians used to dye eggs in bright colors to give to friends, and old myths of several Eastern and Middle Eastern cultures maintain that the earth itself was hatched from a giant egg.

Egg coloring also preceded Christianity by almost a millennium, evidence indicating that even the Chinese were adorning eggs as early as 900 B.C.  The exchanging of colored and decorated eggs became in time a cherished Christian holiday tradition.

Judeo-Christian culture blended ancient pagan traditions with the message of spiritual renewal, thus “egg art”  evolved with intricate ornamentation using Christian symbols, iconography, and portraits.

It is hard to imagine Easter in Germany without colored Easter eggs. Young people have given decorated eggs to their sweethearts since the 16th century. Beautifully colored eggs are a perfect Easter gift. In Germany children nowadays still receive eggs from relatives, especially from their godparents. And no doubt, the family ends up eating hard-boiled eggs for weeks afterwards, along with other tasty delights such as Easter bread and Easter lamb cakes.

In some areas of Southwest Germany, also in Austria and Switzerland, Easter food used to be taken to church on Easter Sunday to be blessed, maintaining at least an aura of religious observance on this important holiday.

Easter Customs in Germany

Spring and Easter traditions in Germany are a combination of Christian rituals and ancient pagan rites that have been celebrated for thousands of years.  All symbolize renewal, life and the beginning of the new season.

Easter trees and bushes, fire wheels and bonfires, decorated village fountains, brightly colored hard-boiled, hand-painted, or hollow ornamental eggs, chocolate bunnies as well as lamb pastries and rabbit cakes, are some of the worldly customs that mark this special time of year.

The typical Easter plants and flowers are early spring bloomers: first and foremost daffodils (narcissus), in German referred to as “Osterglocken” (Easter bells), also hyacinths, tulips, violets, primroses and cowslips.

An old custom all over Germany is decorating an Easter bush or tree.  As with many other seasonal traditions, this one has a long history.  For ancient Celtic and Germanic peoples of this area trees were sacred, especially oaks and ash trees.  Forests and woods were important symbols of life and fertility.  Grateful they had survived long, cold winters, people have for thousands of years celebrated the arrival of spring and honored nature and spirits by decorating bushes and trees. Today, bringing spring and Easter right into the home is done with a vase of twigs or branches decorated with colorfully dyed eggs and bright ribbons.

The Easter bunny and eggs are integral parts of the Easter celebration. The bunny traditionally hides the eggs in the garden and the children swarm out to find them.  A delightful regional custom south of Stuttgart turns this around:  Instead of having to search for the eggs, several days before Easter children in the Swabian Alb region prepare him a so-called  “Hasagärtle”, a rabbit garden into which the Easter Bunny can place the eggs and sweets.  This is usually a small square or round plot, about the size of a nest or basket, made of twigs and soft moss, surrounded by a hazelnut stick fence with a tiny garden gate – to make it convenient for the Easter bunny to get in and leave the goods.

Osterbrunnen (Easter fountains or wells)

This custom, specific to north-western Baden-Württemberg is an old tradition celebrating the importance of water as a life giver and the old belief that water blessed on Easter Sunday has special powers.  In many places, people collect hollow eggs, hand paint and string them together to make colourful garlands that decorate their village fountains. Arches of evergreen branches, eggs and little rabbits and roosters are also woven all around the well.  Set up usually just before Easter Sunday, the garlands stay on the fountain for at least a week, making the town center colourful and festive.

Each spring the little Swabian town of Schechingen (Ostalbkreis) exhibits what has become the most elaborate and famous Easter fountain in Württemberg.  It is decorated lavishly with approximately 11,000 hand-painted eggs, definitely worth seeing, as some 50,000 visitors have done in past years

Frohe Ostern! Happy Easter!