Palm Sunday, Palmsonntag, the Sunday before Easter, is a time for many young people to take their first communion, and combined with this it is often a scene of church parades in towns and villages, symbolizing the journey made by Jesus riding a donkey along palm branch covered roads to Jerusalem. A poignant sight.
Processions led by priests and choirs, young and old, fit pushing the infirm in wheelchairs, families, children in baby carriages and pushchairs, and babes in arms, singing and carrying Palmbuschen, decorated pussy-willow bouquets in lieu of the difficult to find palms, to be blessed during the morning church service. The blessing was believed to give Palm Bouquets protective qualities and, as well as being a sign of protection for the home and family until Ash Wednesday of the following year, they are used to begin the Easter decorations in the home.
The following Thursday is Maundy Thursday, Gruendonnerstag Green Thursday, celebrated since the 13th century and originally with no connection to green but stemming from an old German word, greinen to groan, mourn or weep, as it commemorated the Last Supper and the betrayal by Judas. However over time this association was lost, and replaced by 'green' as the color of hope and a symbol for the awaking of nature after the winter.
Homes are cleaned and decorated with green branches or ornaments, while green food, green vegetables: spinach, beans, leeks with chives and other herbs, make up the meals of the day. Popular ones are Gruene Bohnensuppe, Green Bean Soup, and Sieben Kraeuter Suppe, Seven Herb Soup, because of a custom based on an old superstition that green foods eaten on Gruendonnerstag give protection for the rest of the year.
Good Friday, Karfreitag from kara meaning 'care' so 'Caring Friday'. The week after Palm Sunday used to be known as 'Karwoche', Caring Week, with Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday dedicated to an account from the bible, but now only the Friday is marked by a special liturgy, as a day of remembrance for the crucifixion, with church services and religious processions. Including the Kreuzwegandacht, a walk in prayer along the 15 Stations of the Cross, which is usually held at 3 p.m. when it is said Jesus died on the cross.
No church bells are rung and children are told they have flown to Rome to be blessed, while in France and Belgium this story goes further so young children believe it is the church bells, Easter bells, that drop their Easter goodies wherever while they are flying back from Rome.
Usually fish is eaten on 'Good Friday', anything from herring salad or fish soup to an extravagant fish terrine, and in many areas the bakers mark the crust of the day's bread with a cross.
Although its four sections could also have represented the quarters of the moon honoring the pre-Christian 'Eostre', the goddess of spring, which later become 'Easter' and a religious festival controlled by the lunar calendar.
Easter Bonfires, 'Osterfeuer', a custom which takes place on Saturday, or in some regions on Easter Sunday or Monday, are based on a Christian belief that fire is a sign of the resurrection of Christ. However the tradition dates back to at least the 16th century, again probably to pre-Christian days, and the families, friends and neighbors who gather around bonfires, which are made mainly from old Christmas trees, are not all Christians but there to have 'fun', the tradition and the light and warmth of fire symbolizing the end of winter and arrival of spring.
Huge flaming wood and straw wheels, 'Osterraeder', are an alternative way of marking Easter and winter's end in parts of North Rhine Westphalian, just as they were used to represent the sun 2,000 years ago. It is a spectacular sight as they roll down hills leaving behind hundreds of meters of burning tracks, and if the wheel makes it to the bottom of the hill that is a sign the next harvest will be successful.
Ostersonntag, Easter Sunday, is a day of celebration for the triumph of life over death, when the Easter rabbit or hare brings colored and chocolate eggs, hiding them or leaving them in nests already prepared by children.
This odd combination of rabbit, eggs and a Christian Festival began in the Middle Ages, when rents due from tenant farmers must be paid on the Thursday before Easter and, as they had not been eaten during Lent, Medieval landlords were paid in eggs which had been cooked to preserve them, as well as with hares caught on their property.
Nevertheless it was not until the mid 20th century that the rabbit as 'egg bringer' finally won out over the foxes, storks and cranes that up until then had shared the tradition.
And with all those cooked eggs around Frankfurter Gruene Sosse mit Eiern, Eggs with Frankfurter Green Sauce, using herbs left from Green Thursday, is often added to the Easter Sunday end of Lent meal.
Ostermontag, Easter Monday in Germany, is the final day of the Easter celebrations and a public holiday. A family day when often the entire extended family meets for lunch, which once was lamb but this tradition is no longer as strong as it was, followed by egg rolling competitions or visits to the countryside and sports events or festivals.
Many towns hold special festivals and processions and one of these is Traunstein in Bavaria, where Joseph Ratzinger, the former Pope Benedikt XVI, lived when young. There the famous St. George Parade, a horse mounted pilgrimage in traditional dress, accompanied by brass bands, with the riders in armor and maidens in medieval costumes, takes place. The climax of the parade is a blessing made upon a gathering of almost 500 horses from the neighborhood, of various shapes, sizes, ages and types, none of whom are outshone by St. George's pure white steed.
It is the last day of Easter celebrations, but not the end of Eastertide which is Whitsun, Pfingsten, and in Germany many of the trees, branches, wells and fountains decorated with colored eggs, together with greenery remaining from Palm Sunday, stay in place for fifty days until the end of the celebrations for Pfingsten and Pfingstenmontag.
Frohe Ostern! - Happy Easter
Illustrations: The Stations of the Cross, 9th Station Jesus helped by Simon of Cyrene, photographer Unterillertaler, de.Wikipedia - Easter Bonfire, with painted Easter eggs hanging from branch, photographer Reinhard Kraasch, de.Wikipedia - Horses leaving the ancient Ettendorfer Kircherl, Traunstein, on Easter Monday, ChiemgauOnline
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