SHARE
COPY LINK

CULTURE

German town resurrects 400-year-old biblical play tradition

Walk around the German Alpine village of Oberammergau, and the chances are you'll run into Jesus or one of his 12 disciples.

Passion Play
Director Christian Stückl guides actors in rehearsals for the 42nd Passion Play to be performed in Oberammergau, Bavaria. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

Of the 5,500 people living there, 1,400 — aged from three months to 85 — are participating this year in the once-a-decade staging of an elaborate “Passion Play” depicting the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Dating back to 1634, the tradition has persisted through four centuries of wars, religious turmoil and pandemics — including the most recent Covid-19 crisis which caused the show to be postponed by two years.

“I think we’re a bit stubborn,” says Frederic Mayet, 42, when asked how the village has managed to hold on to the tradition.

Mayet, who is playing Jesus for the second time this year, says the Passion Play has become a big part of the town’s identity.

Oberammergau Passion Plays

Posters for the 42nd Oberammergau Passion Play – which was originally scheduled to take place in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmth

The only prerequisite for taking part in the five-hour show, whether as an actor, chorister or backstage assistant, is that you were born in Oberammergau or have lived here for at least 20 years.

“I remember that we talked about it in kindergarten. I didn’t really know what it was about, but of course I wanted to take part,” says Cengiz Gorur, 22, who is playing Judas.

READ ALSO: REVEALED: The best events and festivals in Germany this July

‘Hidden talent’ 

The tradition, which dates back to the Thirty Years’ War, was born from a belief that staging the play would help keep the town safe from disease.

Legend has it that, after the first performance, the plague disappeared from the town.

In the picturesque Alpine village, Jesus and his disciples are everywhere — from paintings on the the facades of old houses to carved wooden figures in shop windows.

You also can’t help feeling that there is a higher-than-average quota of men with long hair and beards wandering the streets.

Religious figurines Oberammergau

Religious figurines adorn a shop window in Oberammergau. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

An intricate image of Jesus graces the stage of the open-air Passion Play theatre, where the latest edition of the show is being held from mid-May to October 2nd.

“What has always fascinated me is the quality of the relationship between all the participants, young and old. It’s a beautiful community, a sort of ‘Passion’ family,” says Walter Lang, 83.

He’s just sad that his wife, who died in February, will not be among the participants this year.

“My parents met at a Passion Play, and I also met my future wife at one,” says Andreas Rödl, village mayor and choir member.

Gorur, who has Turkish roots, was spotted in 2016 by Christian Stückl, the head of the Munich People’s Theatre who will direct the play for the fourth time this year.

“I didn’t really know what to do with my life. I probably would have ended up selling cars, the typical story,” he laughs.

Now, he’s due to start studying drama in Munich this autumn.

“I’ve discovered my hidden talent,” he says.

READ ALSO: Nine of the best day trips from Munich with the €9 ticket

Violence, poverty and sickness

Stückl “has done a lot for the reputation of the show, which he has revolutionised” over the past 40 years, according to Barbara Schuster, 35, a human resources manager who is playing Mary Magdalene.

“Going to the Passion Play used to be like going to mass. Now it’s a real theatrical show,” she says.

In the 1980s, Stückl cut all the parts of the text that accused the Jews of being responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, freeing the play from anti-Semitic connotations.

“Hitler had used the Passion Play for his propaganda,” Schuster points out.

Stückl

Christian Stückl, the director of the Oberammergau Passion Play, holds a press conference announcing the cancellation of the play in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

The play’s themes of violence, poverty and sickness are reflected in today’s world through the war in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic, say Mayet, the actor playing Jesus.

“Apparently we have the same problems as 2,000 years ago,” he says.

For 83-year-old Lang, who is playing a peasant this year, the “Hallelujah” after Christ has risen for the final time in October will be a particularly moving moment.

“Because we don’t know if we’ll be there again next time,” he says, his eyes filling with tears.

By Isabelle Le Page

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

GERMAN TRADITIONS

10 ways to enjoy autumn like a true German

From scavenging for mushrooms to drinking Apfelwein, autumn is a truly magical season in Germany. Here's how to make the most of the fall months just like the locals do.

10 ways to enjoy autumn like a true German

As summer transitions to autumn, it can be easy to remain nostalgic for the long, sunny days. But the months leading up to Christmas can also be an immensely vibrant time to be in Germany – if you know how.

So as you swap your summer t-shirts for woolly jumpers, why not participate in some quintessentially German customs, from whipping up pumpkin dishes to collecting chestnuts in the park? 

If you’re not sure where to start, here are 10 ways to make the most of autumn in true German style this year. 

1. Give thanks for the harvest

Since the third century, Christian countries have organised festivals to thank God for the gift of the autumn harvest – and in Germany, these religious celebrations continue to this day.

Traditionally, Erntedankfest (Harvest Thanksgiving) is celebrated on the first Sunday of October in rural communities with church services, a parade (complete with a harvest queen), music and a country fair. Food is also collected for those in need. In some regions, the celebrations coincide with the wine harvest, and vineyard owners set up stalls where locals can sample the season’s wines.

A church in Lower Saxony collect food donations at harvest time.

A church in Lower Saxony collect food donations at harvest time. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Friso Gentsch

2. Eat pumpkin with everything

Say goodbye to Spargelzeit, the time of year when white asparagus is served on special menus in just about every German restaurant – autumn marks the start of Kürbiszeit, when Germans get creative with the humble pumpkin. 

From spicy soups to creamy pumpkin risotto, you may be surprised at how versatile pumpkin can be. In fact, if you happen to visit a farmer’s market in the next month or two, you may discover that there are far more varieties of pumpkin than you ever imagined.

And if you do start to get bored of pumpkin dishes as the season wears on, there’s plenty more seasonal produce to experiment with, from Grünkohl (kale) to Pfefferlinge (chanterelle mushrooms). 

READ ALSO: German Word of the Day: Der Kürbis

3. Go foraging for mushrooms

As soon as the first touch of autumn frost is in the air, many Germans wrap up warm and head out to the forest for a popular national pastime: mushroom foraging. The idea is simply to head out into nature, basket in tow, and see what wild mushrooms you can find, from the beefy Steinpilz to the slippery Butterpilz

A word of warning, though. Legally speaking, the mushrooms should only be for personal use (i.e. not to sell), and some mushrooms may not be edible at all. If you’re a beginner forager, it’s a good idea to head out with some experienced mushroom gatherers to start with, or take your treasure to your local Pilzberater (mushroom consultant) who can let you know if your mushrooms are safe to eat. 

READ ALSO: What’s behind the German fascination with foraging for wild mushrooms?

Mushroom foraging in Brandenburg

A forager collects mushrooms in a basket in Brandenburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Patrick Pleul

4. Visit your local Herbstfest 

Though the days are getting shorter and colder, there’s no excuse to hibernate just yet. Whether you live in a small town or a big city, there’s bound to be at least one Herbstfest (or autumn festival) going on, which can be a great reason to get out of the house and spend time with friends.

The most famous autumn festival in Germany is obviously Oktoberfest – an enormous fairground and beer festival that runs in Munich from late September to early October. If you can’t make it to Bavaria, there are usually little copy-cat festivals dotted around Germany, as well as other local events where you can enjoy delicious seasonal favourites from Apfelwein (apple wine) to Flammkuchen and Käsespätzle

5. Celebrate the reunification of East and West Germany

October 3rd is a special day in the German calendar, marking the date on which East and West Germany were reunified after 41 years apart. Though reunification can bring up complex feelings for some Germans, Unity Day (Tag der Einheit) is a national bank holiday, which is reason to celebrate in itself.

This year, the date falls on a Monday, meaning people can look forward to a long weekend with fireworks and local celebrations. Why not get a group of friends together and check out what’s going on in your area? In Berlin, for instance, stages are set up all around Brandenburg Gate each year, with music performances, comedy and street theatre. 

6. Make paper lanterns on St. Martin’s Day 

Largely celebrated in Germany’s catholic states, Martinstag (St. Martin’s Day) on November 11th is a charming German custom that has a fair bit in common with Halloween. Traditionally, children dress up and head out onto the streets in a little procession with paper lanterns. In some regions, they also go door to door and sing for sweets, fruit or cookies. 

Families marking St. Martin’s Day will generally eat a Martinsgans (Martin’s Goose) for dinner. This is in reference to a part of the legend of St. Martin in which Martin, believing himself unworthy of becoming a bishop, attempts to hide himself in a stable filled with geese. 

In protestant Berlin and other parts of northern Germany, the processions have been rebranded as the secular Laternenfest (Lantern Festival).

St. Martin's Day procession Thuringia

Thousands of people join a St. Martin’s Day procession in Erfurt, Thuringia. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Reichel

READ ALSO: Six signs autumn has arrived in Germany

7. Collect chestnuts in the park

As the leaves starts to fall, you may notice something else lying on the ground on your street or in your local park: chestnuts. Heading out on a walk to collect chestnuts can be a great way to while away a bright autumnal afternoon, not to mention a fun activity for children. 

If you do go chestnut collecting, however, make sure you follow the rules: only chestnuts that have fallen to the ground can be picked up. Also take note that horse chestnuts, which are the ones usually found in cities, are poisonous – so don’t eat them. 

8. Dress up for Halloween

Though celebrating Halloween is much more popular in the United States, some American traditions – from fancy dress to trick-or-treating – have slowly but surely taken hold in Germany over the past few decades. 

Instead of saying “trick or treat”, German children tend to say, “Süßes oder Saures” (sweet or sour?) as they blackmail their neighbours into emptying their sweet cupboards.

But even if you’re not keen on an American-style Halloween, there are ways to celebrate Halloween like a true German. Why not spend the day carving pumpkins and then head out for a spooky tour of a haunted castle in the evening? 

READ ALSO: What are Germany’s 8 spookiest places?

9. Fly a kite 

The hot, humid days are over and a chill wind is in the air, so what better time to indulge in another German obsession – flying kites? 

Adorably known as Drachen (dragons) in German, autumn is prime kite-flying season in Germany, so be sure to take your kite (and your family) out to your park on the next windy Sunday afternoon to see what all the fuss is about.  

Kite flying in Berlin

People fly dragon kites at the Drachenfest on Berlin Tempelhofer Feld. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

10. Remember lost loved ones 

In a more sombre autumnal tradition, All Saint’s Day on November 1st is a time to remember loved ones who are no longer with us.

Taking place on November 1st, the day after All Hallow’s Eve, many Germans will take the opportunity to place candles or wreaths on the graves of their relatives. Churches will generally hold sermons dedicated to the theme of remembrance and in the evening, religious families may gather together for dinner. The following morning, on All Soul’s Day, there are more religious services and prayers for the dead. 

Even for those who aren’t believers, November 1st can offer an opportunity for reflection, contemplation and most importantly, a chance to spend time with the people you love. 

SHOW COMMENTS