Is Easter in Germany a Fading Tradition?

The Origins of Easter and it's Relevance in Germany

The Easter Celebration - Das Osterfest
CSA Images-Vetta@getty-images

The Germanic celebration of Easter (Ostern in German) is very much like that in most of the Christian world. It features the same fertility and spring-related icons—eggs, bunnies, flowers—and many of the same Easter customs. The three major German-speaking countries (Austria, Germany, and Switzerland) are predominantly Christian and Easter is an important time for both Catholics and Protestants in the German-speaking lands. The art of decorating hollowed-out eggs (ausgeblasene Eier) for Easter is an Austrian and German tradition. A little bit to the east, in Poland, Easter is a way more relevant holiday than in Germany.

The Origins of Easter Go Back to Pre-Christian Times

The Easter celebration goes back to the earliest days of the Christian church. But the date of this festival has been controversial from the very beginning. Even the origin of the name of the most important celebration in the Christian calendar is unclear. But there is agreement on the fact that, like several other Christian holidays, most Easter customs can be traced back to pre-Christian, pagan rites and celebrations related to the arrival of spring. It is not by accident that Easter features such symbols of fertility as the egg and the rabbit, aka the Easter bunny (der Osterhase).

The Easter celebration (das Osterfest) takes on both religious and secular forms. The Christian religious celebration is the most important day in the church calendar, reflecting Christianity's very beginnings in the Resurrection of Jesus. In the western church, Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox (die Tagundnachtgleiche). (Eastern Orthodox Easter follows the same formula, but with the Julian calendar, so the date can fall one, four, or five weeks later.) Because of this "movable feast" -Ostern ist ein beweglicher Feiertag- depends on phases of the moon (Mondphasen), Easter can be observed between March 22 and April 25.  This lovely calendar page will help you find the Easter date for the coming ten years. 

The Origins of the Word "Ostern"

In quite a few languages Easter is called differently. A few examples:

French: Pâques
Spanish: Pascuas
Portuguese: Páscoa
Danish: Påske
Hebrew: Pascha

Only a few know that in German, Easter had a similar name coming from Franconian: pāsche but through the Anglo-Saxon influence, the word Easter / Ostern became more prominent. The origin of Easter in Old-Germanic is most likely Austrō > Ausro „Morgenröte“ (dawn / aurora) hinting for some at the dawn of Jesus' resurrection (Auferstehung), for others at pagan traditions. The German word "Ostern" is a plural form.

The Origin of "pāsche" is the Hebrew word "Pessach" (=passover) which is connected to the Lord leading the People of Israel out of Egypt and turned into a tradition to wake the night in honor of the Lord.

Childhood Memories of Easter

And a few words on Christianism in Germany

Born in 1972, I grew up with a Catholic father and a rather atheistic or slightly Protestant mother in a very small Catholic enclave in Lower Saxony. I remember decorating bamboo sticks with fruits and bast fiber for Palm Sunday and a few religious parades through the village. Compared to Christmas, Easter was rather disappointing as the presents were not really worth mentioning. I shared that disappointment with quite a few other kids. I clearly failed to understand the true purpose of Easter.

From my experience and better knowledge, Christianism is practiced rather weakly in Germany and those who take religion seriously are considered to be backward thinking. So don't be surprised if you perceive weird looks when you openly state that you are a firm believer in God to a German, especially when you come to Berlin. A few weeks ago I was asked by a tourist where to find a Catholic church and had to send her to the Polish church that I knew from acquaintances of mine as most churches here are Protestant. I found it a rather funny occurrence as Berlin is considered  the atheist capital of Europe.

In general, it's the people of the South and the West that are more religious than those in the North and East.

Your Experience

What is your relation to the Easter celebration? How do you deal with the fact, that it mixes Pagan traditions with Christian ones? What memorable Easter experiences would you like to share with your children and children's children?

What to read next

  • Check this page for other interesting Easter Facts
  • Expand your vocabulary with our Easter Glossary in English and German language.

EDITED: 16th of June 2015 by Michael Schmitz