Easter in Germany – The Rabbit, Egg and Ostara

By Francine McKenna on Email

Easter in Germany, Ostern in Deutschland, and a special Easter Bunny joins St. Nicholas and Santa Claus as a holiday gift giver in Germany, Hanni Hase, ‘Hanni Hare’, who for a few weeks every year is inundated with letters sent by children from all over the world. All mailed to OstereistedtEaster Egg Town, his appropriately named small Lower Saxony home town, and each one of the thousands of letters is carefully answered.

Or it could be an emailed reply because ‘Hanni Hase’ is a very up to date Easter Rabbit, helped by the German postal service, Deutsche Post, he has been online since 1996, and is described on his website as:

‘A little, long-eared four-footed friend with brown fur and a small snub nose’.

Hallo liebe Kinder, hallo meine lieben Freundinnen und Freunde! His web page says as Easter approaches.
Bald ist Ostern!
Ich bin schon ganz aufgeregt! Ihr auch?

Hello dear children, hello my dear girls and boys!
Soon it will be Easter!
I am really excited! You too?

And German children are excited as the Easter days draw nearer.

As one of the most popular holidays of the year, until Easter Sunday arrives they will be busy decorating and coloring ‘Easter’ eggs, using them to trim their balconies, gardens, homes and schools, or hanging them from trees, branches, fountains and wells.  Then it will be time to find those baskets filled with colored eggs, chocolate rabbits, and candy or small toys in decorated paper mache eggs, which the Easter Rabbit has hidden sometime during Easter night.

Easter is deeply rooted in German culture: as a time of celebrations, customs and traditions across the country. The word Ostern is believed to have come from the German Spring and Fertility Goddess Ostara, whose sacred animal was the ‘fertile’ hare, and in pre-Christian days a light cult held a festival in her honor as soon as the days became longer, which, with the introduction of Christianity, was changed in the 2nd century to a celebration for the resurrection of Jesus.

As a source of new life the egg had been a symbol of creation, spring and fertility since ancient times, long before Christianity, with its origins traced back to 5000 BC, when the Egyptians and Persians painted eggs to eat and give as presents for spring equinox.  The first Christians then placed eggs both in and on graves, believing that just as a grave hid a life the egg also seemed to be dormant but contained life sealed within it, and German archeologists have found centuries old examples of these offerings.  While later the Medieval Era saw them become a form of payment for everything from debts to rent for fields, and any that were given in this way to monasteries and churches were passed on to the poor of the neighborhood.

As there was a ban on eating eggs during Lent these were dyed with different mixes made from fruit, vegetables and herbs, so it was possible to tell the ones that had been boiled from those which had not.  Red was the first color, a symbol of the blood and suffering of Christ, but this was soon joined by Yellow for wisdom and Green for innocence, Orange strength, passion and warmth, and White for purity.

Coloring and decorating eggs became a custom, and while the wealthy covered their eggs in gold leaf, everyone else continued to dye theirs with the juice from fruit and vegetables, and decorate them with flowers.  The oldest decorated eggs found date from the fourth century, when the Romans occupied Germania, and by the seventeenth century a custom had begun to hide them to be found later.

After Martin Luther had broken away from Rome and Catholicism, German Protestants kept the Catholic tradition of eating colored eggs for Easter, even though they did not follow the Catholic Lent Fast during which no eggs were allowed, nevertheless by Easter there were still eggs in abundance.

In almost all ancient cultures eggs were held as an emblem of life, and in Germany different traditions grew up around the simple egg.  They were a strong symbol of fertility, often used in rituals to strengthen a woman’s ability to have children, while the sex of an unborn child was predicted by the rotation of an egg suspended over a pregnant woman.

Egg rolling is a game nowadays, but its origins lie in the thought that this would transfer the egg’s fertility into the ground and so ensure a good harvest.

Eggs which had been painted for Easter guaranteed good health when eaten, and especially when Green colored eggs were on the Gruendonnerstag, Green Thursday, menu or had been laid that day.

While if eggs that had been laid on Good Friday were cooked on Easter Sunday they would promote the fertility of the trees and crops, and protect against sudden deaths.

As a shape with no beginning and no end, together with the question which came first the chicken or the egg, eggs became a symbol for infinity.

 

Photos by George Larcher & SLV

Francine McKenna