The Easter celebration goes back to the earliest days of the Christian church, but the date of this festivity has been controversial from the very beginning. Even the origin of the name of the most important celebration in the Christian calendar is unclear. The origins of the German Easter traditions are not certain but some say they can be traced back to payments in kind by peasants to their lords; others say it goes back to the pagan worship of the maiden-goddess of fertility, “Eastee,” or “Eastre,” “Eostre,” or “Ostara” and the coming of spring. It is not by accident that Easter features such symbols of fertility as the egg and the rabbit, a.k.a. the Easter bunny (der Osterhase).
The Germanic celebration customs of Easter (Ostern) is very much like that in most of the Christian world. Parents give their children Easter eggs (colored and boiled), Easter bunnies and other sweets. The children today still hunt for eggs as they did in the 1500s. An inseparable part of the holiday is the Easter meal with an Easter cake in the shape of a lamb enjoyed after the Lenten fast.
The art of decorating hollowed-out eggs (ausgeblasene Eier) for Easter is an Austrian and German tradition. The eggs used for cooking Easter meals are not broken but are emptied by blowing the contents into a bowl through pinholes at either end of the egg. The hollow eggs are then beautifully decorated and hung from shrubs and trees during Easter week.
Another unique custom associated with Easter in Germany is the “Easter fire.” For the fire, Christmas trees are collected and burned, clearing away the last signs of the winter as everyone prepares for spring.
“Easter Markets” all over Germany are a wonderful way to rediscover traditions and rituals and to prepare for the Easter holidays. Local craftsmen display their decorated eggs and there are often other traditional Easter goodies on sale, including baskets and bunnies.
Germany is regarded as the birthplace of modern-day Easter icons such as the Easter bunny and Easter tree. German kids were told of an “Easter hare” (der Osterhase) that hid eggs and chocolates for children to find on Easter Sunday. German immigrants to America, particularly Pennsylvania, brought the tradition with them and spread it to a wider public.
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 this “movable feast” depends on phases of the moon (Mondphasen, Mondwechsel), Easter can be observed between March 22 and April 25. In 2012 Easter Sunday (Ostersonntag) falls on April 8.