The importance of German Easter traditions: In countries with Christian history, Easter is one of the most important holidays of the year. Combining ancient pagan symbols for fertility and life (the egg and the bunny) with the message of hope and renewal, Easter also marks the solid turn from winter firmly into spring.
If you live in the United States or other countries, and see traditions like the Easter egg or decorating grasses/branches, those traditions may have come from Germany.
First, a note: Easter is a variable-date holiday, which means that its date changes from one year to the next! Germany uses the Western Christian reckoning but make sure to consult a calendar for exact dates if you are making plans.
There are spring parades that occur some three weeks before Easter. These are called Sommertagszug (Summer Day Parade) and are basically a time when people tell winter that it’s time to leave.
Also, leading up to Easter, there are Easter-season markets held around various parts of Germany, selling things like decorated eggs, wreaths, spring themed ornaments, chocolates shaped like eggs or bunnies or all sorts of other shapes, and other crafts.
These are called Ostermarkt (Easter markets) and can be quite fun to go to! A note for the families, however: many of the chocolates in Germany around this time may contain alcohol, so be careful when giving chocolates to young children.
Ostereier – Easter Eggs
Now about Easter eggs. Easter eggs are a major part of the Easter tradition in Germany: notably, hanging the decorated eggs up in bushes or in trees. These trees are called Ostereierbaum (literally: Easter egg tree) and a notable one, decorated since 1965, was the Saalfeld Eierbaum. 2015 was its last year open to the public, but you can still see its website here (English version)
You might also see, in some areas, city wells or fountains decorated with evergreens and with eggs also. This is a newer tradition, developed in the 20th century, though it uses old symbols of life – the idea of decorating or “dressing” a well exists in other countries, where it is seen as honoring water (as water is necessary for continued life) and the life and well-being of the community (by going to a communal well).
German Easter Traditions
For Easter itself, the observances properly start on the Friday before Easter (Good Friday). Historically, people ate fish on this Friday – this was because of a pun on the Greek word for fish, which was used to signify Jesus Christ in early Christianity. Within churches, the crucifix or cross may be covered in a shroud, representing the story of Jesus being condemned to death and dying via crucifixion on a Friday.
On Saturday or Sunday (depending on the tradition) there are vigil services and Easter bonfires. Bonfires help bring the community together again, and are again a symbol not only of the Christian idea of overcoming sin and death, but also signifying previous traditions signifying warmth and fertility.
On Easter Sunday, many relax with their families and friends. They may go to church or they may not; however it is a time where people visit each other, and children may hunt for Easter eggs or get given some decorated eggs and candy. An Easter meal is consumed – particularly during brunch or lunch time.
This Easter meal historically has made use of lamb (again, because of Christian symbolism: the idea that Jesus was the sacrificial lamb of God). There may be more chocolates and pastries than usual at the Easter meal – after all, it’s meant to be a festive meal, so people tend to concentrate on the desserts.
Decorations put up for Easter often last through the week, ending roughly a week after Easter Sunday.