Easter in Eastern Germany

Published March 31, 2024 by Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner

This piece was originally published as a newsletter introduction in April 2023.

Dear Woolf friends,

If you visit East Germany, where I was born and raised, any time in late March and April, you will be greeted by bushes full of Easter eggs and nests of eggs on the ground in many gardens and public parks. Germany may be most famous for its Christmas markets and Christmas tree decorations, but Easter still holds a very special place.

The celebration of Easter has many pre-Christian elements. The beginning of Spring was the most important rite of passage in pagan calendars. The eggs, symbols of fertility, still echo this past as well as linking Easter in the Christian church, marking the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Jewish Passover marking the escape of the Israelites from slavery, and the pagan start of the new year after winter.

Easter permeated East German life in more ways than simply decorating the public squares and parks. Goethe’s Osterspaziergang ‘Easter stroll’ was the one poem memorised by school children up and down the country when I was a child. I can still recite most of it and whenever I do, it catapults me emotionally back to the start of spring and the decorated eggs of my childhood.

I have often associated the strong devotion of East Germans to Easter with the close proximity to Slavonic countries, where Orthodox Easter is by far the most important holiday of the Christian calendar.

Today Eastern Germany is still deeply suffused with Slavonic heritage – Slavs lived there until the medieval period and many names of towns and villages are Slavonic in origin. One of Germany’s biggest ethnic minorities are the Sorbians, a Slavonic-speaking people who live mainly in Saxony and Brandenburg. Their take on Easter eggs is famous and the beautifully decorated Sorbian painted eggs are sold in markets all over Germany in the approach to Easter.

Personally, I love seeing the eggs hanging on the bushes, for not only do they give me echoes of my childhood, but they are also a universal symbol of hope in springtime, and mirror the joy of the resurrection for Christians on Easter Sunday as well as the new life after the Egyptian exile in Jewish Passover celebrations.

With best wishes,

Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner

Executive Director, Woolf Institute

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