1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

German Easter Customs From Pagan Rites to Today

Andreas Reimann (ncy/sac)April 16, 2006

At Easter, Christians celebrate Jesus Christ's resurrection from the dead. Though German festivities hardly seem to bear relation to that central message, there are indeed links between resurrection, bunnies and eggs.

Easter bunnies symbolize spring and new lifeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

On Easter Sunday in Germany, the Easter Bunny brings children sweets, presents and painted or chocolate Easter eggs. The egg is an ancient Christian Easter symbol.

"Since Medieval times, at the latest, the egg has played a central role in Easter, according to Gunther Hirschfelder, a professor of folklore at the University of Bonn.

"We also have references to Easter eggs in late antiquity, 1,000 years previously," Hirschfelder said.

Europäische Eier
Eggs and Easter have been connected for centuriesImage: AP

The egg is a symbol for life, liturgically liquid flesh, which is why it appears in so many variations, Hirschfelder said.

"That has to do with the fact that eggs weren't eaten during fasting periods," he said. "They were a tribute, and that's why at the end of fasting time, they appeared at the table in such numbers, cooked, fried or decorated."

Spring and Easter traditions fit well together

The rabbit on the other hand, which has up to 20 bunnies a year, is a symbol for fertility, Hirschfelder said. It belongs to the pagan symbols, which represent spring and new life in nature. These later merged with the Christian Easter message of resurrection.

This fits together by all means, said Joachim Gerhard, a Protestant pastor from Bonn.

Osterhasen auf Marktplatz Frankenberg
Should German children take the rabbit's reproduction habits as an example?Image: picture-alliance/ ZB

"I think Easter and Easter customs in a Christian sense can't be separated from spring rituals," Gerhard said. "It fits together well that the spring festival -- when the flowers are blooming again, the green in the forests, in the bushes and on the meadows grows again -- that this resurrection festival is celebrated. It's often the case that pagan customs tied with Christian ones."

Some Christian rituals have practically disappeared over time. During Lent, the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, practicing Christians used to fast. Strictly speaking, animal products -- such as meat, eggs and milk -- but also wine were forbidden. People went to church services, especially in the Holy Week.

Symbolbild: Beten für Papst Johannes Paul II.
Lots of praying and little eating is what Christians should do in the weeks before EasterImage: AP

Lent was a time of penance and inner contemplation, following the time Jesus spent in the desert. Today, Christians in Germany are more likely to abstain from sweets, alcohol or cigarettes.

Relaying the Easter spirit to children

Children prepare for Easter by doing handicrafts, blowing out eggs and painting them.

"Painting Easter eggs is practically the most important thing for the children," said Hannelore Welter, head of the day-care center St. Quirin in Bonn. "Then, baking the Easter rabbits or lambs and wreaths, making rabbits as window decorations -- those are the types of things we do here."

Some Easter traditions, however, have an exclusively religious background. The Easter lamb, for example, developed out of a Jewish ritual to eat a lamb at Passover. Christianity took up this symbolism of the sacrificial lamb and equated it with Jesus, who died at the cross for all mankind.

Osterkerzenverzierung in Königsbrunn
Every church gets a new candle each yearImage: picture-alliance/ dpa/dpaweb

There's also the Easter candle in the Jewish and Christian tradition of light. Light is a sign of life. And how do the children learn this meaning?

"The Easter candle is a sign for the resurrection of Christ and on Maundy Thursday, the children get a little Easter candle with a palm leaf," Welter said. "It gets blessed in church services and the children then take it home, where they light it on Easter Sunday in their families for the Easter breakfast."

For little Johanna, this Easter breakfast is the highlight of Easter Sunday. But she still has a lot to do until then. But what?

"Paint Easter eggs! We were actually going to buy some," Johanna said. "Then the Easter bunny won't have as much work and can rest a bit, too."

Easter has become a time for consumerism

BdT Ostern Figuren aus Schokolade
Not the conventional kind of Easter sweetsImage: AP

Buying -- one of the most important catchwords of Easter today. After all, the colorfully-painted eggs, the chocolate rabbits and eggs and the countless other sweets and gifts are the fast sellers of the spring.

But that has nothing to do with the story of Jesus Christ and his resurrection, Hirschfelder said.

"It's a tradition without belief, you could say. Easter today is an important date for celebration, in which the liturgy doesn't necessarily take center stage," Hirschfelder said. "It's a date where the sweets industry has its magic moment."

Otherwise, Easter had become a day for celebration, for holidays or for taking an outing, he said.

"Today, the important significance of Good Friday, for example, can hardly be communicated to most people -- even though Good Friday is the highest Protestant holiday and Easter, together with the other Christian religious holidays, the most important highlight of the church year."