Hob & Broom: Household Lore & Traditions

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Rites of Spring: German Easter Traditions

Osterfeuer in Rugen, Wikimedia Commons

While the word Easter has long been used to denote the Christian holiday celebrating the resurrection of Christ, I see no problem also using it to refer to the pagan holiday celebrating the return of spring. Aside from the secular aspects of contemporary Easter traditions that are less focused on resurrection and salvation and more on fertility – eggs, rabbits, chicks, etc. – the very word Easter is pre-Christian in origin (the original Christian holiday name is the Hebrew Paschal).

Nowadays, many pagans call the spring equinox holiday Ostara to distinguish it from the Christian Easter. Yet Ostara is a reconstruction by Jacob Grimm based on the word Oster, the German cognate of Easter. So Easter and Ostara are intrinsically linked not just seasonally and symbolically but also etymologically. My path is strongly based in Germanic reconstructionism, as is this blog, and so I look to extant German, English, and Norwegian traditions (and their origins) to deepen my holiday observances.

Aside from egg painting and decorations of flowers and greenery, Germans celebrate Easter with ancient traditions of purification and cleansing, healing and protection. These traditions benefit all members of the household, from humans to livestock, through the powers of fire and water.

Purifying Fires

The Osterfeuer is a bonfire lighted after dark on Easter eve and burned until dawn. These are lighted in communal areas as well as on personal property throughout Germany, and various regional traditions for how the fire should be started persist. Benjamin Thorpe states that in Grund, Lower Saxony, the fire is started by people running “about with torches” – perhaps in a primal dance or parade (135). In other places, tar barrels were once lit and rolled down hills to ignite the fires, although this tradition has faded due to the (obvious) hazards.

In the Harz region, a tree is set up and surrounded with brushwood, then burned. Similarly, in the area around Heidelberg, there’s a parade called the Sommertagszug (“summer day’s train”), where children dress as ducklings and men pull a dried tree decorated with a snowman. The tree is burned in a bonfire, paralleling the Slavic tradition of parading through town with a straw Marzanna/Morena idol, which is set on fire and then thrown into a river to end the winter goddess’s icy reign.

These ritual fires are meant to chase the darkness and cold of winter away. “The Easter Fire…is a symbol of light in the darkness,” explains Karen Anne at German Girl in America. “It can be as simple as lighting a candle, or as big as the bonfires which are ignited all over in Germany at Easter. Because fire is a symbol of light, of renewal, it signifies the end of Winter, and the coming of spring.”

Karen Anne adds that the “ashes from the Easter fires were spread on the fields to fertilize the soil, and [e]nsure good crops for the coming year.” While fire is essentially destructive in nature, its transmutation of elements engenders rich nutrients for fertilizing fields, the bed of creation. An Easter fire celebrates that liminal boundary between destruction and creation, death and life, just as the equinox embodies the balance of darkness and light.

Protective Waters

Water is also traditionally collected before dawn on Easter morning. Thorpe mentions that this Osterwasser is gathered from a running stream between midnight and sunrise. In some traditions, it is taken against the current; in others, taken with the current. Sprinkling this water “on the eyes was good for eyesight, and farmers would give it to their animals to stay healthy” (German Girl in America). It is taboo to speak or even meet anyone on the way to or from the stream, lest the water lose its powers. Horses are also run into streams and rivers in Sachsenburg to protect them from illness. Some believe that the water is only virtuous when the wind is in the east, but other sources make no such distinction.

Others lay out linens the night before. In the morning, they gather them up to wash their bodies with the collected dew, rain, or snow. This, it’s said, will prevent illness for the entire year.

In Franconia, fountains and wells are decorated with evergreens, eggs, and images of rabbits and chickens. In this state, they’re called Osterbrunnen and are decorated this way from the week before Easter to the week after (Journey to Germany). This isn’t an ancient tradition, but it does evoke a Germanic pre-Christian mindset about the powers of wells and fountains, and the spirits that dwell in them, to bring fertility and renewal.

Purification, Healing, and Protection

Easter/Oster/Ostara is a celebration of everything that the resurgence of warmth and greenery means. Osterfeuer and Osterwasser assist in this resurgence by thawing and purifying, cleansing and refreshing.

When a fresh spring breeze brushes against my skin on the first bright, warm day of the season, I feel the psychological and spiritual dust of the past swept away. I build a fire in the fire bowl in my backyard and cloak myself in its fragrant smoke. I gather dew in the morning sun and wash my skin with it. When I do this, I am renewed, as the earth itself is renewed when the dawn rises in the east.

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, spirit worker and traveler, and folk magic practitioner guided by both philosophical Taoism and Germanic folk traditions. Her written work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information in ways that are accessible and relevant. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  

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