Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easter Customs From German Immigrants

Many Easter customs were brought to America by German immigrants who came to America in the mid-1800s, including egg decorating, Easter trees, Easter nests, and Easter fires. The Easter rabbit (der Osterhase) as a symbol for Easter is first mentioned in 16th century German literature. The first edible Easter bunnies, made of pastry and sugar, were also produced in Germany in the early 1800s. Around that time, children made nests of grass and hid them in their gardens for the Easter Bunny to fill with brightly decorated eggs. Children   still build Easter nests today.

The egg tree is a small tree branch put in a vase about two weeks before Easter. Blown eggs that have been painted and decorated are hung from the branches along with other small, highly decorated eggs the family has collected. The hollow eggs are also hung from shrubs and trees during the Easter week.

Easter Sunday was marked by attending church services after which families prepared a special Easter meal. Dessert often included the traditional “lamb cake” baked and decorated to resemble a lamb. The lamb is an important symbol for Easter, representing Christ as the sacrificial Lamb of God. After lunch came the “Ostereiersuchen” or Easter egg hunt.

One Easter tradition with special significance  is the story of the Easter fires. In the spring of 1847, John O. Meusebach ventured into the wilderness seeking to forge a treaty with the local tribes. Wary Indians, watching for signs of treachery, camped in the hills surrounding Fredericksburg and the sight of their fires frightened the children. According to local oral history, one clever pioneer mother, perhaps recalling Easter fires in the old country, soothed her little ones by telling them that it was only the Easter rabbit dyeing his eggs.

On Easter Saturday in Germany, the Easter fires, huge bonfires fueled by the old Christmas trees, are lit and people gather around the fire for schnapps and socializing. The hillsides around villages and towns are dotted with fires as people light their fires at the same time, generally around 9 or 10 pm. The fires clean away the last signs of winter as spring approaches.

According to a posting on the website of the Austrian embassy in Canberra, there are many different interpretations of the meaning of the fires at or around Easter. Some say the fires began as signal fires at the time of Turkish invasions in the 16th and 17th centuries. Others trace them to pre-Christian fires of ritual purification which celebrated the arrival of spring. As with other ancient customs, Christian converts often established a connection to the life of Christ, hence these fires were sometimes referred to as the "burning of Christ’s death-bed". (People used to sleep on a mattress filled with straw which was burned after the person died). In the southern part of the Austrian province of Burgenland, the bonfires are called "bonfires of joy” and are said to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ. These Easter bonfires are often accompanied by the hurling of torches and shooting.

courtesy of: Gillespie County Historical Society, Fredericksburg, Texas

History of Decorating Eggs
(the following is taken from Wikipedia)

The practice of decorating eggshell is ancient, predating Christian traditions Ostrich eggs with engraved decoration that are 60,000 years old have been found in Africa.  Decorated ostrich eggs, and representations of ostrich eggs in gold and silver, were commonly placed in graves of the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians as early as 5,000 years ago.

The Christian adaptation of decorating eggs can be traced as far back as the early Christians of Mesopotamia, who stained eggs red in memory of the blood of Christ, shed at his crucifixion. TheChristian Church officially adopted the custom, regarding the eggs as a symbol of the resurrection. The Roman Ritual, the first edition of which was published in 1610 but which contains texts of much older date, has among the Easter Blessings of Food, along with those for lamb, bread, and new produce, the following blessing for eggs

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