The culmination of the Lenten period that begins much earlier in the year, on Ash Wednesday (February 10 this year), Easter is a joyous holiday with candy, culinary delights, and animal folklore. And while each country has its own unique customs, Germany's Easter traditions deserve particular recognition. It was, after all, in western Germany that the Easter bunny, or rather Osterhase, was born.
It's unclear exactly how the Easter bunny came to be — potentially the origin story lies in the fertility festival of the pagan goddess Eostre, whose spirit animal was a rabbit. But it is widely speculated that German immigrants brought the floppy-eared, egg-bearing bunny to the states in the 17th century. And Germans are also responsible for the first edible Easter bunnies, which hopped onto the scene sometime in the 18th century.
Here are six other wonderful Easter traditions from Germany.
The festivities really begin at the start of Lent. Fasching or Karneval are just two of the regional names for the week of pre-Lenten revelry, most famously celebrated in the Rhineland and in German-speaking Switzerland. In cities like Cologne, an enormous parade takes over, and city officials, dressed in costume, toss out candy to the multitudinous crowds.
In Germany, Karneval time is also doughnut time. Jam-filled doughnuts called Berliner, Krapfen, or Pfannkuchen, depending on which part of Germany you're in, are a tradition with a centuries-old pedigree. "Fat Tuesday," after all, was a day of animal slaughter before the Lenten fast prohibited it. The lard gathered that day was used to cook doughnuts and other fried dough specialties.
As Easter nears and Lent comes to an end, another German tradition is to light a great bonfire on Easter Sunday. Traditionally, the bonfire was supposed to be a symbol of ushering out the cold and darkness with the resurrection of Christ and the advent of springtime. Depending on the region, various parts of Germany celebrate this tradition in different ways. In some, a simple bonfire is lit, in others, great wheels of wood are set on fire and rolled down a gentle slope.
4. Easter "Trees"
My favorite German Easter tradition may well be the Osterstrauss, a bouquet of budding fruit tree boughs clustered together in a big vase and hung with delicately painted Easter eggs painstakingly collected (or made) over the years. Sometimes the eggs are interspersed with little handcrafted wooden ornaments in the shapes of bunnies or smaller birds' eggs. And depending on how far along the boughs were in their development before being cut, sometimes little blossoms will pop out over the course of the run-up to Easter, providing a lovely natural backdrop to the eggs and ornaments.
Along the same lines, an Osterkranz, or Easter wreath, can be also hung with hand-painted eggs. It replaces the Weihnachtskranz, or Christmas wreath, of pine boughs that is hung from the ceiling (or placed on a table) and decorated with four candles representing the four weeks of Advent.
5. Green Cakes
Almost every region of Germany has its own celebratory dishes for the holiday. In Hesse, in central Germany, a savory leek yeasted cake called Grüner Kuchen ("green cake") is traditionally baked on Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter. Cubes of fatback, known as Grüner Speck (or "green bacon"), are scattered across the top of the cake.
Maundy Thursday is also called Gründonnerstag, which means "green Thursday," and while it's not entirely clear where the term comes from, one explanation is that it is related to the pre-Christian tradition of eating new green herbs and leaves at the beginning of spring as a way of fortifying the body and soul after the long, cold winter months. Making the savory cake in spring, when the wind can still have quite a nip to it, actually makes a lot of sense: Grüner Kuchen is rib-sticking and richly flavored.
6. Gorgeous Breads
A nationwide tradition is serving a braided, enriched sweet bread for breakfast on Easter weekend. A yeasted dough is enriched with plenty of butter, milk, and eggs, and studded with raisins or bits of candied peel. The dough is divided into three strands and braided together — the three strands symbolizing the Holy Trinity.
Depending on the region, the dough can vary. Sometimes a mashed potato is kneaded into the dough to provide more moisture, other times, the dough strands are filled with sweet nut paste or poppy seed filling.
Get a Recipe: Easter Bread with Raisins and Sugar Cubes
If there are small children at the table, the dough can be plucked into smaller pieces and rolled into small ovals. Then, with a pair of scissors, the dough can be snipped to create little hedgehogs, bunny rabbits, or mice. An egg wash gives each roll a gorgeous shiny, dark-brown finish in the oven.
Talented bakers create all kinds of braided wonders with yeasted dough, and my friend Joanie, a sculptor, even makes stunning animals on Easter morning, like this rooster. To gild the lily, she makes dozens of tiny balls out of almond paste and tucks them here and there throughout the dough for a little edible surprise.