With Easter just around the corner, it might be interesting to learn about a world-famous German cultural tradition that centers on the final days of Jesus’ life. The play is called the Passion Plays (‘Passionsspiele’) and is performed once every ten years on an open stage in the small Bavarian town called Oberammergau. Most recently, the Passion Plays were planned for 2020, but, due to COVID, they were postponed to 2022, starting in May with performances through September this year.
What are the Passion Plays?
The play is a five-hour performance that shows Jesus’ passion, covering the short period from visiting Jerusalem through his crucifixion. It starts when Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey and drives the money changers and traders from the Temple. It moves through his arrest and conviction, the Last Supper, Judas’ betrayal, Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, the carrying of the cross, crucifixion and resurrection in sixteen acts. The play is truly spectacular, with over 2,000 performers, musicians and stage technicians, all of whom are residents of Oberammergau.
Because the play is so long, there is a long meal break, making the performance roughly a seven hour event. Total attendance often exceeds over a half a million during the performance season. Travel agents frequently offer weekend package deals with hotels, meals and tickets included.
How did the Passion Plays Come About?
A legend says that after an outbreak of the bubonic plague in Bavaria during the Thirty Years’ War (1616-1648), a man who had worked in a nearby village brought the plague to Oberammergau in September of 1633. The plague killed over half the population in only a month. At the end of October 1633, the villagers vowed that if God spared them from the plague in the future, they would perform a play every ten years depicting the life and death of Jesus. According to the legend, nobody died of the plague in Oberammergau after they made the vow. The villagers kept their promise and performed the first Passion Play in 1634.
What is Unique About the Passion Plays?
The Oberammergau Passion Play includes between 2,000 and 5,000 of the local residents in the village. It is a family tradition. If a grandfather participated in the past, then today his sons and grandsons are most certainly also participants. Many of the main actors take a sabbatical or reduce their work hours during the performance season.
The kick-off for the Passion Play is on Ash Wednesday, one year prior to the next festival. From this time, the residents of Oberammergau are advised to not get a haircut and men must let their beards grow in order to give more authenticity to their biblical appearance!
The stage for the performance is also special. It has been remodeled repeatedly over the years. The stage is surrounded by around 4,500 seats in the auditorium and the roof is a grated lattice construction that provides a good view of the open air stage from all the tiered rows of seats. The stage settings are known for their appealing artistic form and colorful ambience.
With the unrelenting work and continuing support of the residents of Oberammergau, the Passion Play has become the largest and most famous of its kind in the world.