Let’s face it: even “normal” Easter traditions are weird. Somehow, Americans have come to represent the resurrection of Jesus Christ with a giant invisible bunny concealing pastel-shaded hardboiled eggs in every yard in the world. Yeah, that makes sense…
Weirder still is the Easter pageantry in Fredericksburg, Texas’s most famous German town. In a tradition that began with the town’s founding in 1847, on the night before Easter, many of the townspeople dress up as pioneers, Comanches, and Easter bunnies, and participate in pageantry in town.
Meanwhile, on up to more than a score of hills ringing the town, other Fredericksburgers line in wait aside tall stacks of wood and brush. At an appointed time, the lights of town are extinguished, the church bells toll, and the hilltops come alive with fire.
Local legend has it that the Easter fires commemorate a peace treaty the town’s founders signed with the Comanches around Easter in 1847. According to this version, the men of the town had gone away over the hills to negotiate with the Comanches, leaving the women and children in fear back in the town. Ominously, while the men were away, the Comanche were atop the hilltops ringing the town, communicating with smoke signals.
Were they planning an attack? Roasting the captive men alive? Dread was turning into panic in Fredericksburg, especially among the children, when a local woman came up with a story that calmed them down. The fires, she said, had been started by the Easter bunny so he could boil his eggs. Not long after that, the men returned, treaty in hand, and Fredericksburg enjoyed decades of peace with the Comanche; it was reportedly the only North American Indian treaty not to be violated by either party.
That’s a great tale, but aside from the treaty itself, it’s likely not true, as the peace treaty had been signed a full month before 1847’s Easter eve.
Scholars believe that the origins of the Easter fires date back far beyond the early days of Texas, all the way back to Dark Age, barbarian Germany.
In Pagan times, the people of modern Germany’s Hanover, Westphalia and Lower Saxony marked the end of winter with Easter fires. The flames were a symbol of both fertility (much as the Easter bunny and his eggs are today) and the triumph of warmth and light over dark and cold. (Easter fires were also lit in parts of Scandinavia and The Netherlands, and still are in some areas.)
Hanoverians were one of the largest groups of original immigrants to Fredericksburg, and scholars believe they brought their fires with them. Another large contingent came from Hesse, in the German south, where the tradition was unknown. Perhaps the fires terrified the Hessian children, and that was how the story came about that they were the Easter bunny’s egg-boiling cook-fires.
Fredericksburg’s Easter combines a family-friendly Burning Man style ambiance with some of the state’s best beer, wine, barbecue, wurst and schnitzel, and it is undeniably effortlessly weirder than just about anything you’ll see in Austin.
For more information on Fredericksburg, go to http://www.visitfredericksburgtx.com/
The Easter Fires Pageant begins at dusk (approx. 8 pm) on March 30. 530 Fair Drive
Tickets are $10 adults, $1 children 6 to 12; under 6 free.