Stuart Forster looks at the tradition of Osterreiten – Easter riding in eastern Germany.
“You know Osterreiten, the ‘Easter riding’ tradition of Saxony’s Sorbian-speaking people?” I was asked while dining in Dresden’s Altmarktkeller.
That assumption was wrong, but I was about to learn. Over a couple of Schwarzbier, black beers served by a waitress dressed in a Dirndl – clothing I’ve always associated more with Bavaria than Saxony – I heard how eastern Germany’s Roman Catholic Sorb minority had survived challenges posed first by the repressive National Socialists and then the authorities of the German Democratic Republic.
“There are maybe 50,000 Sorbs,” I was told. “They are scattered throughout the towns and villages east of here. Some also live up in Brandenburg.”
Germany’s Slavic Sorb minority
If you take a train through Saxony’s Lusatia district you’ll spot a number of stations displaying bilingual place names. They are shown in German and Sorbian, a Slavic language. Bautzen, an attractive city roughly 50km east of the state capital, is also known as Budyšin.
The story of Osterreiten, horseback processions held by Sorbs on Easter Sunday, grabbed my attention. My hosts, a local couple, suggested we view one of the rides at the Kloster St Marienstern, an abbey in Panschwitz-Kuckau, a village lying on the plains north-west of Bautzen.
Easter riding in Saxony’s countryside
Osterreiten takes place in towns and villages throughout the region. One of the rides parades through the centre of Bautzen.
“You’ll make better photos at Panschwitz-Kuckau because it has a Gothic abbey with tall, arched windows and a white façade with red edging,” I was told.
We parked on Mühlweg, whose name was also shown as Młynski puć on a bilingual street sign.
As we walked towards the abbey we passed a war memorial, commemorating the fallen of the two world wars, plus a streetside crucifix bearing golden Jesus and Mary figures. A hand-painted sign read Knjez je nam bliski, without any translation into German.
Easter eggs hanging from trees
Colourfully painted Easter eggs swung from trees in the gardens of a number of houses. Attached by ribbons, they bobbed in the wind under the still bare branches, reminding me of baubles hanging from a Christmas tree when it’s lost its needles.
Osterreiten is a solemn tradition, undertaken by Sorb men dressed in black. The participants don top hats, long coats, black ties and knee-length riding boots to ride horses in processions accompanied by hymns.
The tradition of springtime riding
I was expecting to see mounted figures already present within the abbey’s courtyard, where hundreds of spectators were gathered. As we waited for the arrival of the riders I heard how a tradition of springtime riding pre-dated the arrival of Christianity, a thousand or so years ago. Men used to ride across the countryside to banish evil spirits from the fields ahead of the growing season.
Bells rang, announcing the start of the Easter riding. I could make out distant singing before the first hooves clattered against the grey cobbles of the courtyard.
The horses looked well groomed, with flowers adding a flash of colour to their polished halters. The costumes of the men riding in the procession reminded me of pictures I’d seen of funerals in bygone days. To my ear, the tone of their hymns sounded more like a dirge than a celebration of Christ’s resurrection.
Religion in the German Democratic Republic
Religious observance, I’d heard, had been central to the Sorbs maintaining their identity during the twentieth century. Traditionally speaking, Saxony is a Protestant state and the Sorbs form part of a Roman Catholic minority. No religion received encouraged during the days of the German Democratic Republic, which ceased to exist on 3 October 1990.
Riders at the head of the parade carried red banners. One depicted the Lamb of God while the other showed a hilltop crucifix in front of the rising sun. Behind them rode a man holding a wooden crucifix bearing a sculpture of Jesus. Some of the men held hymn books but most knew the words by heart.
After circling the courtyard a number of times the parade headed out, to ride through the countryside and nearby villages.
A window into Sorb traditions
When most onlookers had filed away I spotted an aged Sorb woman, dressed in black with white lace at her neck. With her headscarf pinned back into the shape of a bonnet and a heavy woollen jacket buttoned to the lace, she would not have looked out of place in a late nineteenth-century oil painting depicting rural life.
As we drove back in the direction of Bautzen we saw the slow Osterreiten procession heading across recently ploughed fields. The tradition of Easter riding may not be well-known outside of Germany but lives on in the Sorb communities of Saxony.
Getting to Dresden
Lufthansa flies from London Heathrow to Dresden via its German hubs. Germanwings flies between Manchester and Berlin. Regional trains provide connections between the German capital and the towns and cities of Saxony.
Where to eat
The Altmarkt Keller (Altmarkt 4, Dresden; tel. +49 (0)351 4818 130) is a German beer house serving hearty Saxon and Bohemian cuisine. It has an atmospheric vaulted cellar and outdoor seating under umbrellas.
Where to stay
The 30-room Hotel Goldener Adler (Hauptmarkt 4, Bautzen; tel. +49 (0)3591 48660) has 4-stars and is located next to the town hall in Bautzen’s Altstadt (old town quarter).
Hotel Evabrunnen (Altmarkt 30, Bischofswerda; tel. +49 (0)3594 7510) has 41 affordably priced rooms and provides breakfast.
Learn more about Saxony via the Saxony Tourism website.
Find out more about Germany and its traditions on the Germany Travel portal.
Kloster St Marienstern (Ćišinskistrasse 35, Panschwitz-Kuckau) was founded in 1248. The treasury museum is open to the public from March to October (closed Mondays).
Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.
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