Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Best Medicine? Laughter, Of Course!

Crossing the bridge over the Partnach, the river that separates Garmisch from Partenkirchen, a thought crossed my mind: the threats and crises that we face, while different from those of earlier centuries, are no more serious than those problems of the 16th—or any other—century. Maybe there are even a few lessons we could learn from the way people coped.

During the 1500 and 1600s in the Werdenfels region, epidemics and Swedish invaders regularly caused massive social upheavals and high death rates. The Oberammergau Passion Play grew out of these events, as did another tradition that has spread to many towns in Bavaria, the Schaeffler dance.

The Schaeffler were the coopers, the craftsmen who made not only the barrels to store beer and wine, but a variety of other wooden containers and kegs. Their name came from the Bavarian word Schaff, a keg or barrel that opens on the top.

Munich’s beer barrel makers, who eventually formed a guild, were an integral craft there since the 7th or 8th Century —no surprise considering the central role that beer has played in the city. According to a local tradition, their dance originated in 1517, one of the numerous years that the plague had infested Munich. Thousands of Munich’s inhabitants had died and the city was at a standstill. Only the Neuhauser and Isar gates were open and vigilant guards permitted very few people to enter. Coins brought into the city had to be soaked in vinegar and letters were fumigated with smoke. Streets were deserted, except for the gravediggers. Eventually the disease loosened its grip but Munich’s residents continued to huddle in dark rooms, refusing to open tightly shut windows.

During these grim days, a member of the coopers’ guild realized that the town’s residents needed a bit of comic relief. He called together the members of his guild and asked them to help cheer up the local population with music and dance. The coopers agreed to participate and, wearing their green caps, white shirts, and red jackets, marched to the marketplace and began dancing in circles with boughs of evergreen. The joyful sound of music and colorful celebration lured inhabitants outdoors. Church bells began to ring, calling people to services of thanksgiving. Joyous reunions with friends thought to be lost fueled the revival and Munich finally awakened from its nightmare. Thanks to one man’s idea and help from his guild, the dark mood had been banished and the city returned to life.

Of course, Bavarians are not known for missing—or forgetting—opportunities to celebrate. In the 1700s, records show that the Schaeffler dance was again performed in Munich. During the 19th Century the dance spread to other communities, thanks to young men who had apprenticed in Munich as coopers. When they completed their apprenticeships, they moved to other communities and introduced the custom throughout Bavaria as well as Franconia, just to the north.

By 1842 a cooper in Murnau, about an hour south of Munich by train, introduced the dance to his town. Since Murnau at that time boasted 11 breweries (today, as far as I can tell, there are only two left) and many of the coopers had apprenticed in Munich, there was no shortage of experienced dancers, who were also required to be single and of good character. Murnau’s first recorded Schaeffler dance took place in 1859 and established a tradition now observing its 150th anniversary.

Originally, dance participants were limited to single young men of good character. By the 1960s, the numbers of men taking up the cooper trade dwindled and the changing times necessitated compromise and liberalization. If the dance was to survive, new sources of dancers had to be found. Thus, men who were married or worked in other occupations became eligible to participate. But despite the disappearance of barrel making as an occupation and the dispersal of the custom beyond its original location, one tradition is still maintained: the dance was, and still is, performed only every seven years.

In mid-July, Schaeffler dancers from Bavaria and Austria gathered for Murnau’s celebration. Not only was there dancing in the street on both Friday and Saturday, but on Sunday, crowning the weekend, all 2000 participants paraded through the old town before a crowd of about 10,000 visitors, who happily enjoyed the escape offered by the laughter and spectacle.

Marching brass bands. . . , horses and oxen pulling beer wagons. . . , clowns. . . , floats depicting Murnau’s history. . . , men twirling hoops. . . , standard bearers carrying the flags of each Schaeffler corps. . . , the Schaeffler themselves, most wearing the traditional green, white, and red outfits and leather apron of medieval barrel makers . . . , a group of people dressed in medieval costumes pulling a cart bearing a plague victim to his final resting place—all paraded through Murnau’s old town, representing some element of the Schaeffler dance tradition and the harsh times from which it developed. This cheerful legacy created during tragic experiences is a triumphal commemoration of the grim human events, survived thanks to the touch of humor and humanity.

For more photos, see

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Oberammergau Prepares Once Again to Honor 400 Year-old Pledge

In Bavaria, home of a world-famous sudsfest every September, preparations are well under way for another, less raucous event. In 2010, the Oberammergau Passion Play, first performed in 1634 in the small mountain town an hour’s drive south of Munich, will once more draw visitors from around the world to an unforgettable theatrical experience rooted in a southern German tradition of bringing the story of Christ’s crucifixion to the stage.

With next year’s performances scheduled between 15 May and 3 October, Oberammergau continues to honor a pledge its townspeople made almost four centuries ago. In the years before 1633, at least half of the town’s families had lost one or more members either to the Swedes sweeping through the region during the Thirty Years War or to the bubonic plague. Devastated by wars and disease, the villagers pledged to God that they would perform a play depicting the story of Christ’s crucifixion if they would be spared from further ravages. Oberammergau's plague-related death rate slowed and then declined completely. The following year on Pentecost, at the cemetery near graves of friends and family members who had recently perished from either plague or war, the townspeople fulfilled their promise.

The 2010 production will mark the 41st time the citizens of Oberammergau have worked together to honor the original promise. With an on-stage cast of 2000 and at least an equal number of people providing behind-the-scenes support, the Passion Play requires a massive effort and commitment on the part of town’s 5000 residents. In this age of commercialism, the play remains an authentic, local effort, a product of the town's history and tradition.

The town, not the local church or clergy, holds the responsibility for organizing the Passion Play. On the night of 18 April 2009, the town council and the Passion Play’s managing organization announced the cast. And with that announcement, all men in town who had roles in the play began growing beards—even the police and soldiers, who have special dispensation to look a bit scruffy. Walking down the streets of Oberammergau today, a visitor might think he had wandered into a haven for aging hippies rather than into the midst of a cherished religious tradition. The original requirement that performers must have been born in Oberammergau has become somewhat less restrictive and now anyone who has lived in the village for 20 years and is in good standing is eligible for a role. Women finally won the right to be in the cast in 1990, when a Bavarian court ruled that married women must be allowed stage roles.

Visitors watch performances in the 4700-seat open-air theater built in 1929, which has been outfitted with a roof to protect audiences during the frequent summer rains. In the years when the Passion Play is not performed, concerts and operas take over the stage during the summer months. Behind-the-scenes tours are also available—and the guides are often former or current participants in the performances who provide insider information on some of the intriguing details behind the performances, such as the artificial blood used in the crucifixion scene and the hollow wooden cross outfitted with mountain climbing equipment to help support the actor playing the role of Christ.

The performance of the 2010 version will last about seven hours. For the first time, the play will begin in the afternoon, break for a three-hour dinner intermission and then continue through the evening. Previously, performances began in the morning, broke for lunch and continued throughout the afternoon.

Right now is the time to firm up plans to attend a performance. Tickets are mandatory—and most visitors will need a package which includes hotel and meals. For further information, click here.