An Alpine Village’s Tribute after Overcoming Historic Hardship
Legends and Oaths
The year is 1633 and we are in the Bavarian village of Oberammergau (say: ober-ammer-gow), some 62 miles (100 km) south of Munich nestled below the dramatic alpine panorama with peaks soaring to 7,680 feet (2,340 m). The Black Death is raging. Untimely deaths and desperation have been the new “normal” for much too long.
Legends and rumors passed down through generations describe the bout of bubonic plague that devastated Bavaria’s towns and villages during the Thirty Year’s War (1618-48). As is the unwritten rule of creating legends, details were embellished, changed or left out entirely. For instance, the legend of a man named Kaspar, who carried the disease into the village of Oberammergau. It took 33 days and half of Oberammergau’s population to die before the villagers in their desperation made a vow to God with hopes of being saved. They promised they would honor the death and resurrection of Jesus – known as the Passion of Christ – by performing a re-enactment of the resurrection every 10 years until the end of time.
The plague ended. And the villagers kept their promise to stage the last five days of the life of Jesus.
This story is just one of the numerous legends around the origin of the Passion Play. There is no record of a man named Kaspar, nor did the plague end suddenly. Yet, when you peel back all the layers of legend and history, what has endured is a tradition of epic proportions.
An Enduring Tradition
The promise the villagers made nearly 400 years ago lives on today.
In fact, the 42nd iteration of the Oberammergau Passion Play (after two year’s delay due to the pandemic) is set to take place May 14 through October 2, 2022.
Never heard of it? The Oberammergau Passion Play is a historic spectacle that draws millions of visitors from all over the world. Aside from its fascinating history, evolution and endurance, the requirement that all of the actors, musicians, extras and stagehands be village inhabitants, make this event especially intriguing. In 2010 half of Oberammergau’s population were involved in the staging and performing of the play, whether as actors, orchestra members, ushers or stagehands, and more than 500,000 people attended performances.
The Passion Play is deeply rooted in the way of life of Oberammergau. Work schedules are built around it and an official hair and beard length decree is issued so performers will look the part when it’s time to appear on stage. Just imagine shaggy-bearded police officers with ponytails walking the streets of Oberammergau!
For generation upon generation, the play put forth an unquestioned anti-Semitic narrative. On the cusp of what would be the holocaust, Adolf Hitler endorsed the anti-Jewish tropes in the play. Finally, in 1980, after as many as 50 years of domestic and international criticism of the play’s anti-Semitic elements, movement to change the narrative was afoot. By 2010, with the help of Jewish scholars and committees, inter-faith experts, and turnover in the generational make-up of Oberammergau’s Community Council, transformation became possible.
Among the fascinating plethora of human celebration and joy across modern and ancient cultures around the globe, the Passion Play of Oberammergau is just one, but it is one that has managed to survive, evolve and transcend, reaching outside of its religious sphere to remain a fixture in its origin village.
Tickets and Information
If you are interested in attending this fascinating historic event, our Bicycling Secret Bavaria Plus! the Austrian Alps will put you right in the vicinity of the Passion Play, at just the right time!
Our 11-day tour ends in Reutte, on the Austrian side of the Alps, a mere 24 miles (40 km) away from Oberammergau. A perfect way to extend your stay in this stunning picture-book region and experience a once-in-a-decade event.
If you are interested in attending the Passion Play to round out your cycling adventure, tickets and lodging need to be booked in advance, so we recommend you start looking for tickets early on the official webpage: passionsspiele-oberammergau.de. Tickets are available as accommodation packages or as attendance tickets only.
Past, present and future await you!