Thursday, March 20, 2008

"Osterfeuer" – A German Tradition in Texas

Easter is around the corner. In Germany--as in the United States--this means colorful eggs, Easter bunnies and spring decorations. But all across Germany people celebrate the end of winter with another ancient tradition with clear pre-Christian roots: the lighting of “Osterfeuer” (big community bonfires) on the Saturday before Easter. There is one community in the United States, Fredericksburg in Texas, that still maintains this old tradition brought by German immigrants. It is interesting, though, that the popular belief among the Texas Germans today is that this practice dates back to contacts between German settlers and their Indian neighbors. According to this story, the custom originated in the early years of German settlement in Fredericksburg, when Comanche Indian scouts lit signal fires in the night to communicate with their chiefs, who were negotiating a treaty with German leader John Meusebach. The scouts presumably were informing their chiefs about the movements of the town's inhabitants. The following is the translation of an excerpt from the Max Kade Institute’s recent German-dialect CD publication “German Words – American Voices.” It features a Texas-German speaker recorded in 1964 by linguist Glenn Gilbert.

The Easter Fires burn every year on the Saturday evening before Easter on the hills around Fredericksburg. If you look up from the middle of town on that evening, you can see eight to twelve fires on top of the hills. Most of the fires have been built by various boy scout troops, but some families have built their own fires for many years. The family fires are mostly built out of wood, but the boy scout fires are mostly built out of lubricating oil and all kinds of rubber tires. In the weeks before the fires are lighted, the scouts look for and fetch old tires and lubricating oil. Each troop wants to have the biggest fire and each one also wants its fire to flare up first. Nowadays the people on top of the hills get a signal when they should light their fires. The signal comes from the fair grounds where a pageant is given. The pageant tells the history of the Easter Fires. It shows how hard the times in 1845 and shortly thereafter were, when the first German settlers arrived in Fredericksburg. They not only had a hard time with the weather, but also with cultivating the land; the wild Indians, mostly Comanche and Apache, often stole livestock, killed people, and dragged children away. For that reason the people were very afraid of the Indians. But that is why John Meusebach, a captain, like John Smith, wanted to make a peace treaty with the Indians. So the men went with Meusebach to the San Saba River, where the Comanche Indians were, in order to speak with them. While the men were away, the women and children were alone at home. The Indians probably also knew that the men had gone away to speak with them, since they built fires everywhere on the hills around Fredericksburg. When it was dark, a few children saw the many fires and they were afraid of them. The mother did not know at first what to do, but then she remembered the Easter Story she had learned as a child (in the old country). She knew that the children would understand the story since they had seen wild rabbits everywhere in Texas. So she told the children that the Easter Bunny and his helpers had built the fires in order to boil and dye the eggs. The little rabbits all fetched wildflowers to make the dye. The children were satisfied with the story and stayed quiet. The mother was glad that the children had fallen asleep and that she could boil the eggs so that she herself would not have to think about the Indians. So it is that every Easter the Easter Fires burn, just as there is a community Christmas tree every Christmas.

Image: Osterfeuer in Benneckenstein (


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, since the area grasses have been so dry, the Easter Fires and the accompanying festival has been discontinued here in Fredericksburg since 2004.

Antje said...

Thank you for this important update! Let's hope the rains will come back soon to the area!

Celia Hayes said...

Some rains did come in the last couple of weeks - but it is still very dry!

I did a talk last month, about the early days of Fredericksburg, at the Pioneer Museum - and I had a long discussion about the Easter fire tradition. I thought it was more of a transplanted German regional tradition, which had frightened some of the early settler families who had come from another part entirely, and that's where the Easter egg story came from.

Celia Hayes, Author
The Adelsverein Trilogy