His beard was quite impressive. As the receptionist at a beautiful country hotel near Oberammergau, Germany, he handed me the keys for the rooms of my travel group—rooms that had been reserved for two years already. We were there to see the famous Oberammergau Passion play.
My bearded friend represented what, when I was a child back home attending church, I always pictured the innkeeper who turned Mary and Joseph away looked like. But this one was very friendly, and he even had a place in the inn.
Every 10 years since 1634, the people of Oberammergau perform the “Play of the Suffering, Death and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ” in their picturesque village in Bavaria, Germany. In the middle of the Thirty Years War, and after months of suffering and death from the plague, the Oberammergauers made an oath to God: if spared from more plague deaths, they would perform the Passion play every 10 years forevermore. The tradition of the Oberammergau Passion play was born, and each edition includes nearly half of the town’s residents.
A Passion play is a very early form of religious education, like the nativity play at Christmas. These plays are performed in many countries today, including Germany, Austria, Hungary, Portugal, France and the Netherlands. Europassion, the Association of Passion Play Villages, has almost 80 members all over Europe.
Emigrants brought the tradition to many areas all over the world. Not far from Oberammergau, the village of Erl in Tyrol, Austria, will welcome guests to its theater for 32 performances in 2019. This version is the oldest Passion play in the German-speaking countries, beginning as early as 1613, when pilgrims on their way to Altötting made a stop in Erl to see the city’s performance.
Among all the Passion plays, Oberammergau has developed its own unique version. Very early, the Oberammergauers had the idea of inviting guests to watch. In 1900, Germany’s first fully electrified railway was opened to Oberammergau, bringing the rich and famous to the Bavarian Alps. Oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, architect Gustave Eiffel, airship pioneer Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin, automobile designer Henry Ford and U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower, as well as kings and bishops, are some of the many celebrities and dignitaries who visited from around the world. Today, the Oberammergau Passion Play Theater, which holds 4,500, is the world’s largest open-air stage with a covered seating area.
Again in 2020, more than 2,000 Oberammergauers—actors, singers, instrumentalists and stage technicians—will present the play. Between May and October, actors will participate in 102 performances, each lasting five hours into the darkness of the night. With the experience of 42 seasons in 400 years, the town of Oberammergau has developed a perfect system around the play. Tickets, for groups only, come with hotel rooms in the area, and pre-arranged dinners are served during the three-hour intermission.
The Barterlass (beard decree) is an important part of every season, and I’m sure my innkeeper will be involved again. Starting from Ash Wednesday in the year before a play, the men of Oberammergau are not allowed to shave so as to have a Biblical appearance. They will all be on stage somewhere, perhaps among the cheering crowd that welcomes Jesus to Jerusalem, as Roman soldiers who escort him towards Golgotha, or even in one of the leading roles as disciples around Jesus.
For me, standing outside the theater during the play is as fascinating as the play itself. While tour guides and bus drivers wait for their groups, the men, women and children of Oberammergau run in and out of the backstage area of the theater all afternoon. They work in hotels and restaurants, or they take care of their family farm. But when it is time for the extras to be on stage, they come in full costumes on their bikes to play their roles, often bringing goats, sheep and donkeys with them. When their part in the play is over, they simply return home or to work.
The Oberammergauers never forget the origins of their unique tourism offering. To honor those origins, they renew the oath two years before the play begins. In anticipation of Oberammergau 2020, a festive procession trekked on Oct. 20, from the city’s Evangelical church to the Catholic church, followed by an ecumenical worship service in the Passion Play Theater led by bishops of both churches. At the end of the evening, the actors were announced in a festive reception.
My innkeeper has enough to do. He will again welcome the guests who come from all over the world to see and hear the most important story mankind has to tell.
Christian Utpatel is the owner and founder of Terra Lu Travel, based north of Frankfurt, Germany. His company is a full-service international inbound tour supplier specializing in faith-based travel in Germany and central Europe. Reach out to Utpatel or go to germany4groups.com to learn more.
Top photo: Oberammergau Passion Play
Photo by Bavaria Tourism