Ada Abroad: Living and Working in Germany

An online journal recording two years spent as a Fulbright/Pedagogical Exchange Service Teaching Assistant at secondary schools in Germany. (2003-2004 I was in a village near Bautzen; 2004-2005 I will be in Nordrhein-Westfalen.)

Location: Münster, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany

I'm an American living in Germany, working as a foreign language assistant at a secondary school. Future plans: getting my Ph.D. (probably in Germanic Linguistics), becoming a professor, living an ethical and meaningful life.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Ye Olde Traditional Witch-Burning

What I’m reading: Ulla Hahn’s Das verborgene Wort (fantastic! and the dialogue is in Kölsch dialect!); Lexikon der untergegangenen Sprachen

What I’m eating: vegetarian cevapcici (like meatballs, except they’re sticks) with tzatziki sauce, cucumbers, and millet

I attended a witch-burning in the neighboring village last weekend.

This quaint custom, which dates back to a simpler and smellier time, is reenacted faithfully each April 30th. Each year the peasants of Lusatia round up religious dissidents, uppity women, and unpopular local schoolteachers. These lucky folks are tied to stakes perched above 15-foot-high mounds of brushwood and thatch, which is then set ablaze. The screams echo throughout the countryside.

Just kidding, of course. The witch-burning (German Hexenbrennen) is real, but my description of it was fictional. Rather than burning real people, they use old clothes stuffed with newspapers. Local kids make the “witches” and set them up on the pyre during the afternoon. Then, when it starts to get dark, they parade through the town with lanterns and torches. The volunteer fire department is responsible for containing the blaze and keeping the crowd a safe distance away.

According to the locals, Hexenbrennen actually has nothing to do with the “Burning Times” of the Middle Ages—it’s a pre-Christian custom, and the effigies represent winter. (Everyone’s sick of winter by May, so why not pretend to burn it alive?)

I wasn’t kidding about the 15-foot-high mounds of brushwood and thatch, though. That’s real! These were the biggest fires that I’d ever seen! They were easily 20 feet in diameter. The flames extended at least 10 feet over the top of the pyres, and the sparks shot 75 feet into the air. In addition, there were firecrackers buried inside the mound. (I freaked out when they went off, because I wasn’t expecting fireworks and for a second I thought it was gunfire.) The spectacle was incredible, as was the heat.

If you're ever in the area on April 30th, I highly recommend checking it out!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That sounds fun. I think we should start that tradition up north this summer. Mom

1:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good idea! But let's keep the pyre on a smaller scale-- we don't want to start a forest fire!


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was brought up from the time I was 7 (now 38) to burn a witch. The small community I lived in had been doing it for 15 years prior my family moving in. Last year was the final year for the tradition in that community, so I must carry it on to our new community. I can't wait! It is the best parade in the world. a few years ago we were on the news to celebrate our 45th year. Its a blast. It would not be Halloween without it.

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