Oberammergau: Devoted to a Passionate Promise

The little village of Oberammergau is more than just another charming German town. It’s a place where history is full of faith and sincere gratitude. It’s a place that oozes of timeless moments. And it’s a place where a promise to God has been kept for almost 400 years. Oberammergau is truly the soul of Bavaria.

Located in southern Germany not far from the Austrian border, Oberammergau is adorably charismatic and enchanting. Streets are lined with half-timbered houses whose flower boxes are exploding with brilliant red blooms. Many of the buildings are adorned with ‘lüftlmalerei’ – ornate fresco-like paintings on the outside walls, meant to display the residents’ religious beliefs or family occupation. Since Oberammergau is a deeply religious town, many of the paintings depict saints or other characters from the Bible. However, two houses – nicknamed the ‘Red Riding Hood House’ and the ‘Hansel and Gretel House’ – are colorfully painted with children and are said to have inspired the classic fairytales of the same name.

Oberammergau is also home to some of the most talented woodcarvers in Germany. These thriving little businesses offer exquisite hand and machine-cut plates, bowls, decorative items, toys, and religious icons. Visitors can not only browse a shop’s selection but observe as the resident master creates a work of art out of a simple block of wood. The fresh scent of sawdust and wood chips linger in the air around the stores as if drawing customers in with a signature perfume.

Despite all of its charm and beauty, the magnetism of Oberammergau is its emotional Passion Play. Back in the dark days of the Thirty Years War, the little town watched as Europe fell victim to an even harsher enemy – Plague. This menace brutally ravaged home after home, community after community, city after city and leaving almost no one in its wake. As this Black Death crept over Oberammergau’s borders and her population started to feel its grip, the town cried out to a higher power for help. Not wanting to be obliterated as other places had been, the citizens made a solemn promise to God – the desperate prayer of a desperate people. They swore that if God saved their town, they’d reenact the story of Christ’s death and resurrection every ten years as a commemoration of His mercy. They made this ultimate deal in 1633 and by 1634, they were ready to make good on their bargain. Although Oberammergau lost some to the deadly disease, the town as a whole escaped extinction and the Passion Play began its long-running history. Its first performance was held in the town cemetery, perhaps so even the plague’s final victims could look upon this promise upheld. Even now in these modern times where religion sometimes falls in the cracks, the citizens of Oberammergau refuse to tempt fate and remain faithful to their ancestor’s word. Their beautiful rendition of ‘the greatest story ever told’ runs a whopping six hours and is performed in an open-air theater through all kinds of weather.

Picturesque and eternally grateful, Oberammergau takes its promises very seriously. The next ‘installment’ of that promise is scheduled for May-September 2020.

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