Something extraordinary is happening in the village
People are leaving their houses. They actually walk in the streets, greeting and talking to each other. Young mothers push their buggies side by side. Neighbours I have not spoken to in years now stop for a klönschnack, a pleasant little chat.
It is one of the ironies of the lockdown: while cities have sunk into a coma, villages are coming to life again.
This village is usually quite dead. In the morning, most people take the car to work, return in the evenings and then remain indoors to have dinner and watch television. The local pub closed last year, for lack of guests. Only for funerals and communal festivities the villagers still gather.
But spring is in full swing, and people are tired of staying indoors.
“Forth from the cave-like, gloomy gate; crowds a motley and swarming array. Everyone suns himself gladly today. The Risen Lord they celebrate, for they themselves have now arisen.” Straight out of Goethe’s Osterspaziergang, the astonishing scenes this Easter weekend.
Many tend to their gardens and go for nature walks. Others are busy repairing their long-unused bicycles. For once they all have the time, and the urge, to talk to each other. Everybody says how glad they are these days to be living in the countryside, rather than being stuck in a small city apartment.
“Hark! Sounds of village joy arise; here is the people’s paradise, contented, great and small shout joyfully: ‘Here I am Man, here dare it to be!’” Goethe’s Faust once again, romanticising only a bit.
For all the Easter bustle, people do observe physical distancing. It comes easily to northern Germans who are more reserved than their southern compatriots anyway. Infection rates are lower here than among the more tactile Bavarians.
The only problem is not being able to shake hands anymore – not so much as a greeting, but as a way to seal an agreement.
The farmers and the foremen at the smithy, who traditionally make small or big deals in the spring, are at a real loss. Unable to shake hands, they keep reiterating the terms of their agreements to each other. “So mokt wi dat”, they say in Low German, that’s how we’ll do it. They exchange affirmative nods and looks, but without a handshake the deal somehow does not seem valid, and uncertainty remains.
The farmers miss shaking hands as badly as singles miss hugging.
Every year, the villagers celebrate Easter with an old tradition, the Easter Fire. They gather on a field and burn a barn-size pile of wood, which young men have amassed over weeks. When they set it ablaze, they add some dry straw and fire-crackers. It is always a massive inferno, with the heat so intense that people shield their faces.
Needless to say, the Fire involves heavy drinking. The women usually stay apart from the men, further away from the flames, while the children run around trying to blacken each other’s faces with charcoal.
The Easter Fire has nothing to do actually with the Christian holiday. It is an ancient heathen ritual, still celebrated in villages all over northern Germany, to chase the winter’s evil spirits and mark the beginning of spring. While the Church managed to stamp it out in the rest of the country, the deep-rooted paganism up here has proved more resilient.
Years ago, I took an evening flight from London to Hamburg on Easter Day. As the plane descended, the Englishman sitting by the window suddenly exclaimed: “There are hundreds of huge fires down there, the whole country is in flames, what is going on!?” I assured him that this time around, the Royal Air Force had nothing to do with it.
This year, the Easter Fire has been cancelled, for the first time since World War Two. The entire pile of wood was shredded and chaffed, in one sad afternoon.
The next village fest, the erection of the May Tree, may not take place either. In this odd tradition, the male villagers chop down a 30m-tall fir tree in the forest, cart it to the village square and re-erect it – through sheer muscular force.
The men use long wooden poles to push it up, but strictly no tractors or pulley blocks. It is a long hard struggle, helped by plenty of schnapps, as the women look on and mutter taunts.
So far, the May Tree fest has not been cancelled. It would be a suitable event to celebrate the renaissance of this village.
Easter is about resurrection after all, and that idea has never seemed more appealing.