The Unique 400-Year-Old Event You Must See This Summer, Or Wait Another 8 Years

The Passion Play has been performed in Oberammergau since 1634. At the time, the bubonic plague ravaged Europe, including Bavaria. Seeing their families and friends dying from the disease, the remaining villagers gathered together and made a vow to God. The townspeople promised that they would perform a passion play reenacting the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ every 10 years if God would make the plague pass through the village without further devastation.

The story goes that God responded to the villagers’ entreaty and the people of Oberammergau have been performing the Passion Play ever since. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, what once seemed like a charming tale of spiritual faith from another time, now feels like a flash of hopeful news. We would all like reassurance that there is hope at the end of the current global crisis. A trip to see this 400-year-old event may move to the top of the list for many travelers this summer, especially since it will not occur again for another 8 years.

Photo Credit: Sue Reddel & Diana Laskaris

What Is The Oberammergau Passion Play

The enchanting town of Oberammergau — located on the Ammer River in Bavaria, Germany — has a population of about 5,500. It is known primarily for its dedication to the art of woodcarving and the Passion Play. The Passion Play is a live theatrical performance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is performed by the residents of Oberammergau and is complete with music, costumes, lighting, and fully directed and choreographed staging. Over the centuries, the production has been enhanced with technology and the sophistication of stagecraft. What has not changed is the promise those villagers made nearly 400 years ago to perform the work every 10 years. The promise has been kept with only exceptions for huge upheavals such as World War II.

Another such upheaval will enter the history books. The 42nd performance of the Passion Play was set for 2020 but the COVID-19 pandemic altered the plans. Oberammergau has had to delay the performances to ensure the safety of everyone concerned. But after the delay, from May through October 2022 the play will be performed again. The Passion Play normally draws some 500,000 visitors. This performance is anticipated to host over 750,000 people from all over the world. Dealing with our modern plague of the coronavirus seems to have touched a nerve worldwide. There is a certain urgency about the origins of the Passion Play, the 17th century plague, and the villagers’ promise that brings the mystery and history to life. The Passion Play performances now seem more relevant than ever and the world is responding with an overwhelming desire to experience it for themselves.

Photo Credit: Sue Reddel & Diana Laskaris

Where Is It Performed And By Whom

Originally, the Passion Play was performed in a cemetery above the graves of those who perished during the Black Plague. Then, a small wooden stage became home to the performances. Eventually a theater was constructed to hold the performances, and that theater has undergone several expansions and renovations over the years. After the latest round of renovations, the theater now holds over 4,700 people with all the necessary comforts and amenities of a modern performance space. The bulk of the theater is covered with an open air end behind the stage. The audience gains a sense of nature participating as it peeks through the back of the stage during the performance.

The residents of Oberammergau themselves are the members of the cast and only those born in the village or who have lived there for at least 20 years are legally permitted to perform the main speaking parts. More than 1,500 adults and 500 children will perform in the play in German. There is also a choir and an orchestra. Others create the sets, make handcrafted costumes, design lighting, sound, and other aspects of the production. Shops, restaurants, and local establishments stock up, welcome, and care for the hundreds of thousands of visitors that come from all over the world to see the Passion Play. The whole town gets involved, not to mention that live animals, ranging from sheep and donkeys to camels. Oberammergau transforms itself into a living testament to the faith that its residents keep even today.

Something New For Young People

The 2022 performances bring something new, two Youth Days aimed at an audience of teenagers and young adults between 16 and 28 years old. They will receive a special background introduction by the play’s director, be able to have a discussion with the participants, and receive a discounted price on tickets. There are more than 8,000 young people with various nationalities, religions, and cultures expected to participate. The goal of the program is to promote an open and meaningful exchange among young people from different backgrounds about cultural and religious matters.

Photo Credit: Sue Reddel & Diana Laskaris

Tips For Seeing The Passion Play In 2022

The Passion Play in Oberammergau is truly a unique experience. Because of the delay and conditions in the world today, it is going to be even more highly attended than usual. While you can buy tickets and make arrangements for accommodations and meals on your own, we think it is much easier to do it through a tour package or agency. There are several different companies that manage the entire process. Some include land or even cruise travel, and the Passion Play could be an excursion included in the overall plan. When we went to see the play, we booked a package just for the event, which included overnight accommodations at a nearby town and our meal during a break in the play in Oberammergau. The Passion Play website provides information on some options, and an internet search will provide many more.

Photo Credit: Sue Reddel & Diana Laskaris

Pro Tip 

The Passion Play is performed in two parts. The first part starts in the afternoon and runs for 2.5 hours. There is then a 3-hour break during which you have dinner and can explore the town. Then, the play resumes for the second part for another 2.5 hours. Be prepared to experience different temperatures as the day turns to night. Dress for comfort and prepare for temperature changes over the course of the evening.

It is a stunning reality that the origins of the Oberammergau Passion Play are as meaningful today as they were back in the 1600s. It is a unique and memorable tradition that will clearly remain impactful for many years to come.

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