The Osterbaum – A German Easter Tradition

Osterbaum Does your family have a brightly colored Osterbaum this Easter? Perhaps you have noticed that some of the people in your neighborhood have decorated a tree in their front yard with dozens of plastic eggs. If you do not have German heritage, then this particular Easter tradition may be a bit confusing for you. I imagine these Easter Trees would be really confusing to someone whose family does not celebrate Easter.

The word “Osterbaum” is German, and it translates to “Easter Tree” in English. If you are of German heritage, or if you took a German class when you were in school, you may recall the German lyrics to the Christmas Carol that is called “Oh, Christmas Tree” in English. In German, it becomes “O Tannenbaum”. The German word “Tannen” translates to what would be called an evergreen in English. Evergreens were frequently used in Germany as Christmas trees when “O Tannenbaum” was written. The word “baum” in German means “tree” in English. The word “Ostern” means “Easter” in English.
Once you understand what these German words mean in English, it’s easier to understand that “Osterbaum” means “Easter Tree”.

Although I do have German heritage, the Osterbaum isn’t an Easter tradition that my family typically celebrated. My mother has Irish heritage and Polish heritage, so she didn’t grow up thinking that an Osterbaum was part of Easter. My grandmother, on the other hand, did have German heritage. I remember that she tried to explain to my mother that yes, these trees decorated with colorful eggs really were something people did to celebrate Easter. However, my mother could not be convinced of this. I think she may have thought it was just some wild idea my grandmother had thought up.

In reality, the Osterbaum a well known Easter tradition in Germany. The tradition goes back for centuries, and has been carried over to the United States (starting shortly after the Civil War ended). Typically, a family would hang brightly colored eggs in the branches of one of the trees in their front yard. Those that wanted an Easter tree that could be placed inside the home typically use cut pussy willow branches, or the branches of another type of flowering shrub that has little buds forming.

Brightly colored eggs are hung from the branches by a ribbon, or other kind of string. You may see Easter Trees that have used the plastic Easter Eggs that one can get from the grocery store at this time of year. Other trees will be decorated with real egg shells, that have been blown out before they were decorated. I’ve heard of some families decorating eggs by writing scriptures on them. You may see Easter Trees that have also added tiny Easter Baskets, or symbols of bunnies, baby chicks, or flowers, in addition to the eggs. Bunnies, eggs, and flowers are all symbols of rebirth and renewal, which fits in nicely with the Easter holiday.

Image by Miss Messie on Flickr