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It’s 1633….. A Promise is Made, A Prayer Answered, A Tradition Born!

In 2020 the 42nd Passion Play will be performed in the small Bavarian town of Oberammergau. Every 10 years from May to October, the play is performed to bring to life the story of Christ and fill a promise made almost 400 years ago.

During the 1600’s Europe and the UK were ravaged by the Black Death (bubonic plague) reducing populations by as much as 30%. Just before Christmas in 1633, a man returning to Oberammergau for the holidays unknowingly brought the plague with him. He died shortly after, but others had already been infected. As the villagers gathered to pray for deliverance, they made a promise to God that if no one else died they from the plague they would tell the story of Jesus of Nazareth every ten years for eternity. From the moment they made this commitment, no one else in the village died from the plague and those who were infected all recovered from the dreadful disease.

The first Passion Play was performed in 1634 and is now performed in those years that end in 0 with the exception of 1940 when the show was cancelled because of World War ll. Special performances were also held in 1934 and 1984, respectively for the 300th and 350th anniversaries of the play.

The play is still  performed today by the residents of Oberammergau. In order to be a participant, you must have been born in the town or have lived there for more than 20 years. The town’s population is around 5000 and over half participate in some way in the play. In 2010, the year I attended, there were 1,500 adults, 450 children, 100 musicians, 110 choristers, 41 stage hands and 7 lighting engineers. Sheep, goats, donkeys, horses and even a camel all played a part in bring the story to life.

The play is held in an outdoor covered theatre that holds close to 5000 people. The entire performance is about 8 hours long and is broken up with a 3 hour intermission so attendees may enjoy dinner.

A Hollywood movie once titled the story of Jesus as the “The Greatest Story Ever Told” which is fitting as this story is one that embraces humanity and its struggles, ideals, tragedy and triumph. The attention to detail, the costumes, the number of actors, over a 1000 on the stage with all the animals produces a powerful and moving production.

In 2010, I travelled with Wells Gray Tours to see the Passion Play and feel blessed to have experienced it. The story pulled on my heart strings and to have witnessed the unique spirit of the people who live in this beautiful, idyllic Bavarian village, who have worked together for almost 400 years to keep a promise alive is truly amazing.

2020 may seem a long way off, but tickets are difficult to get and we began planning over a year ago for this tour. In 2010, 109 performances were given and each one was a sold out event.  Don’t wait too long to make a decision, make the call to pre-book and guarantee yourself a seat to witness a live production of the original Passion Play.

Written by: Joan Niemeier