Easter is always when I get a little homesick for Germany. Because that is one of the times in the year when I miss the traditions that I grew up with.
Every Easter, Fabian and Simon Pöpel come back to the small village they grew up in to participate in a very special Easter tradition. The brothers are “Easter horsemen”: On Easter Sunday they take part in a huge procession of 280 horses and announce the resurrection of Jesus Christ in several villages. They grew up in the East German region of Lusatia, home to many Sorbs. Lusatia stretches along the German-Polish border and reaches into Poland as well as Eastern parts of Germany. The Sorbs, a Slavic ethnic group, have their own traditional language, Sorbian, as well as many rituals that have been well preserved even today.
One of them is the way they spend Easter. Well known are the Sorbian Easter eggs that are decorated in a beautiful, artistic manner that not only requires great skill, but also patience.
“I decorated eggs with my girl friend this week”, Simon says. “She decorates ten to twenty eggs each year and it takes her one to two hours per egg.”
If you have that patience, you will end up with beautiful Easter eggs.
But for Fabian the highlight of each year is the Easter procession. Fabian rides a horse about once a week. But Simon only practices twice a year before the procession, he says. Their dad has been a horseman all their live and they helped him every Easter with getting the horse ready for the procession, they groomed and decorated it and held it during breaks.
“We couldn’t wait until we were finally old enough to participate ourselves”, Fabian remembers. “You have to be 14 years old.”
Fabian is riding in the procession for the 13th time this year. It is the 11th time for Simon. And their younger brother has his second procession this year. You don’t necessarily have to be an experienced horseback rider – and many are not, both horsemen say.
“You just have to be confident”, says Simon. “You have to show the horse respect and pay attention to the animal’s reaction in different situations.” And those can be challenging since the streets are lined with many people, impressed by the celebration. Visitors come from near and far to watch the procession.
The participants follow a strict procedure every year.
“The preparations start on Ash Wednesday”, Fabian explains. “That is when lent starts. Everyone decides what they want to abstain from until Easter. Often it is alcohol, and for kids, candy.” During these weeks, they attend lent sermons at church. On Holy Thursday, they attend the first Easter Service. The next service is on Good Friday and the men also follow the Way of the Cross in their church and make confession.
“That is our inner preparation for Easter”, Fabian says. “We also attend Easter vigil on Saturday and some attend mass on Easter Sunday.”
Also on Friday and Saturday, the horses arrive. Since not every horseman has their own horse, they rent them from places in different states in Germany.
“When they get here, we wash and groom them, we braid the mane and the tail and we put ribbons in on Sunday morning. We also ride a practice round on Saturday to adjust to the horse.”
On Sunday morning, their mom gives them a blessing when they leave the house and go to the stables to saddle the horses. They then pray in front of the Holy cross and meet the other horsemen in the village. Together, they make their way to the church, where the priest is handing the flag to the flag bearer, as well as the cross and the statue of the Holy Mary to guide them on their way. They proceed to bring the message that He has risen to the neighboring villages and to the Marienstern monastery. Before they leave the village they ride three circles around the church and sing the “Hallelujah” three times. They also sing and pray on their way.
“I still get goose bumps every year”, Fabian says. “I am so proud to be part of this special celebration and to announce the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
The approximately 140 pairs of horsemen (two horses are always walking beside each other) ride a little more than 20 miles that day. They spend five hours on their horses that day.
Yes, it does hurt, both men say, but the pain is worth the special experience. Altogether, about 1,500 horsemen in Lusatia spread the message of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday
Fabian says, he would like to watch the other processions, but he can’t because they are the same time as his procession. Simon had to miss it one year while he was in Canada. “I really missed it. You are missing a piece of home and tradition. Easter just wasn’t complete.”
While Fabian who works at a foundation to preserve Sorbian culture still lives in Lusatia and only moved to another village, Simon is studying education in Potsdam, a city about 150 miles away.
“I definitely want to move back home in a few years”, he says. “I mostly miss our language, Sorbian, up there. And there is just no place like home.”