Tag Archives: Bautzen

Burn the Witch — Hexenbrennen

In Saxony, a province in eastern Germany, near the city of Bautzen lies the small village of Schwarznaußlitz.  It is the home of some family members of our friends Werner and Henny, whom we visited with them last September.  We enjoyed that time tremendously, and since we were passing by again on our way to Poland, we wanted to stop and say hello.  By coincidence, we happened to arrive the afternoon before the village’s annual witch burning.

Each year at this time Schwarznaußlitz and the surrounding villages burn their witches.  Rooted in antiquity, it is a major social event for the village and especially for the children.  Everyone gathers together after dark on the last night of April to burn a witch, and by doing so, usher out the bad spirits of winter before welcoming the spring.

Huge pile of branches and wood in a field

The witch pyre accumulating

The village saves all of its waste wood (tree trimmings, scrap lumber, etc.) throughout the year, bringing them to a designated space in a farmer’s field during the week before Hexenbrennen (‘witch burning’).  The wood is all pushed into a huge pile, upon which is placed the Hexen (witch).  Don’t worry, it’s not a real witch, but an effigy made of wood and fabric.  Sometimes, perhaps after a particularly bad winter, they burn more than one witch!

A 'witch' made of wood and fabric on top of the wood pile

The Witch and her Friends

Hexenbrennen is Saxony’s version of Walpurgisnacht (Walpurgis’ Night), a traditional spring festival that takes place on April 30th in large parts of Central and Northern Europe.  This date is exactly 6 months from All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween).  It is named after Saint Walpurga, an English missionary who was canonized on May 1st (May Day) in the year 870.  The eve of May day, traditionally celebrated with dancing, came to be known in Germany as Walpurgisnacht. On this night, witches are reputed to hold a large celebration on the Brocken (the highest mountain in the Harz mountain range) and await the arrival of spring.

The burning of people that were thought to be witches was common throughout Europe between the 15 and 18th Centuries.  Estimates vary, but perhaps as many as 50,000 accused witches (about three-quarters of whom were women) were killed in this manner.  The peak of the witch hunting phenomenon occurred in central and southern Germany from 1561 to 1670.   Hexenbrennen may be a carry-over from this legacy, but it has long left its tormented history behind, and despite potential misogynist undertones, it is now a fun family celebration that we looked forward to attending.

We arrived around sunset with our generous hosts Andreas and Regina after enjoying some warm-up beverages at their home.  They introduced us to their friends, including the man who owns the house that we stayed in when we visited last September.  Everyone was very welcoming and the whole village seemed to know that we were visiting Canadians (it’s a small village and word gets around).  Many were glad to speak with us, using their limited English and my extremely limited German.

Andreas with his arm around Diane in front of the witch pyre

Diane and Andreas

The local volunteer fire department was serving food and drink as a fundraiser.  We tried all of the food, washed down with generous amounts of German beer.  I enjoyed the herring sandwich (strips of pickled herring on a white bun soaked in herring juice), but it wasn’t to Diane’s likingWe both really liked the wurst (sausage, pronounced ‘vurst’) and delicious schaschlik (a shish kabob of pork).

A man cooking food on a grill with a customer in front of him

Great food!

Soon after nightfall, the children of the village were armed with flaming swords and marched up the hill in a procession.  They approached the huge pyre, circled it, and threw their torches into the tangle.

Children in the dark carrying burning torches

Village children carrying torches

The fire started slowly at first, but soon grew into a massive inferno.  The heat it threw off was overpowering, and it was necessary to stand at least 20 meters away.

The burning pyre with the remnants of a witch on top

The witch burning

At some point in the proceedings, we climbed the hill with Andreas to look out across the countryside.  In the distance we could see 8 fires burning in other villages, each casting an eerie orange glow. By tradition the villages compete to amass the largest wood pile, something that when lit will be seen for miles around and be the envy of all the other villages.  The people in Schwarznaußlitz seemed a little bit dismayed by the fact that their wood pile wasn’t larger, and talked fondly of the good old days when it was much bigger.  They spoke nostalgically of the grandest pile they’d ever seen, in which village it was located, and in what year.

Also by tradition, the young men of the villages compete in a related ritual.  They try to sabotage the other villages’ plans by igniting their wood piles before the big night.  As a result, it is necessary for the young men of each village to provide round-the-clock security for their own wood piles from their inception until the night of Hexenbrennen, which is typically about a week.

The young men of Schwarznaußlitz take this to a rather extreme level.  Each night they protect their wood pile while sitting beside it on old couches.  They also erect a massive guard tower equipped with high powered search lights to monitor the perimeter.

A tower made of scaffolding and plastic in the field near the witch pyre

The elaborate guard tower with Diane in front.

At night the farmer’s field where the wood pile is located resembles a prison camp, with scheduled watches, posted sentries, and foot patrols.  Armed with pellet guns, radios, adrenaline, and beer, they guard their pyre with paramilitary bravado.

Special forces flag with words 'Mess with the best, die like the rest'

Do you think they’re taking this a bit too seriously?

Although it is a now a crime to burn another village’s wood pile before the big night (a huge uncontrolled fire, even out in a farmer’s field, could be dangerous), it does happen.  In a bold nighttime sortie, someone set fire to the couches of the security squad of the neighbouring village Singwitz.  The cunning perpetrators have yet to be apprehended.  I heard stories of the sneak attacks that the Schwarznaußlitz men had repelled, and how the assailants from other villages had repeatedly been denied.  At first I thought these stories were concocted or the result of overactive, beer-fired imaginations, but when on the final night I was told that they repelled 7 different groups of invaders, I started to believe.  Once again this year, the young men of Schwarznaußlitz were triumphant, and the wood pile survived until the time of its scheduled immolation.

Burning pyre with remnants of the witch visible in the flames

Burning pyre with the remnants of the witch

We greatly enjoyed our repeat visit to Schwarznaußlitz.  We would like to thank Andreas, Regina, Lilo, Stephan, and Juliane for hosting us.  We are very fortunate to know them, and it was great to visit them during Hexenbrennen and to participate in this unique event.

European Handball

We had the opportunity to attend a game of European Handball in the German town of Baudsen. My friend’s first cousin (once-removed) plays on a men’s team there, but is currently out of action after knee surgery required to repair a handball injury. He and his family continue to support the team and so they invited us to attend a match. I didn’t know what to expect. I had barely heard of European Handball. I did play something called that once in gym class in high school, but I was equally thinking that we might be going to watch American handball which is similar to squash but you hit the ball with your hand rather than a racquet.

It turns out that we were there to see European Handball, also known as team handball or Olympic handball. It’s a team sport played in a gymnasium with 6 players plus a goal keeper per side. At either end of the playing area, which is about the size of a basketball court, the keepers guard their nets which are bigger than an ice hockey goal but smaller than a soccer net. The winning team is the one with the most goals after two 30 minute periods of play.

European Handball court, players, goal, and referee

The game is fast, dynamic, and extremely physical, played by tall, big guys who can take a pounding. I would describe it as a cross between basketball, soccer, and lacrosse (but without the latter’s sticks or padding). The game is played with a ball approximately 20 centimeters in diameter, which looks like a small volleyball. It is covered with a slightly sticky resin to improve the grip, making it look dirty as it collects sweat and grime with use.

The teams run back and forth down the court, trying to get free of their defenders. Fast breaks are common. Players can hold the ball for 3 seconds before passing, dribbling, or shooting. After receiving the ball, they can take up to 3 steps without dribbling, and three more if they dribble. Once they stop dribbling, they may take a further 3 steps and then have 3 seconds to pass or shoot. if that sounds complicated, it looks much simpler in practice. Like in basketball, dribbling is kept to a minimum anyhow because passing is much quicker.

Players pushing to get to the 6 meter lineThe real action happens at the 6 meter line, which extends in a semi-circle around the goal like the 3-point line in basketball. Neither defenders nor attackers are allowed to enter this zone. The offensive team wants to get as close to this line as possible and have a player in position and undefended to shoot on the opponent’s net. Like in basketball, they try to do this with a mix of rapid passing and quick changes of direction. To get as close as possible, more often than not, the shooter runs head long into the defenders and leaps into the air to shoot, often with disastrous consequences. More than once we saw a shooter slammed down to the gym floor on his back by the defenders.

Defender on the ground

We watched in a gym that had about 1 meter of space around the perimeter — so close that you could smell the action while simultaneously facing the very real threat of getting a ball in the face or a player in our laps. In typical German fashion, beer is sold in the school gym lobby to quench the throats of the screaming spectators, adding to the revelry.

Playing leaping to shoot

Excited by the action, I went out onto the floor at half time to give it a try. The ball felt familiar (I played basketball and volleyball in high school), but a bit sticky. I could hold and bounce it well enough. And so I ran up to the 6 meter line, leapt in the air, threw the ball into the net, and pulled my right groin. Apparently European Handball is a young man’s game.

The Dom of Bautzen

In the city of Bautzen in the Saxony region of Germany stands St. Peter’s Cathedral.  It was built between 1456 and 1463, and had major restorations in 1634 after much of the town was destroyed by fire.

Exterior of St. Peter's Church in Bautzen

What I find most intriguing about this church is that it is shared by Catholics and Protestants.  Since 1530, the church has been home to two different congregations.  The church is divided into two halves, each of which has its own alter, pulpit, organ, and pews.  The two organs are sonically matched to one another, allowing them to be played together.  The separate hours of services are set by a contract made between the two groups in the year 1583 and which is still in effect today.

gan in St. Peter's Church -- Protestant Portion

Organ in St. Peter's Church (Protestant Portion)

St. Peter’s is the oldest Catholic-Lutheran shared church in Germany.  Shared churches are known as “Simultaneum”, where public worship is conducted by adherents of two or more religious groups.  They became common in some parts of Europe in the wake of the Protestant Reformation.  In Bautzen, an Evangelical Lutheran started preaching in the church in 1523, which eventually lead to the sharing of the church by two different congregations.

This arrangement hasn’t been without some tension.  There is a railing about 1 meter high between the two halves of the church.  This railing is a diminutive replacement of its predecessor which was about 4 meters high (12 feet) and which was considered necessary in tenser times.  The Catholics were expelled from the church for a short time in the Bohemian Uprising on 1620.

I find it inspiring that in this town in the former East Germany, two different religious groups have been worshiping collaboratively in very close proximity for almost 500 years, while the same groups have clashed violently elsewhere (e.g. Northern Ireland).  Apparently religious tolerance is possible and sustainable.  I think they set a moving example for others to follow.