There aren’t many traditions that endure for 400 years — especially if it requires the participation of an entire community for months. As a result, it’s fair to say the Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany is unique.
Performed once a decade, the pageant has five shows each week from May through October. Set against the backdrop of the Bavarian Alps, the play is staged outdoors. About 5,000 attend each performance. Every showing sells out months in advance.
This is not your typical community theater project. About 1,000 actors participate and they are all local. In fact, only those who were born or have lived in Oberammergau for 20 years are allowed to participate in the performance, explains writer Paul Wade in an article in The Telegraph. When including the orchestra members, set builders, costume makers, etc., about half of the 5,000 villagers are actively involved.
The next year of production is 2020 and thousands from Utah will be attending.
The tradition of the Oberammergau Passion Play stems from Europe’s plague outbreak in the middle ages, an event called the greatest catastrophe ever by historytoday.com.
In 1633, with the plague raging across Europe, the villagers of Oberammergau were desperate. They prayed and asked God to spare them and their children. They agreed that if he saved them, once a decade they would perform a play commemorating the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ life to show their devotion and gratitude.
“The villagers were answered by God and therefore in 1634, the first Passion Play took place,” explains the event’s website. “The promise has been kept until today. From May 16 to Oct. 4, 2020, the 42nd Passion Play will take place in Oberammergau.”
The performances have changed little throughout the event’s history. One of the more significant occurred in 1990 when married and older women were allowed to perform for the first time, explains the Oberammergau Nature Park website.
“In the 21st century, the villagers' commitment is admirable, giving up time, work, holidays and money,” writes Wade. “Once the season starts, there are five performances each week until October. And, although the major speaking roles have two actors for each part, everyone else has to turn up like clockwork. With half the village involved, the other half still has to run the town.”
“I was not sure what to expect but was soon won over by the simple faith and goodness of the people and their magnificent scenery,” says S. Michael Wilcox, PhD, a veteran attendee of the past two Oberammergau Passion Plays and formerly an instructor at the LDS Institute of Religion adjacent to the University of Utah. “They had not been saved by the devastation of plague, but their commitment to the Lord who had saved their ancestors still burned bright and strong.”
Those who wish to witness the Oberammergau Passion Play in person in 2020 are encouraged to contact a local tour company experienced with handling arrangements for the program. Spaces sell out quickly and every decade there are far more people who hope to attend than there are available slots.