Pretzels, parades and burning snowmen: Laetare Sunday

Pretzels, parades and burning snowmen: Laetare Sunday

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

In times when normalcy has been thoroughly upended, it’s good to hold on to some of the old traditions. That’s particularly the case when they’re indicative of brighter days to come.

On March 14, 2021, Catholic or Anglican parishes worldwide will celebrate Laetare Sunday. On this day, the fourth Sunday of Lent, church tradition allows for a welcome respite from the otherwise solemn season of repentance and fasting. It’s a day set aside for rejoicing in anticipation of the coming Easter holiday. In churches, flowers may adorn the altars, organ music is played a bit more boisterously, and Catholic priests traditionally wear rose-colored vestments—fitting ways to celebrate a day whose very name translates to “rejoice.”

Even if you’re not a regular churchgoer, you’ll see echoes of the holiday expressed in many different forms across Europe.

In the United Kingdom and Ireland, Laetere Sunday is celebrated as Mothering Sunday. Back in the Middle Ages, it was a day set aside for returning to the church in which one had been baptized and instructed as a child; in other words, one’s mother church. Apprentices and domestic servants were given the day off in order to return to their hometowns. They would not only go to church but reunite with their families and see their mothers, a precious occasion that came around all too seldom. The tradition of presenting mothers with gifts and flowers plucked from the sides of the roads that led to home survive as vestiges of the old church holiday.

In Belgium, the overwhelming majority of carnivals are organized around two different times of year. In addition to those held on the weekend preceding Lent, a second group is celebrated on Laetare Sunday. The country’s most famous carnivals of this type include the Blancs Moussis in Stavelot, the Ours (bears) in Andenne and the Chinels in Fosses-la-Ville. It won’t shock, but may dismay you to learn these celebrations won’t be taking place in 2021.

In Luxembourg, Laetere Sunday is popularly known as Bretzelsonndeg. On the day, it is tradition for boys and men to give pretzels to their sweethearts as a sign of their affection. Should the feelings be mutual, they can expect to receive an egg on Easter Sunday. If the sentiment is not reciprocated, they’ll receive an empty basket instead. In leap years, the tradition is reversed: girls and women are the ones to present their loves with pretzels. Unlike in France and Germany, Luxembourg likes its pretzels sweet, a treat made of puff pastry, icing and slivered almonds.

Laetare gradually came to be linked to other spring customs pre-dating Christianity. Many of the ancient rites of spring involved fire, a symbol of the sun, as a means of awakening nature from its winter slumber. Setting alight bonfires or running through fields with burning torches were means in which the earth was coaxed back into its productive season. The way in which ancient folk viewed this time of year—the struggle between summer and winter—slotted in nicely with Laetare, with its contrast between joy and sorrow.

These ancient farewell-to-winter rites live on in Germany, particularly in the Palatinate and nearby areas. Many communities organize a “Sommertagszug,” a colorful procession of song and dance meant to send winter packing for good. “Summer day pretzels” are carried on sticks decorated with colorful ribbons and a hard-boiled egg. Some of the bigger celebrations of this kind are found in Weinheim, Heidelberg, Haßloch, Mannheim and Speyer.

A brightly decorated stick with a yeast pretzel.| Photo by HDValentin Valentin Bachem
A brightly decorated stick with a yeast pretzel. | Photo by HDValentin Valentin Bachem

Another interesting custom on the day is the staging of a battle between summer and winter. Forst, a village along the German Wine Road, puts on a well-known version of such a play, the Hansel-Fingerhut-Fest. The two opposing seasons are represented by two boys, each in his own cone-shaped house. The house symbolic of summer is clad in ivy, while winter’s home is made of straw. As each recites the virtues of his respective season, the figure of Hansel-Fingerhut, dressed in rags and with a blackened face, chases after the ladies and tries to kiss them. If he manages to plant a smooch on you, don’t wipe away the telltale smudge left on your cheek before the proceedings are finished, lest you jinx summer into not appearing.

Another way in which winter is banished is through the setting alight of an effigy of winter. In Heidelberg, Weinheim and Speyer, the parade’s finale involves the torching of a giant snowman. For a list of the communities that celebrate spring with plays, processions and symbolic burnings, see (pretty much all cancelled this year, of course).

While we still can’t celebrate these special days en masse as we’d much prefer, there’s no stopping us from enjoying a hard-boiled egg (a symbol of fertility) and a pretzel (a sign of the sun), humming along to “Strih, Strah, Stroh, de Sommerdag is do,” the traditional song to chase away winter, setting alight a paper snowflake and rejoicing in the fact that spring is well and truly in our sights!

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