Almost 400 years ago, the people of a small German town made a vow that they've kept for centuries.
In 1633, Europe was ravaged by the Bubonic plague, which killed nearly half of Oberammergau's population. For a time, the town was spared from the tragic deaths because residents barricaded their mountain entrances and exits. But when a villager, Karl Schisler, slipped past guards back into the Bavarian village after working some distance away, historians say that 100 residents were quickly infected and killed. Survivors met in a local church and vowed that if the village were spared from further deaths, they would put on a holy play (presentation of the life of Christ) every 10 years in which the entire community would participate. There were no more deaths.
Since then, the small town of Oberammergau, located in Bavaria, Germany, has faithfully performed their Passion Play every decade for the last 350 years. Only a few extreme events, such as World War II, have canceled the performances.
The first performance first took place in 1634, in a cemetery near the graves of plague victims. Since then, Oberammergau's Passion Play has become a major tourist attraction for thousands each year. Now the plays take place in an elaborate, 4,720-seat outdoor theater located an hour south of Munich.
In May 2010, the time-honored tradition will continue with the 41st enactment of the Oberammergau Passion Play.
The play won't be performed for months, yet virtually every villager's life is already dominated by the play. Over 2,500 local residents (roughly half the town's population) are involved in the Play this year. That record involvement ranges from actors, members of the orchestra, costume and set designers. Even the town's children get involved - 450 of them are helping with the performance.
None of the actors are professionals. As his profession, Frederik Mayet, 29, works as a press officer of a theater in Munich. In 2010, he will lead a cast of some 1,000 actors in the role of Jesus Christ, opposite a flight attendant, Eva-Maria Reiser, playing Mary Magdalene. A public administrator plays the part of Judas.
During a recent media tour through the US and Canada, the Passion Play performers said the Oberammergau Passion Play is a family affair -- so much so that Reiser is playing the same role her great grandmother played in the 1930s. Her grandfather portrayed Peter in the 1940s.
"This is a very exciting opportunity," said Raiser, who has been in the play since she was five-years-old. "It's very special to get to play this role."
Mayet isn't new to the stage. In 2000, he played the disciple "John" in the Passion Play. In the Play's off years, he acted in several plays in the Passion Play theatre in Oberammergau.
"It's a big honor to be part of the Passion Play," said Mayet. "I was surprised when the cast was announced and I was selected to play Jesus."
According to tradition, no wigs or false beards are used in the Oberammergau Passion Play, so starting one year before opening night on Ash Wednesday, the male performers stop cutting their hair and beards in preparation for their roles in the Play.
Rehearsals for the extraordinary event take up to eight months. Organizers say no one can participate in the Play unless they are native to Oberammergau or have lived there for at least 20 years. Both the director and the composer can trace their families back to 1633 when their ancestors made the original vow.
The Play will be performed in two parts for the first time this year, starting in the afternoon, and reconvening in the evening. Hosts sell packages including accommodations, meals before the play and during intermission and programs. Beginning in the afternoon and continuing after a break for dinner, the Passion Play features dramatic scenes of the Passion performed in High German, musical performances and Old Testament scenes.
The village expects approximately 500,000 visitors for the Passion Play, over half of whom will be international guests.
Known throughout Christendom, demand for Passion Play tickets is typically high. Some travel experts, however, say this year is different. Barbara Geier of the German National Tourism Office told Global Travel Industry News, "Sales for the Oberammergau Passion Play so far have been slower than for the same period for the last staging in 2000."
Tour planners report the organizing committee in Oberammergau has more than tripled the price of a Passion Play package compared with the event in 2000.
"US tour operators are concerned that the event is over-priced," said UK-based David Browne of Global Travel Industry News. "The organizing committee has paid little regard to the current economic downturn, which has caused a slump in forward travel bookings especially incoming tours to Europe from the American market. "
But given the challenging cultural climate, Oberammergau's Passion Play could be just what the "Great Physician" ordered - regardless the price.
The premiere is scheduled for May 15, 2010, with 105 play dates to follow up through October 3, 2010. The debut will begin at 2:30 p.m., take a three-hour intermission for dinner and finish at 10:30 p.m.
Tickets for the performance are only available in advance as part of a package with one or two nights local accommodation in Oberammergau, the neighboring villages of Ettal, and Unterammergau and other villages in the region.
For more information and to get tickets for the 2010 Oberammergau Passion play (it won't be held again until 2020), visit www.oberammergau-passion.com.
* This article published December 10, 2009.
Russ Jones is co-publisher of the award winning Christian Press Newspaper (ChristianPress.com) and CEO of BIG Picture Media Group, Inc., a boutique media firm located in Newton, Kansas. Jones holds degrees from the University of Missouri and St. Paul School of Theology. As a former NBC TV reporter he enjoys reporting where evangelical Christian faith and news of the day intersect. He is also president of the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers. Jones is also a freelance reporter for the Christian Broadcasting Network. He may be reached at email@example.com.