The Easter Fires Pageant in Fredericksburg celebrates the 53rd year of the community production that combines local history with the story of the Easter rabbit. Hundreds of local residents work together to stage this annual, uniquely Texan event.
The stage production at the fairgrounds south of town is so one-of-a-kind that it was given its own historical marker. Parts in the play have been passed down through Fredericksburg families along with family heirlooms. Almost everyone starts out being a bunny, says Karlene Ottmers, a co-director of one of the many committees that brings the script to life. "Then they move on to one of the roles or working behind the scenes," she says.
More than 600 townfolk work on the play every year. Like sparrows returning to nesting grounds, college students and distant relatives return home in time to be in the grand rehearsal on Friday and then the pageant on Saturday evening. "We never know how many bunnies we're going to have," Ottmers says, "because people just begin showing up."
The number of bunnies can vary from 100 to 150. And then there are almost that number of Indians and colonists. There are about 30 different "named" parts, plus hundreds of other people working behind the scenes. One thing there is not is paid staff. The entire production is done by volunteers.
It is ironic that the history of a pageant that tells the history of the Hill Country town has largely been lost over the years. Kristi Soto says the original script was written by William Petmecky, who died several decades ago. No one is really sure why he wrote the play, which combines local history with German legends.
When John O. Meusebach and other German colonists arrived at the bend in Baron's Creek in 1846, the area was still the hunting ground of the Comanche. The Indians were more than a little irritated with trespassing on their land. Meusebach and a group of men traveled to the Indians' winter camp at the old San Saba Presidio.
While the men were away at the council with the chiefs, a party of Indians watched the community from the surrounding hills. The Indians used smoke signals to communicate with each other. When word reached the lookouts that the treaty was completed they built large fires as a signal that all was well.
In the valley, the pioneer women and children were unaware of the fate of the men. A mother answered her anxious children's questions about the fires with a bit of folklore. Instead of of reciting the old German fables about fairies burning the old wood to make room for new timber, plants, and flowers, she said it was the Easter Bunny.
The fires were under large kettles the Easter Bunny was using to boil eggs, the pioneer mother told her children. He was coloring the eggs with dyes made of wildflowers, and if the children went to sleep, they would find the eggs in their "Easter Nest" at the cabin door on Easter morning.
The Meusebach-Comanche Treaty that was ratified by the colony of Germans provided safe passage for settlers through the territory and allowed the Indians access to the settlements. It also promised mutual reports of wrongdoing and allowed for the punishment of the culprits. With a payment of $1,000, the Indians allowed surveying of land in the San Saba area. It is believed to be the only Texas treaty made with the Indians that was not broken by either side.
Besides the story of the Easter Fires, the 11-act pageant tells the history of the Indians in the area and their legends, such as the origins of the bluebonnet and other wildflowers. Part of the Fredericksburg history is the story of Cross Mountain. On a small peak north of town off FM969, settlers found the remnants of a wooden cross believed to have been left there by Spanish missionaries. Residents have kept crosses on the mountain overlooking Fredericksburg since 1849.
Ottmers says that her husband started with the pageant as a child playing one of the bunnies. He has now joined the ranks of fair association directors as his grandfather and father did.
Over the years, very little of the script has changed from the original one written in the 1940s. Because the parts of the play are done by the same person every year, the community can put together the show in a fairly short period of time with only one or two rehearsals. Karlene's job is to see that all of the pieces come together by rehearsal time. She stresses that a lot of committees work on parts of the production, and "that's how it all comes together in a reasonably professional manner."
Come rain or shine, the Easter Fire Pageant will be held. Ottmers can only remember one time that it was canceled because of the weather in 18 years. About an hour and a half long, the play starts at 8:15pm the Saturday before Easter (Apr. 3). Tickets are $7 for reserved seating, $5 for general admission, and $1 for children. There will also be German food and refreshments for sale before the show.
The Gillespie County Fair Grounds are about three miles south of Fredericksburg on TX16. Advance tickets and information are available by calling 830/997-2359.
Coming up this weekend ...
Music season begins on weekend evenings at Ski Shores Waterfront Cafe with Leeann Atherton, Apr. 3, and the traditional Sunday evening sets with Stephen Doster, Apr. 4. 342-0015.
Bluebonnet Trail through the Highland Lakes area with special events in Burnet, Buchanan Dam, Kingsland, Lampasas, Llano, and Marble Falls, Apr. 3-4. 512/793-2803.
Antique & Collectable Roadshow happens in Warrenton twice a year, April and October, with hundreds of dealers camped along TX237 southwest of Round Top, Apr. 5-11. 409/249-5588.
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April Folk Weekends happen throughout the month at the Star of the Republic Museum in Washington-on-the-Brazos State Park with 19th-century crafts and music. 409/878-2461.
Japan Festival in Houston's Japanese Garden in Hermann Park explores Oriental food, music, games, and art, Apr. 10-11. 713/863-9994.
Day Trips, Vol.2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is now available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, P.O. Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704. 410th in a Series. Collect them all.