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by Linda Strait

In 1632, in the middle of the 30 Years War, the plague swept through Europe. High in the Bavarian Alps, the citizens of the tiny village of Oberammergau, Germany, sealed themselves off from the outside world with plague fires and strict isolation.

When a homesick young man sneaked into the town and brought the disease with him, 84 residents died within three weeks. In desperation, the town council made a solemn vow that if God would stop the plague, the citizens would, in gratitude, present a play depicting the life and sufferings of Christ for the duration of the town's existence.

According to the town chronicles, from that moment no further deaths occurred.

In 1634 the citizens of Oberammergau presented the first Passion Play. In 1680 it was decided to offer a performance each 10th year. With exceptions because of war and a ban on religious plays the performance has been staged every decade for more than three centuries.

Oberammergau provides a breathtaking setting for the play. The village is picturesque, steeped in Old-World charm with its woodcarvers' shops, hand-painted frescoes and dominant old church. In the year of the Passion Play, Oberammergau comes alive with excitement as visitors from throughout the world come to witness this spectacle.

The play takes place in a covered auditorium with an open-air stage to ensure performance regardless of weather conditions. The design creates a backdrop of Alpine beauty mountains and blue skies. The performance runs from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. with a recess for lunch. The performances are scheduled May through September.

According to the vow, all of the actors and actresses must be born in the village. They must be amateur actors and actresses of high moral and ethical principals. No make-up or wigs are allowed.

Townspeople wrote and revised the script and musical score, and designed and built the theater. More than a thousand elaborate, colorful and historically accurate costumes have been accumulated. The people of Oberammergau, in performing the play, fulfill an obligation which is also an act of deep faith. It is a magnificent, memorable experience.

There are many tour options available in conjunction with Oberammergau, offered by several tour companies. Because of the smallness of the town and its few hotels, you'll need to be sure that you are dealing with reputable companies who have confirmed space and tickets to the play. Some of the shorter tours are already becoming scarce, so now is the time to make your plans.

(Linda Strait is president of House of Travel Inc., a full-service travel agency in Springfield.)

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