Times are getting hairy - The Hair and Beard Decree on Ash Wednesday


Play Director Christian Stückl and the then mayor Arno Nunn put up the Hair and Beard Decree for the Passion Play 2020 (Photo: Andreas Stückl)

While the rest of Germany can't wait to hit the hairdressing salons and barbershops to rid them of their moptops acquired during the COVID-19 lockdown, times are about to get really hairy in Oberammergau starting in mid-February. Starting on Ash Wednesday, all participants in the 2022 Passion Play will be required to observe the "Hair and Beard Decree": A bulletin posted by the Passion Play director and the community advises the participants to "let their hair grow out, and the males to also grow a beard". The only exception being the actors cast in the roles of Romans: they get to wear their hair short and to shave regularly. But the extras on stage will be expected to look as homogeneously historical and long-haired as possible. And let's be honest: seeing all those bearded old and young gentlemen on stage in their costumes during the performances is nothing short of breathtaking. The sheer number of participants makes it impossible to use wigs or false beards. Also, the Decree has become a kind of starting signal heralding the Passion Play season: From that day, the villagers officially become members of the Passion Play cast, and their faces are increasingly reflecting their roles as the premiere date approaches. "Normally, two hours in makeup and costume will transform you into any character you're playing", says Andreas Richter, who will be playing Caiaphas. "But here, you notice people gradually turning into the characters they play with every passing month. You look in the mirror every day, you start noticing the changes, and you literally grow into your role."

"The Hair and Beard Decree is a very old tradition," says Play director Christian Stückl. "While in the past only males were called on to grow out their hair and grow beards - females kept their hair long anyway - the decree now applies equally to both sexes." It's difficult to pinpoint exactly when this tradition was first started. We have a poster from 1950 promulgating the decree, but even photos from the 1870/71 Passion Play show the participants to be sporting long hair and beards. There are also stories about Josef Mayr, who portrayed Jesus Christ in 1870, being forced to hide in the barracks from his commander during his military service because of his long hair and beard. Those days are long gone, and even the police are less scrupulous about their officers' hairstyles, says Oberammergau's new mayor Andreas Rödl, who is a member of the choir. When he joined the police force back in 2004, he was still required to pay close attention to the hair regulations: Back then, hair was never allowed to touch the shirt collar. In 2010 he played a Roman, which made things easy. In 2019, he obtained a special permit from the Department of Home Affairs: Personal freedom was allowed to override the uniform look. As mayor, he obviously no longer needs a permit.

Josef Mayr, Jesus actor of 1870/71 (Photo: Municipality of Oberammergau archive)

Gregor Lechner, Judas actor of 1870/71 (Photo: Municipality of Oberammergau archive)

Johann Lang, Caiaphas actor of 1870/71 (Photo: Municipality of Oberammergau archive)

Gregor Stadler, Annas actor of 1870/71 (Photo: Municipality of Oberammergau archive)

Anyone growing up in Oberammergau is inevitably more concerned with their head and beard hair than the rest of the world. Especially for young boys, the Hair and Beard Decrees require a healthy level of self-confidence. Florian Maderspacher, who plays Jehoshaphat, recalls the 2010 season with mixed feelings: Back then, as a 15-year-old, he was playing an extra. "In Oberammergau, long hair was normal for boys, and in Ettal, where I went to school, everyone knew about it, too," he recalls. "But at the pool, some out-of-towners said: Hey look at those girls. That's when we realized for the first time that you have to stand by your convictions, even with outsiders. "At some point between the ages of 10 and 20, everyone reaches a difficult point, Andreas Richter agrees: "You are somewhere between childhood and adulthood. And then suddenly you have long hair and even some hair sprouting on your face. Do I have any beard growth at all? How much facial hair do I have? Am I even ready for a beard growing on my face? This is a real challenge that all Oberammergauers went through during their adolescence." Everyone here remembers uncomfortable scenes where they were mistaken for a girl. Anton Preisinger Junior, cast on the role of John, remembers having a hard time at Garmisch high school in 2010. There were five boys from Oberammergau in his class at that time. First there were questions from the teachers. "And when we were all sitting back in class with short hair the following October, after the Passion Play season was over, we were completely unrecognizable," he recalls with a chuckle.

Everyone agrees on one thing: What is really awkward are the in-between stages, when your hair is no longer short, but not yet properly long. When you look like you don't care about grooming anymore. (Although this look is now perfectly common beyond Oberammergau city limits in these COVID-19 lockdown times). "After all, the rehearsals don't start until after the really bad times, by which time the hair is already reasonably long," says Andreas Richter. "Before that, however, when seeing each other in the village, you sometimes wonder: Boy, he's not looking too well, I wonder if he is ill? And then you realize: Nah, he's just growing it all out."

Caiaphas actor Andreas Richter at the announcement of the cast in 2018...

... and in autumn 2019. (Photos: Gabriela Neeb)

John actor Anton Preisinger jr. at the announcement of the cast in 2018...

... and in autumn 2019. (Photos: Gabriela Neeb)

Jehoshaphat actor Florian Maderspacher at the announcement of the cast in 2018...

... and in autumn 2019. (Photos: Gabriela Neeb)

Last year, the Passion Play had to be postponed due to the Corona pandemic. Just when most people's hair was just about right. The reactions were varied. Richter always sports a beard and wears his hair long because he claims a "phobia of barbers". Rödl and Preisinger also left their hair long to avoid another transition phase. "At first, I didn't have the heart to run straight to the barber," Preisinger says. "And a man bun is in style right now. I preferred that solution to running around with a medium-length hairstyle half a year later. Some of my friends did the same thing. Hardly any of my friends went back to totally short." Maderspacher, on the other hand, had his razor with him when the main cast gathered on center stage on the day the play was officially cancelled in March 2020: "The mood was very somber, most people were crying," he recalls. "So I tried to add some comic relief and shaved right there in the theatre."

Now, right before the Hair and Beard Decree is enacted, shaving has again taken on a whole new dimension: Emotions run high on the subject of whether the newly prescribed FFP2 masks will lose their protective effect when worn over a beard, even though the issue is far from finalized. But for precisely this reason, this year's Hair and Beard Decree will be less strict: Head hair must be grown out while beards may continue to be shaved for the time being. The "look" is considered achieved if facial hair is allowed to grow for six months until the premiere. Andreas Richter, the only "dyed in the wool" bearded male among the four, works as a psychologist specializing in pain therapy for children suffering from rheumatism. And it goes without saying that he is wearing a mask on the job. The discussion about their leak tightness "caught him off guard." He cares about his beard, but he also cares deeply about protecting his environment: "If it ever turns out that the mask does not work with a beard, I will bear the consequences and shave. It grows back so fast, so that's not really an issue."

Richter loves this period when everyone is changing both inside and out. "It's funny how when you're in a group of men during rehearsals, all of a sudden you're talking about hair and beard issues," he chuckles. "All of a sudden you see gentlemen wearing funny ribbons and Alice bands in their hair, with everyone trying to find a signature look when at bottom everyone looks like everyone else." It is prohibited to cut off head and facial hair until after the final performance, but you will find people starting the shave right during the closing ceremony. In 2022, it will be possible for the first time to donate the carefully cultivated hair for making wigs for children with leukemia. With 2000 people involved, there should be quite a heap of material to work with.

Text: Anne Fritsch
Photos: Andreas Stückl, Municipality of Oberammergau archive, Gabriela Neeb