Monday, May 20, 2013

Luxarazzi 101: Dancing Procession of Echternach

Every year on Whit Tuesday, thousands of pilgrims and spectators gather in Luxembourg's oldest town, Echternach, to participate in its Dancing Procession. Tomorrow, Hereditary Grand Duke Guillaume and Hereditary Grand Duchess will be in Echternach to get their taste of the century-old religious celebration (the last of its kind!) which, since 2010, has been included in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.


On 7 November 739, Willibrord, a Northumbrian missionary saint also known as the "Apostle of the Frisians", died in Echternach, a place where he had spent many years of his life. Appointing Willibrord as its abbot, Irmina of Oeren had granted him land in Echternach in 698 so that the missionary could expand the existing monastery. In 700 Willibrord opened the first church and in the following decades a town, which would soon become one of the largest and most prosperous in the area, grew around the Abbey of Echternach.

While the form of today's dancing procession dates back to the 19th century, its roots are much, much older. Already shortly after Willibrord's death, the first pilgrims arrived in Echternach to visit his tomb.

Painting by Anton Stevens
The first possible mention of a dancing procession dates back to around the year of 1000 when, in his work Laudes Christo, abbot Berno von Reichenau invited believers to celebrate Saint Willibrord with a magno tripudio (big triple jump). Abbot Thiofrid, who died in 1100, chronicles pilrimage processions to the tomb of the missionary saint but does not mention anything about dancing though. In 1479, Springenheiligen (dancing saints) was firstly mentioned in a document. The first known illustration of the dancing procession by Flemish painter Anton Stevens dates from the year 1604.

Even though there are various mentions of the dancing - sometimes also described as hopping - procession, its reasoning remains shadowy.

Saint Willibrord was one of the saints who were invocated in cases of nervous diseases, spasms, epilepsy or (what today is known as) Huntington's disease. So it is very possible that sick people participated in the procession or that pilgrims acted as if they were sick in order not to get these kinds of illnesses. Other sources claim that the dancing part is an expression of thanks to Saint Willibrord who is said to have healed people from said diseases. Others believe that the dancing procession has its roots as a mild and civilised form of flagellant processions, which were common in the 14th century to protect against the plague.

Tomb of Willibrord
(Photo: Gerry Huberty /
Luxemburger Wort /
Yet another theory claims that the dancing processions actually go back to the times of Saint Willibrord himself and is a Christianised pagan ritual. Other dancing processions are known to have taken place throughout neighbouring regions during the Middle Ages though the Dancing Procession of Echternach is the only one to withstand all attempts to abolish it and thus remains to this day.

During the enlightenment period in the 18th century, the dancing part of the procession was heavily criticised by both the secular and the religious leadership. The procession was often regarded as forms of obscurantism and superstition or simply disliked because the pilgrims went into some kind of ecstasy.

In 1778, Prince Clemens Wenzeslaus of Saxony, the archbishop-elector of Trier, prohibited the dancing processions taking place in his diocese. Eight years later, the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II followed his example and banned all dancing processions though he quickly revised his decision, most probably because the ban wasn't upheld anyway.

Photo: Gerry Huberty /
Luxemburger Wort /
During the time of the French Revolution, the dancing procession was prohibited yet again and only in 1801 Napoléon gave allowed the procession to take place. In more positive developments during that time, women were also allowed to take part in the dancing procession. With the exception of the time of the German occupation in the Second World War, the dancing procession has taken place ever since.

While it is not entirely clear why and how the dancing or hopping part of the procession came into place, there is no question as to why it is held during Pentecost: In the middle ages, more than 150 places which were depended from the Abbey were obliged to come to Echternach at Whitsuntide to give their tithe to the Abbey. In 1825, King-Grand Duke Willem I issued a decret which tried to move the procession from Whit Tuesday to Sunday but it wasn't very successful and taken back five years later.

Today about 12,000 to 14,000 pilgrims take part in the procession, 8,000 to 9,000 of them dancing.

Photo: Guy Jallay / Luxemburger
Wort /
The day starts early at 5:15am when groups of young pilgrims, who took part in the overnight Pax-Christi pilgrimage, gather in the church for an eucharistic celebration. At 7:30am, German pilgrims from Prüm and Waxweiler, places of other former dancing processions, are welcomed on the Al Sauerbréck, a bridge which connects Echternach in Luxembourg and Echternacherbrück in Germany. At 8am, a pontificial mass is celebrated and about an hour later, the dancing procession starts. Until 1pm, 45 groups of pilgrims, four or five people in a row holding the ends of white handkerchiefs, make the 1.5 kilometre way through Echternach. They are accompanied by music groups who play the same ancient tune the whole time.

A widespread cliché says that the dancers jump three steps forward and two back but this impression only arose when it came to standstills due to less than stellar organisation in times gone by. During the early 20th century, some of the groups of pilgrims actually hopped back and forth but this costum, which turned out to be chaotic, was banned in 1947. Since then, everyone moves forward via steps to the left and right. The procession ends at the tomb of Saint Willibrord at the basilica of the Abbey of Echternach.

It is the aim of the dancing procession to involve the whole body in the prayer while proceeding by dancing back and forth to the beat of an endlessly repeated melody to devote the mind to prayer. Sounds heavy but I have been assured that it is actually a lot of fun for everyone involved. So come back tomorrow and see how much the Hereditary Grand Ducal Couple enjoyed their visit to the Dancing Procession of Echternach!

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