For 1000 years the people of Echternach in Luxembourg have been celebrating the life and achievements of their chosen saint, the good St Willibrord. In fact, they’ve been celebrating it for so long that no one actually remembers why they celebrate the way they do.
They just do, and that’s good enough for them.
To an outsider – not only to the region but also to Catholicism itself – this ‘Why’ is the crux of the festival’s strangeness. Why do thousands of people choose to parade through town holding crisply ironed white handkerchiefs while hopping from one foot to the other like they were barefoot on hot asphalt?
To explain: The festival takes the form of a parade that snakes through the town of Ecternach before entering the town’s Abbey to parade past the Tomb of St Willibrord.
Yet rather than the solemn procession you’d generally expect from those happy-go-lucky Roman Catholics, the Luxembourgers arrange themselves in lines of five people – each holding a white handkerchief between them their neighbours. They then hop/dance their way through the streets to the sound of brass bands. And as I’ve mentioned, they have no idea why the hopping is so important.
The festival offers up a number of other interesting experiences.
Head to the Abbey at about 7am and you’re likely to see some of the brass bands already playing in the basilica. I’ve never heard a full brass procession play in the vaulted halls of a basilica before, let alone quite a catchy waltz number that brightened up the austere sanctity of the space.
At 8am the Mass starts, welcoming pilgrims from the surrounding area and getting everyone in the mood for some truly holy hopping. As the pilgrims filed in as Mass commenced they were accompanied by the sound of the Abbey’s pipe organ and a fantastic organist who was absolutely rocking out, in a very uncatholic manner. It vaguely reminded me of the Beethoven scene in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
Unfortunately when the hymns began he had to tone his enthusiasm down.
But by far the best way to spend an afternoon watching Ecthernach’s UNESCO listed parade is by playing Nun Bingo. Blue Nuns, Brown Nuns, White, Black and Grey Nuns! Each with a very specific demeanour. Some getting involved in the procession, others skirting the edges, yet all of them are there to find if you look hard enough!!
Blue Calm benevolence
Brown Aloof and solemn
Grey Intense devotion
What: Hopping Procession of Echternach
When: Whit Tuesday (The day after Pentecost Monday) Around June
How Much: Free!
Why: A bizarre amount of Catholic happiness and the chance for a bit of nun spotting.
Answers: Blue nuns always seem to be happy, Brown have an air of calm benevolence, White appear intensely devout, your general black habit nun are aloof and solemn, while Grey nuns seem to all be old.