On 17 May 2016, as every Whit Tuesday, the Hopping Procession of Echternach takes place. This Luxembourg tradition, which is well known beyond the borders of the country, attracts every year thousands of believers and onlookers to the abbey town.
It is therefore no coincidence that this tradition has been inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO on 16 November 2010.
The origins of the hopping procession
Obscure pagan traditions lie at the origin of this procession. According to legend, it dates back to the 8th century, to St Willibrord and a certain Vitus, known as the 'Fiddler of Echternach'. The story has it that Vitus went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with his wife, only to return by himself, his wife having died along the way.
Jealous relatives, who during his absence had shared out all his possessions, spread the rumour that Vitus himself had killed his wife while abroad. The unfortunate man was sentenced to death and upon being led to the gallows asked whether he could play his violin one last time. His wish was granted and Vitus started playing.
Saint Vitus' dance
Onlookers gathered around the gallows started to dance. They danced for hours on end, until their feet sank into the ground, with Vitus having long fled the gallows and the city of Echternach, still playing, while the crowds continued to dance.
This is when St Willibrord was called upon to put an end to this curse and release the unfortunate from the St Vitus’ dance.
In ancient times, it was believed that the 'Sprangprëssessioun', the hopping procession, healed not only St Vitus’ dance (i.e. epilepsy), but also other aches and pains afflicting men and animals.
Far from being a mainly traditional event as it is today, in bygone days the procession was a true pilgrimage, drawing people from afar and mostly on foot. To this day, the story is told of worshippers from Prüm in the Eifel who never set out for Echternach without taking along a few coffins, because invariably their group lost a pilgrim or two en route.
Two steps to the left, two steps to the right
The hopping procession is literally a skipping procession: participants skip two steps to the left, two to the right. In the past, skipping consisted of three steps forward and two steps back (thus the humourous and still widely used phrase of something progressing 'at an Echternach pace').
The procession, composed of rows of five to six dancers with each dancer grasping the ends of a handkerchief, moves forward slowly to the repeated sounds of the lively 'Sprangprëssessioun' melody, inspired by the traditional song Adam had seven sons, the tune of which still rings in the ears of both participants and onlookers, long after the day is over.
The music is played not only by the country’s brass and wind bands, but also by accordion and fiddler ensembles. The procession takes some three hours to make its way through the streets of the old abbey town, with the bands and the skipping procession passing before the tomb of St Willibrord, who lies buried in the crypt of the Basilica.
A tradition known far beyond the borders of Luxembourg
In recent years, the Hopping Procession attracted over 12,000 pilgrims from all over the Grand Duchy and from neighboring countries, as well as many tourists and curious.
As the tradition is now a UNESCO world heritage, the organisers expect this figure to further increase over the coming years.
(Source: BRAUN, Josy. 'Traditions and festivals' in: Lëtzebuerg. Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Information and Press Service. 2007.)