On Whit Tuesday each year, the ancient abbey town of Echternach is the scene for the hopping procession, called the 'Sprangprëssessioun'. Accompanied by brass bands, pilgrims process to St Willibrord's basilica, hopping two steps to the left and two steps to the right. The origin of the procession, included on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, goes back to pagan customs and one particular legend. The procession attracts nearly 10,000 onlookers.
A pilgrimage with its own special music
Early in the morning, the first pilgrims gather in the shadow of St Willibrord's basilica in Echternach, at the start of a route that will take them through the town centre. The hopping procession is just that: participants hop two steps to the left, then two to the right. The participants stand in rows five or six abreast, linked by the handkerchiefs they hold by the corner, and hop to the strains of the Sprangprëssessioun tune; this is based on the folk song 'Adam had seven sons', which rings in the ears of both participants and onlookers for hours after the event.
The tune is played in the streets over and over again by the local brass and wind bands, groups of fiddlers and accordionists, and folk groups that accompany each group of pilgrims. In places where the sound bounces off house fronts and blends with the music being played by other groups, the effect on everyone who hears it is almost mesmerising.
The procession ends with the pilgrims entering the huge basilica and attending mass.
In ancient times, it was believed that the hopping procession healed not only St Vitus' dance (called 'Guy's dance' locally), i.e. epilepsy, but also a host of other aches and pains afflicting people and animals. Far from being the mainly traditional event it is today, in bygone days the procession was a genuine pilgrimage, drawing people from afar and mostly on foot.
To this day, the story is told of pilgrims from Prüm in the Eifel region of Germany who never set out for Echternach without one or two coffins, because it often happened that members of the group died en route.
The legend of 'Guy the Long'
Although obscure pagan customs are probably the origin of the procession, the tale is also told of St Willibrord and the illness called St Vitus' dance (referred to locally as 'Guy's dance'); the story dates back to the eighth century.
The story goes that Guy the Long, the 'fiddler of Echternach', set out on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with his wife, and returned alone. He said his wife had died en route. His jealous relatives, however, who had shared out his property among themselves in the meantime, spread the rumour that Guy had killed her.
The rumour reached the authorities and Guy was judged and sentenced to be hanged. On the scaffold, he asked to be allowed to play his fiddle one last time. As if by miracle, all those present began to dance involuntarily and were unable to stop. Guy took the opportunity to flee, leaving the poor people to their fate.
In the end, St Willibrord was called on to break the spell and release the poor people from 'Guy's dance'.