Meekranz and Oktav
The end of April and beginning of May herald two Luxembourgish traditions. One has its origins in pagan times, and you can visit the forest and make a May wreath. The other, Oktav, can be celebrated online. You can find out a bit about both customs in this article.
Most people know that 1 May is Labour Day, and since 1889 it's been a day off for workers in Luxembourg, and a time for them to reiterate their demands on pay and rights, as well as to celebrate. The trade union OGBL, together with ASTI and ASTM, usually organises a Fête du Travail at Neumunster Abbey cultural centre with live music, food stalls and kids' activities. This year, it will not go ahead.
But did you know that 1 May has a much older tradition – Meekranz, or the day to make a May wreath and hang it on your door.
The May wreath (crown or braid) is made from branches with young shoots or leaves gathered early in the morning on the 1 May from the forests of Luxembourg. Sometimes the trip to collect the branches is a communal event organised by the scouts or a local sporting or music club.
The branches are then woven together into a circular wreath to be hung on your front door or the premises of a club or association.
Pagan and Christian history
The Meekranz is designed to ward off evil spirits and welcome in the warmer weather. Its associations date back to pagan times, but like many pagan traditions it was incorporated into the Christian calendar. People would scatter blessed herbs and consecrated palm leaves in their houses, and sprinkle each room with holy water. They would also mark their front door and those of barns and stables with a chalk cross.
Another local May tradition is the planting of a Meebam or May tree. Although it is not observed these days, in the past, young men would plant a tree in the garden of sweetheart, or townsfolk would plant a tree in front of the mayor’s house to show that they thought he was doing a good job.
In France it's a tradition to give Lily of the Valley on 1 May, and you'll find them in the shops here too. This dates back to the Renaissance when Charles IX is thought to have offered these lilies to the ladies of the court on 1 May. Germany celebrates 30 April and 1 May with Walpurgisnacht – in honour of Saint Walpurga who was hailed by German Christians for battling pestilence, rabies, whooping cough and witchcraft.
In western Luxembourg and Arlon, after making your wreath, you return home to take a sup of Maitrink – a concoction of white wine and sweet woodruff (also known as baby's breath or Waldmeister).
In Luxembourg, Oktav begins on the 3rd Sunday after Easter and culminates with a procession on the 5th Sunday after Easter. This year it will be celebrated from 24 April to 9 May. Usually, a highlight of the celebrations is the Oktavmäerchen, where Place Guillaume II and Place de la Constitution are filled with stalls selling food and crafts, and with fairground rides.
Pilgrimage with retail therapy
Historically pilgrims would travel from Luxembourg but also what are now the Eifel region of Germany, Lorraine in France, and Belgian Luxembourg, to attend an Oktav mass. Following this, they'd have a slap-up meal and get a bit of shopping done at the market.
The origins of Oktav in Luxembourg lie in the war and pestilence that hampered the region in the 17th century, with the 30 Years War (1618-1648), and a 10-year plague that started in 1626 and led to a famine and the death of two-thirds of the population.
With so much turmoil, the Jesuit mission in Luxembourg wanted to strengthen the popularity of religion. The roots of the procession in Luxembourg lie in a smaller one made in 1624, where Jesuit students carried a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary to a chapel in Glacis. There she was given the title of Our Lady, Mary, Comforter of the Afflicted. She became the patron saint of the city in 1666 and later in 1678, the patron saint for the Grand Duchy.
The statue and the procession then transferred to the Notre Dame church (later made a cathedral in the 19th century). Normally, as its name suggests, Oktav lasts eight days, but a two-week celebration was planned for 1916, the 250th anniversary of the city making the Virgin Mary their patron saint. The First World War forced the celebrations to be delayed until 1921, and thereafter Oktav in Luxembourg has always lasted for two weeks.
During Oktav, the statue of Our Lady is decorated and dressed, and displayed on a special alter inside the cathedral for pilgrims to give thanks and prayer to. On the last day of Oktav, she is carried through the streets of the city. You can take a look at the Oktav procession from 2019 in the video below:
Oktav during Covid-19
This year, Our Lady's Oktav will be online, with a livestream available directly from the Cathedral Notre Dame. Up to 100 people can attend, under strict conditions, and you can find more information and a programme of events here.
Last year during lockdown, the Ministry of Culture and the Luxembourg Commission for UNESCO organised and interactive online Oktav via their digital project IKI. You can check out video footage of the 1911 procession and photographs plus information on the history of the Oktav pilgrimage and the history of the market at iki.lu.