What is the hopping procession of Echternach?
Whit Tuesday is normally the date for the hopping or dancing procession of Echternach (D’Iechternacher Sprangprëssessioun), an ancient tradition that honours St Willibrord, the founder of Echternach Abbey. This year the event has once again been cancelled.
Traditionally dancers stand in rows of five to six people, holding each other by the tip of their handkerchiefs. The dancers move from left to right either in a jumping movement or by swinging their legs out, in a procession that moves forward fairly slowly.
In fact, the procession takes some three hours to make its way through the streets to Echternach Abbey, passing by the tomb of St Willibrord.
An expression of joy at the promise of salvation, the dancing is usually accompanied by singers and a marching band who play a very catchy tune (perfect for hopping or skipping to) that is based on the folk song “Adam had seven sons”, and is played on brass and wind instruments. Centuries earlier, pilgrims covered the same circuit with music provided by an accordion and a fiddle.
The legend of Vitus
Legend has it that the Fiddler of Echternach, Vitus, went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with his wife, but returned alone, his wife having died on the journey. Jealous relatives, who had shared out his possessions while he was gone, spread the rumour that Vitus killed his wife. He was sentenced to death and upon being lead to the gallows, asked if he could play his fiddle one last time. Onlookers started to dance, and danced for hours. Vitus fled, but the onlookers still continued to dance and St Willibrord was called upon to break the curse and release them from the dance.
Origins of the present-day tradition
It’s thought that a jumping or hopping processionary style of dance probably dates back to pagan times and became incorporated into Christianity later.
The earliest written reference to the Echternach procession goes back to 1497, but it is clear from the account that the procession was already a well-established event.
The present day custom including the route taken, and the wearing of a white shirt with dark trousers and holding a handkerchief, dates back to the Waxweiler male pilgrims of 1664, who performed the hopping dance on the way to Echternach to present their offerings for the Whitsuntide holidays.
Women were allowed to join the proceedings in 18th century, and the procession was held annually until 1777 when the Archbishop Wenceslas banned dancing among pilgrims. In 1786 Emperor Joseph II abolished the procession, but it finally started again in 1802, since when it has taken place every year except during the Second World War when it was once again banned.
A historian of the 18th century, Jean Bertholet, claimed the dancers hopped forward three times and backwards once. Although this is not necessarily true, the cliché gave rise to the Luxembourg phrase that something which is progressing slowly, is moving at “an Echternach pace”. The side-to-side movement of the dance has also coined the phrase “the Echternach step” for politicians who cannot make up their minds.
In recent years, it has attracted some 14,000 pilgrims and spectators. It was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, designed to safeguard such traditions, in November 2010.
The procession was put in the spotlight in July 2017 when former Echternach mayor, Jos Scheuer, petitioned for Whit Tuesday to be a declared a school-free Luxembourg UNESCO World Heritage Day. The Education Minister, Claude Meisch reached a compromise declaring the day one of Luxembourgish cultural heritage and traditions in schools with children free to attend the procession (whilst in Echternach it is a school-free day).
Hopping procession during Covid
Unfortunately the procession will not take place again this year, although single pilgrims will be able to access Echternach Basilica in an organised method to meet with social distancing requirements.
Archive footage, including some from the 1906 procession, photos, online tours and little known facts about the Hopping Procession are available at digital IKI, set up by the Ministry of Culture and the Luxembourg UNESCO committee, in partnership with the Willibrordus-Bauverein, the City of Echternach, the Archdiocese.
A documentary of the 2019 procession is available on the Ville d'Echternach Youtube website.
The next hopping procession of Echternach will take place on 7 June 2022. If you want to practise your dance steps for it.