The Dancing Procession - A view from the year 1913
Once a year the abbey town stirs itself from its peaceful sleep. The spirits of the dead monks troop down from the abbey cemetery. The feet of the live burghers slip into the most comfortable shoes available. And there begins a religious ceremony like nothing else in Europe, a pageant as dignified as it is startling, and as wierdly unnatural as it is hallowed by usage — the famous dance of the Springprozession.
Dancing has had its place in the church ritual elsewhere than in Echternach. Traces of it may be seen to-day in the strictly processional marches of acolytes at an impressive mass. A ballet once was part of the cathedral staff in some of the more important Spanish churches. In the mystical rites of the worship in ancient Greece and Rome Terpsichore was a temple goddess.
Hence it is difficult to say when Echternach's procession had its beginning. It is mentioned in records of the eighth century, when pilgrimages to the tomb of St Willibrord began. But it probably existed centuries before that. It is not hard to see in it a Christianized survival of the springtime rites in honor of Diana, whose priests probably borrowed the dance from a propitiatory pageant of an older cult.
Legend explains its origin in detail, however careless written history may have been about the date. The good burghers of Echternach once came close to dire poverty as the result of a strange illness that attacked their cattle. The picture as presented by the folk-tale lacks only the cat and the fiddle to make it very familiar to the friends of Mother Goose. Though the cows did n't leap over the moon and the music of the cat's fiddling may not have been the cause, they did do a bit more leaping than is considered good for cows. Many of them died as the result of their debauch.
They ran out into the fields and danced, stopping neither for food nor water, until their tired hoofs folded beneath them and they expired amid convulsive shivers and piteous moos.
Even the learned doctors of the agricultural college could suggest no remedy for this startling complaint. They suggested a procession of prayer.
How it came about that the march which was to petition a stoppage of the nimble feet of the cows should itself have become a dance, is not clear.
At any rate, the populace of Echternach formed in a sedate line at the river and proceeded to dance through the town to the tomb of the saint, circle the church, and dance out again. And the devil's itch went out of the feet of the cattle.
Each year after that the procession was repeated, growing in importance as greater numbers of pilgrims heard about it. Its original purpose accomplished, it became a „prayer of act“ in behalf of humans afflicted with epilepsy and its kindred ills. And it has been held regularly ever since, in rain or shine, in famine or plenty, in war or peace.
Dutiful townspeople who would not venture upon the slightest infraction of church discipline during three hundred and sixty-four days of the year calmly ignored ecclesiastical censure to join in the dance on Whitsun Tuesday. Civil authority, reverenced in Echternach as nowhere else in the duchy, was equally powerless to halt it or alter it. Attempts to end it were frequent.
Late in the fifteenth century the Archbishop of Treves ordered that the dancing-feature of the service be eliminated. The clergy acquiesced without argument and announced on Whitsunday that the march would be slowed to a sedate walk.
The people listened respectfully and started to walk up the hill from the Sure. But the habit of years was stronger than the pronouncement of a day. They had proceeded scarcely an eighth of a mile when the leaders began to sing the simple air of the dance. In a few minutes thousands of feet were in motion, hundreds of voices had supplied the place of the absent orchestra. The clergy, powerless to stop it, went on to the church as in the years gone by.
Joseph II the great eliminator ordered it suppressed. Had he ordered the people to go without one meal a day for an indefinite period they would have complied without questioning. In feudal Luxemburg the word of Govemment was an echo of the word of God. But they did not recognize Joseph's right to stop their dance any more than they would have admitted his power to stop the fountain in the abbey garden with an imperial command to the rock whence it sprang. Despite the archbishop, despite the emperor, they danced.
The French crushed the dance with everything else that savored of religion. But it came back. William I of Holland — an economic genius he must have been — figured out that the time lost by so many people on a workday for such frivolity as a dance represented a tremendous waste. He transferred the festival to a Sunday ; and he was ignored as the other meddlers had been. continue reading