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Tradition and Holydays
The annual high points of Luxembourg culture are the Oktav, the Revue and the Fouer, says a local comic. And in a way, he’s right. Three times a year, custom compels Luxembourgers from the country to go on a pilgrimage to their capital: to the Octave, for eight days of prayer dedicated to Our Lady, Consolatrix Afflictorum; to the Revue, a satirical revue of the political year; and to the Schueberfouer, or Fouer, a funfair during several weeks. Take a closer look, and it’s clear that most holidays have developed out of the country’s religious tradition.
The feast of St Blasius, celebrated on 2 February, can occur before Lent but it is unconnected with carnival. On St Blasius’s day, children carrying rods tipped with little lights, called Liichtebengelcher, or some modern, sophisticated version of the same appliance, go from house to house, singing the song of St Blasius: "Léiwer Herrgottsblieschen, gëff äis Speck an Ierbessen..." and begging for treats. The custom is called liichten (lighting). There is mention of bacon and peas in the song, suggesting that long ago the poor begged for food, and perhaps even for Shrove Tuesday biscuits, on St Blasius’s day. Like many traditions, this one too has evolved over the years. Today, the beggars are little children who eagerly accept handouts of sweets, although they prefer coins, or better still, a crisp banknote, as will the occasional parent supervising the proceedings from a distance.
Burning the Buerg
The Sunday after Shrove Tuesday is Buergsonndeg (Buerg Sunday), when a Buerg, a huge pile of straw, brushwood and logs, often topped by a cross, becomes a roaring bonfire. At the hour appointed for the spectacle, the architects and builders of the pile - usually the town’s young people - march in torch-lit procession to the site, their progress closely monitored by volunteers from the local fire department. It can be cold outside, late in winter, waiting for a bonfire, so a barbecue and mulled wine are available to provide sustenance and warmth. In some towns, the honour of setting the Buerg ablaze goes to the most recently married local couple.
Buergsonndeg is a tradition with a long, venerable past. The blaze symbolises the driving-out of winter, the beginning of spring and the triumph of warm over cold, of light over darkness. Some claim it is one of the last vestiges of the Inquisition, when witches were burned.
According to legend, after the Gloria of Maundy Thursday Mass, church bells fly to Rome to receive shrift from the Pope. While the bells are away, on Good Friday, Easter Saturday and Easter Sunday, the school children take over their duties, calling the local people to their observances by cranking loud wooden ratchets, swinging rattle-boxes and playing drums. "Fir d’éischt Mol, fir d’zweet Mol, ’t laut of" goes their cry (ringing once, ringing twice, ringing all together).
Klibberjongen (ratchet boys) are a thing of the past but only because today girls are admitted to the fun, too. The young racket-makers are paid in Easter eggs or the odd coin, usually collected door-to-door on Easter Sunday morning, after the bells have returned to the belfry. "Dik-dik-dak, dik-dik-dak, haut as Ouschterdag" (cackle away, today is Easter day) goes the Klibberlidd, the traditional ratchet song.
In Luxembourg, as in many Christian countries, Easter would be incomplete without the Easter bunny and painted Easter eggs. Parents and grandparents hide Easter eggs around the house or the garden in little "nests", then stand back and watch as delighted children hunt for them. And although supermarkets proffer Easter eggs in industrial quantities, the practice of painting eggs by hand at home still endures.
On Bratzelsonndeg (Pretzel Sunday), a man gives his girlfriend or wife a pretzel, a symbol of love; at Easter, a woman offers her boyfriend or husband a praline-filled chocolate Easter egg.
Social, or popular, Easter festivities take place on Easter Monday, not on Easter Sunday. Many families visit one of the country’s two Éimaischen fairs, one held in the capital’s old-town quarter, in the Fëschmaart (Fish Market), the other in Nospelt, a town in Canton Capellen, in the west of the country.
The Éimaischen on Fëschmaart is over by noon; in Nospelt, the fun continues until late afternoon. Food, drink and folk entertainment are important, but at both events the real focus of attention is pottery. In Nospelt, which boasts deposits of fine clay, artists working at the potter’s wheel provide demonstrations of their craft. At the F?schmaart and in Nospelt, visitors are offered the traditional Éimaischen keepsake: the Péckvillchen, a bird-shaped earthenware "flute" which produces a sound eerily like the cry of the cuckoo.
The Octave in honour of Our Lady is the year’s principal religious event. It usually takes place during the second half of April, over a period of 14 days, when parishioners from this country and from the Eifel in Germany, the Belgian province of Luxembourg and France’s Lorraine region make a pilgrimage to the Cathedral in the Luxembourg capital. The tradition began in 1666, when the council of the then province of Luxembourg chose Maria, Consolatrix Afflictorum to be the country’s patron saint, calling upon Her to protect the people from the plague. The origin of the statue of Mary, carved from dark wood, has not been historically established. What is known is that in 1666, Jesuits brought it from the old Glacis chapel to today’s Cathedral, which was then a Jesuit church. During the period of the Octave, the statue of Mary stands on a special altar in the main choir.
The pilgrims form a procession on the outskirts of the city, then proceed on foot to the Cathedral. During the Octave, each parish and participating organisation sponsors its own Masses. After devotions in the Cathedral, pilgrims can obtain food and drink at the Octave market (Oktavsmäertchen) on Place Guillaume (Knuedler). The market has long been a part of the Octave tradition, and some stands sell religious articles and souvenirs.
The Octave concludes with the festive procession which carries the statue of Mary through the capital’s streets. Those in the cortege include members of the Grand Ducal house, representatives of the Government, the Chamber of Deputies, the Courts of Justice and other institutions.
Our Lady of Fatima
Our Lady of Fatima plays an important role in the country’s religious life, and little wonder, for approximately twelve percent of the population of Luxembourg are Portuguese nationals. Since 1968, Her pilgrimage has taken place on Ascension Day near Wiltz, in the Oesling region.
Gënzefest (Broom Festival), Wiltz
Broom is found throughout the country but nowhere in greater profusion than on the cliffs and hilltops of the Oesling region. At Whitsuntide, the usually bleak northern countryside is literally transformed by the bright yellow of millions of tiny little blossoms.
Wiltz honours broom in its Gënzefest, held on the Monday after Whitsunday. The main attraction is the traditional parade, which celebrates broom and the customs of the old farming country.
The Echternach Sprangpressessioun forms part of an old religious tradition; however, unlike the Octave in the capital, it is famous far beyond the borders of Luxembourg and has an international reputation as something of an oddity. It takes place on tuesday after Whit Sunday.
The procession originated in late pagan times. A legend of the VIII century traces it to St Willibrord, the founder of the Abbey of Echternach, and to a Laange Veith, known as the "Fiddler of Echternach". According to the story, Veith went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land with his wife, who died during the long journey. When he returned home, years later, alone, the relatives who had appropriated his property during his absence circulated the base rumour that she had perished by his hand. The thrice unhappy man was seized, tried, found guilty and sentenced to be hanged.
Asked on the gallows if he had a last wish, Veith asked for his fiddle, had it handed to him and then began to play - whereupon the townspeople who had gathered to witness his execution began to dance, under a compulsion which continued for as long as he played, and though exhaustion claimed many, who fell to the ground, most were still dancing long after Veith, still fiddling, had descended from the gallows and vanished from town. It took the prayers of the great St Willibrord, who hurried to the scene, to save the people from St Vitus’ dance, the spell put upon them by the innocent "Fiddler of Echternach".
Long ago, it was believed that the Sprangpressessioun healed St Vitus’ dance and other aches and pains of men and animals. Today, some call it folklore, forgetting that for centuries it was a great and solemn religious event which drew the pious faithful from far and wide. Most came on foot. The story is still 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.
Sprangpressessioun dancers "spring": two steps to the left, two to the right. In the past, the prescribed motion took them three steps forward, two steps back, the source of the celebrated metaphor: "at an Echternach pace". The procession, composed of rows of five to seven dancers, each dancer grasping the ends of a handkerchief, moves forward slowly to the repeated strains of the trance-inducing Sprangpressessioun melody, an ancient, joyous air that fades and recurs, like the tune of the folk-song "Adam had seven sons". Long after the day is done, the music rings in every ear.
The musicians include brass bands large and small from across the country, accordionists, and sometimes even fiddlers. The procession takes some three hours to make its way through the streets of the old abbey town, and the bands and the swaying cortege pass before the tomb of St Willibrord, who lies buried in the crypt of the Basilica. Ten thousand spectators line the streets.
History tells us that Luxembourg has been independent, with a dynasty of its own, for a relatively short period of time. In the XIXth century, Luxembourgers celebrated their national holiday on Kinnéksdag (King’s Day: the birthday of the Dutch king). The new country’s first real patriotic holiday was Groussherzoginsgebuertsdag (the Grand Duchess’s Birthday). Grand Duchess Charlotte who reigned from 1919 to 1964 was born on 23 January, but to take advantage of the better summer weather, her birthday celebrations were postponed by six months, to 23 June. After Grand Duke Jean ascended the throne, 23 June became the official national holiday.
The festivities in the capital begin with a torch-lit parade past the palace, where the people gather to cheer the royal family. Thousands then attend the Freedefeier (fireworks) launched from the Adolphe bridge. Later, the capital gets into a party mood, with entertainment on every square: brass bands, musicians and ensembles of every kind, clowns, mime artists, fire-eaters, and every possible kind of street artist.
On the National Holiday, the Grand Duke reviews a military parade on the Avenue de la Liberté. The royal family and members of the political establishment then proceed to the Cathedral where they participate in a Te Deum in honour of the House of Luxembourg, conducted with great pomp. The Domine salvum fac magnum ducem nostrum for four voices, in a new arrangement each year, is always a high point of the service. A gun salute, fired from Fort Thüngen (Dräi Eechelen), concludes the national celebrations.
Every one of the country’s 118 townships organises some form of celebration. The local church sponsors a Te Deum, the mayor addresses the assembled citizenry in a patriotic speech, deserving members of local associations, brass bands and volunteer fire-fighting associations step forward to have a bright medal pinned to their proud chests. And then the representatives of the town’s political establishment, and its clubs and associations repair to a local restaurant for the banquet démocratique.
No one really knows how the former market, now an amusement fair, came by its colloquial name. From Schadebuerg, the name of a fort at Plateau du St-Esprit, where the market was originally held, say some; from Schober (haystack or barn), say others, who argue as they do because the fair takes place around St Bartholomew’s day, the traditional post-harvest holiday. The Schueberfouer was established 1340 by John the Blind, Count of Luxembourg and King of Bohemia. His monument, in a nearby park, was paid for by the fair’s booth keepers.
The cattle and flea market of old lasted eight days; its successor, today’s fair, is normally in town for about three weeks, always around St Bartholomew’s day, on 23 August. Over the years, the market has gradually been transformed into an amusement fair, a Kiermes, because the Cathedral’s church consecration celebrations (Kiermes) coincide with the Fouerzäit (Schueberfouer time).
Today, the Schueberfouer, or Fouer, as most Luxembourgers call it, has its home in the capital’s Limpertsberg district, on the Glacis ground, which sprouts roller coasters, a Ferris wheel, and loud, thrilling theme park rides of every description. Stubborn survivors of the market tradition can be found among the small stands which line the All?e Scheffer. Their offerings include nougat and roast hazelnuts, ebony carvings from Black Africa, miraculous kitchen appliances, can openers, bargain-bin CDs.
As always, food and drink take centre stage. One speciality deserves a mention: Fouerfësch, whiting fried in brewer’s yeast, traditionally eaten with Fritten (chips/French fries) and washed down with a beer or a glass of dry Moselle wine.
A word about the Hämmelsmarsch (the March of the Sheep): Early in the morning on Kiermes Day, always a Sunday, troupes of musicians, dressed in blue smocks to resemble XIXth century farmers, wander through the streets of the capital behind a shepherd and a little flock of gaily tricked-out sheep. Tradition calls for the musicians to play the Hämmelsmarsch, an old folk tune, sometimes sung, with words by the national poet Michel Lentz.
The shepherd, his sheep and the musicians attend the official opening of the Fouer. The city’s mayor presides at the brief ceremony, which is followed by an inaugural walking tour of the fair grounds, a welcome opportunity to "meet the people". The tour concludes over a platter of Kiermesham (ham) and Kiermeskuch (cake) served in one of the Fouer restaurants.
But Fouer time is not without a touch of melancholy. Early in August, when the amusement-park rides go up and all of a sudden the city skyline includes the steel ribs of the Ferris wheel, the sad truth always dawns: summer is drawing to an end. By the last day of the fair, when the closing fireworks (Freedefeier) light up the night, the swallows are already gathering on the wires.
Grape festivals and wine festivals
These days, grapes are cultivated almost exclusively on the slopes of the Moselle. The small quantities grown along the Sauer are trucked to the Moselle for making into wine. Luxembourg vintners produce seven kinds of white wine: Elbling, Rivaner, Auxerrois, Pinot gris, Pinot blanc, Riesling and Gew?rztraminer. And small quantities of Rosé: Elbling rosé, Pinot rosé and Pinot noir. The vintners also produce several sparkling wines, which natives - and others, too, for many are known to appreciate the drink - affectionately call Schampes.
There is a difference between a grape festival and a wine festival. Grape festivals are usually held in October, in thanksgiving for a good grape harvest. In Grevenmacher for instance, the Queen of Grapes is borne through town in a parade with bands and music, and wine. The grape festival in Schwebsange, which features a town fountain that dispenses wine instead of water, is unique.
Wine festivals are really village festivals, usually held in the spring, in the assembly hall of the local winery or outdoors in a large tent. Their purpose is sociability. They feature dance music, traditional food, wine (and beer).
Proufdag (sampling day), Wënzerdag (vintners’ day) and Wäimaart (wine market) are aimed at "professionals". Every wine-making establishment schedules one such event during the May-June period, when it sends out invitations to taste the latest wines. The best wines have yet to mature but already no real expert will hesitate to give their confident prediction: "This one, come fall, will be a Grand premier cru".
St Nicolas, who lived in the 4th century, was bishop of Lycia in Asia Minor. His life is shrouded in many legends (the most famous probably being the one that relates how he miraculously saved three children from the salting tub of a crazed butcher). St Nicolas has thus become the patron saint of children and on the eve of his feast, which is on 6 December, he descends from heaven, accompanied by his black servant Ruprecht (called Houseker by Luxembourgers) and a donkey laden with presents, to reward little children who have been good. Children who have misbehaved receive a Rutt, or switch.
In some towns, the holy man and his servant dressed in black go from house to house late on 5 December carrying presents to youngsters. If so, parents will have made the "arrangements". Usually, however, children rise early the next morning, on 6 December, to discover their plates overflowing with chocolates and presents, and the saint nowhere in sight. Unless, of course, their town or one of its associations has arranged for the Kleeschen (the Luxembourg diminutive for St Nicolas) to make a public appearance. In this case, the local brass band will be out in force to greet the Saint when he arrives by car, train, boat or even aeroplane, and escort him to the concert hall where children are waiting to greet him with songs and speeches. The evening always culminates in a carefully organised, "heavenly" distribution of presents.
St Nicolas should not be confused with the German Weihnachtsmann or the French Père Noël. These gentlemen never appear before Christmas day. As for the chuckling, bearded figures, mantled in red and white, who pop up in supermarkets on the day after Halloween: they make it difficult for the little ones to tell St Nicolas from Santa Claus.