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Pentecost and Corpus Christi

Religious and secular traditions and festivals throughout Germany mark the arrival of the last day of the Easter celebrations, which is not Easter Monday but Pfingsten, Pentecost, derived from the Greek pentekoste fiftieth day.

Another moveable feast, and a major Christian festival in Germany it takes place fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead which can be in May or at the latest on June 13th, and commemorates the day when as Jesus had foretold the Holy Spirit gave the gift of tongues to his disciples, bringing about the birth of the Christian church.

A religious and public holiday thousands of Germany's Christians attend the special services and walk in procession to church, often wearing Tracht, their region's traditional dress, in other areas it is horses, their riders carrying banners and crosses, which are led by priests. While at the same time there are local secular and pre-Christian customs and traditions, many connected to farming and planting, spring country fairs are held all over the country, and it is also the revision break for many students before their summer exams.

Not all have to study though, and the night between Pentecost Sunday and Pentecost Monday is Unruhnacht, 'unrest night', or Bosheitsnacht, 'wickedness night', when as with Walpurgisnacht any young people who do not have to 'hit the books' are often out and about making mischief, doing what in pagan times was believed evil spirits would have done.

Which is come out into the open and steal any moveable objects which had not been safely put away.

At the same time in some regions the more romantically minded young men nail branches from a birch tree, a symbol of the fertile spring and summer seasons, to the walls of homes belonging to the young woman they hope, perhaps even secretly, to marry. A fertility rite which can be traced back thousands of years.

Many of the festival's customs are centered around trees, greenery and the fertility of nature, including Pfingstbaumpflanzen, Pentecost tree planting, the covering of a birch tree with ribbons like an old fashioned maypole.

In some regions, especially on the eastern side of Germany, it isn't May 1st but now that a maypole is erected, and as soon as it is in place the classic 'Dance around the Maypole', with its ribbons ending up entwined around the pole, is one of the high points of the day.

While the Pentecost wreath, Oelder Pfingstenkranz, is a three meter high pyramid made from evergreen branches used as the central point for dancing and the singing of traditional songs. This dates from the days of the Germanic pagan god Woton, who was worshiped as the protector of harvest and farm animals amongst other things.

If Pentecost occurs in May, livestock, which has spent the winter and spring in barns and fields close to the villages, is taken out to pasture for the first time, often to fields high in the mountains. Leading the herd the strongest animal, der Pfingstochse, the Pentecost Ox, is decorated with flowers, greenery, ribbons and bells, a tradition still to be seen in many rural areas, especially in southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

This gives rise to the saying geputzt wie ein Pfingstochse, "dressed up like a Pentecost ox", when someone is wearing either highly fashionable or formal clothes. Usually for a special occasion but perhaps more than a little over-dressed.

A June Pfingsten with the animals already in their summer pastures does not mean no Pfingstochse, it is a tradition which goes back generations so one will be chosen, decorated and displayed.

While of course there are the Pfingstfeuer, Pentecost fires, which originate from a pagan custom for chasing away the last of the winter and welcoming the spring, but are now a symbol of the Holy Spirit in Christian circles as well as a popular secular tradition.

A week after Pentecost Sunday is Trinity Sunday, the beginning of the longest season of the church year which lasts until the first Sunday of Advent. Corpus Christi takes place on the following Thursday. Another religious and public holiday in catholic regions of Germany, it is known as Fronleichnam, from the old German word for Lord, fron, meaning 'the body of the Lord'.

Once again together with the religious celebrations there are other festivals and traditions, one of which is the parade of ships on the Rhine alongside Cologne. Held every year since 1435 it celebrates the legend of the Muelheimer Gottestracht, a thief who when trying to escape by crossing the river with a boat was stopped by an unknown force, believed to be God punishing him.

Especially in the smaller towns and villages there are open air masses and processions, not all of which take place on dry land, and these are often led by children who have received their first communion some weeks previously. Commemorating the Christian sacrament of holy communion, and the Holy Eucharist, wafers blessed by a priest, are carried in das Allerheiligste, 'the Holiest of Holies', an elaborately decorated transparent box, through streets garlanded with birch tree branches and flowers.

It's the beginning of summer and Corpus Christi, Fronleichnam, brings to an end the series of religious celebrations and holidays begun almost 70 days previously on Palm Sunday, with the processions, services and blessings of those Palmbusche - palm bouquets, pussy willow and hazel branches which had been carried through the streets. Symbols for the palm branches scattered for Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but difficult to find in springtime Germany.

Pfingsten, with the Dove and Fire, two symbols for the Holy Ghost, bordered by two Easter Candles, by Marion Decker - Pfingstochsen ready to be led through the village via GrevenerZeitung.de - Seeprozession in Seehausen am Staffelsee, courtesy Murnau am Staffelsee.

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