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Pentecost and Corpus Christi in Germany


Throughout Germany religious, pre-Christian and secular traditions and festivals mark the arrival of the last day of the Easter celebrations. Not Easter Monday but Pfingsten, Pentecost, from the Greek Pentekoste fiftieth day.

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

A religious and public holiday, thousands of Germany's Christians attend the special services after walking in procession to church, often wearing Tracht their region's traditional dress. In other areas horses, their riders carrying banners and crosses, are led by priests.

There are local secular and pre-Christian customs and traditions, many connected to farming and planting, country fairs are held all over the country, while 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.

That is to come out into the open and steal any moveable objects not 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 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 is now not May 1 when a maypole is erected, and the classic 'Dance around the Maypole', where its ribbons end 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 ending up more than a little over-dressed.

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

While of course there are the Pfingstfeuer, Pentecost fires. They originate from a pagan custom for chasing away the last of the winter and welcoming the spring, but now are 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 and this 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 and means 'the body of the Lord'.

Once again together with religious celebrations there are other festivals and traditions, one of which is a parade of ships on the Rhine alongside Cologne.

Held every year since 1435 this 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 received their first communion some weeks before.

Commemorating the Christian sacrament of holy communion and the Holy Eucharist, wafers blessed by a priest are carried through streets garlanded with birch tree branches and flowers in das Allerheiligste, 'the Holiest of Holies', an elaborately decorated transparent box,

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 that 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, via pvsenglischefraeulein.at - Pfingstochsen ready to be led through the village via GrevenerZeitung.de - Seeprozession in Seehausen am Staffelsee, courtesy Murnau am Staffelsee.


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Easter in Germany
Ascension Day/Father's Day
Walpurgisnacht, Maibaum and May Day
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Content copyright © 2014 by Francine McKenna-Klein. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Francine McKenna-Klein. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Francine McKenna-Klein for details.

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