The 'Echternach Sprangprëssessioun' (hopping procession) comes from a very old religious tradition. The only hopping procession in Europe, it is known far beyond the borders of Luxembourg. The procession, which takes place on the Tuesday after Whitsunday, is a curiosity of international renown. Since 16 November 2010, this tradition is included on the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Obscure pagan traditions lie at the origin of this procession. According to legend, it dates back to the 8th century, to St Willibrord and a certain Vitus, known as the 'Fiddler of Echternach'. The story has it that Vitus went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with his wife, only to return by himself, his wife having died along the way. Jealous relatives, who during his absence had shared out all his possessions, spread the rumour that Vitus himself had killed his wife while abroad. The unfortunate man was sentenced to death and upon being led to the gallows asked whether he could play his violin one last time. His wish was granted and Vitus started playing. Onlookers gathered around the gallows started to dance. They danced for hours on end, until their feet sank into the ground, with Vitus having long fled the gallows and the city of Echternach, still playing, while the crowds continued to dance. This is when St Willibrord was called upon to put an end to this curse and release the unfortunate from the St Vitus’ dance.
In ancient times, it was believed that the 'Sprangprëssessioun', the hopping procession, healed not only St Vitus’ dance (i.e. epilepsy), but also other aches and pains afflicting men and animals. Far from being a mainly traditional event as it is today, in bygone days the procession was a true pilgrimage, drawing people from afar and mostly on foot. To this day, the story is 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.
The hopping procession is literally a skipping procession: participants skip two steps to the left, two to the right. In the past, skipping consisted of three steps forward and two steps back (thus the humourous and still widely used phrase of something progressing 'at an Echternach pace'). The procession, composed of rows of five to six dancers with each dancer grasping the ends of a handkerchief, moves forward slowly to the repeated sounds of the lively 'Sprangprëssessioun' melody, inspired by the traditional song Adam had seven sons, the tune of which still rings in the ears of both participants and onlookers, long after the day is over.
The music is played not only by the country’s brass and wind bands, but also by accordion and fiddler ensembles. The procession takes some three hours to make its way through the streets of the old abbey town, with the bands and the skipping procession passing before the tomb of St Willibrord, who lies buried in the crypt of the Basilica. The number of spectators amounts to around ten thousand.
(Source: BRAUN, Josy. 'Traditions and festivals' in: Lëtzebuerg. Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Information and Press Service. 2007.)