Luxembourg is a land of many traditions, which are celebrated every year. Some you may know from other cultures, some are proper to Luxembourg.
The feast of St Blasius, celebrated on the 2nd of 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).
The Sunday after Shrove Tuesday is Buergsonndeg, when a Buerg, a huge pile of straw, brushwood and logs, 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. It can be cold outside, late in winter, waiting for a bonfire, so a barbecue and mulled wine are available to provide nourishment and warmth. Buergsonndeg is a tradition with a long 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.
Klibberjongen, 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. 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 the hunt. Social, or popular, Easter festivities take place on Easter Monday, not on Easter Sunday. Many families visit one of the country’s two Eemaischen fairs, one held in the capital’s old-town quarter, on the Fëschmaart (Fish Market), the other in Nospelt, a town in the west of the country. At the Fëschmaart and in Nospelt, visitors are offered the traditional Éimaischen keepsake: the Péckvillchen, a usually bird-shaped earthenware "flute" which produces a sound eerily like the cry of the cuckoo.
On Bretzelsonndeg (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.
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 Luxembourg City. 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 pilgrims form a procession on the outskirts of the city, then proceed on foot to the Cathedral. 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 and political representatives.
Our Lady of Fatima plays an important role in the country’s religious life, and little wonder, as approximately 15% of the population of Luxembourg are Portuguese nationals. Since 1968, her pilgrimage has taken place on Ascension Day near Wiltz, in the Oesling region.
Broom is found throughout the country but nowhere in greater profusion than on the cliffs and hilltops of the Oesling region. At Whitsuntide, the northern countryside is 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. Unlike the Octave in the capital however, it is famous far beyond the borders of Luxembourg and has an international reputation as something of an oddity and has recently been added to the UNESCO list of immaterial World Heritage. The procession takes place every year on the Tuesday after Whitsunday.
The event originated in late pagan times. A legend of the 8th 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 alone years later, the relatives, who had appropriated his belongings 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. Although 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".
Sprangpressessioun dancers "hop": 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.
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. Every year, ten thousand spectators line the streets on this occasion.
Luxembourg has been independent since 1839 and has a dynasty of its own since 1890. In the 19th 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 the 23rd of January, but to take advantage of the better summer weather, her birthday celebrations were postponed by six months, to the 23rd of June. After Grand Duke Jean ascended the throne, the 23rd of June became the official national holiday.
The festivities in the capital begin on the eve of 23 June 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 and live music on every square.
On the National Day itself, 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, a praise hymn, in honour of the House of Luxembourg, conducted with great pomp.
The Schueberfouer was established in 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 the 23rd of August. Over the years, the market has gradually been transformed into an amusement fair, a Kiermes.
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. Some survivors of the market tradition can be found among the small stands that line one side of the Fouer. Their offerings include nougat and roasted 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 French fries and washed down with a beer or a glass of dry Moselle wine.
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, 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 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.
Saint 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 the 6th of 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 (a switch).
In some towns, the holy man and his servant dressed in black go from house to house late on the 5th of December carrying presents to youngsters. If so, parents will have made the "arrangements". Usually, however, children rise early the next morning, on the 6th of December, to discover their plates overflowing with chocolates and presents, and the saint nowhere in sight. Unless, of course, their town has arranged for the Kleeschen (the Luxembourg diminutive for Saint 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.