Eucharist celebrated with carpets, herbs and eggs

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | June 21, 2014

Time to get the wreaths out again. And the hollowed out eggs.

No, it’s not Christmas. Yes, the Easter season did end on June 1, the feast of Pentecost.

However, it is going to be the feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ — traditionally called “Corpus Christi.” The feast celebrates the institution of the Holy Eucharist by Christ and his presence in the consecrated bread and wine.

Yes, Holy Thursday celebrates the institution of the sacrament, but an 11th century saint — St. Juliana of Mont Cornillion in Belgium — brought about a feast day that was meant to be as joyful about the Eucharist as Holy Thursday is solemn. Juliana had a vision of the church as a full moon, with a round piece missing. The missing piece represented the missing feast day. She prevailed upon her bishop and her message traveled up to the pope.

The first Corpus Christi feast was celebrated in 1261. In 1264, Pope Urban IV ordered it for the whole church.

Corpus Christi is traditionally celebrated in Europe on the Thursday after the feast of the Most Holy Trinity. (This year, that was June 19.) In the United States, the feast is celebrated on the following Sunday. Until the mid-20th century, the feast had an octave — eight days of special Masses and prayers, as we still have for major feasts like Christmas and Easter.

Because of that octave, you will find many festive traditions, in parts of Europe and the United States, taking place during this entire week.

Processions

The best known is the Corpus Christ procession. The Blessed Sacrament, in a monstrance, is carried in procession through the streets, with stops at several temporary shrines and altars for prayer and blessings. The processions include escorts by groups like the Knights of Columbus and are often led by children who have made their first Communion this year. The girls sometime spread flower petals, much the way flower girls spread rose petals before a bride. In the United States, many of us may have seen this type of Corpus Christi procession.

Those flower petals lead us to another Corpus Christi tradition that many people from Mexico and Central and South America will know as tapetes (Spanish for “rug”).

Carpets

Floral carpets — or, more often, colored sawdust — in elaborate patterns will carpet the streets for Corpus Christi celebrations. Tapetes became so popular that they can be seen for many other Catholic feasts as well: the Easter Vigil, the Día de Muerto (“Day of the Dead” which includes the feasts of All Saints and All Souls) and various other saints’ feasts.

In Catalonia, Spain, sawdust carpets are part of the Festa de les Enramades d’Arbúcies, feast of the Arbors, celebrated around Corpus Christi. Not only are there flowers, but parades with angels and devils, fireworks and human pyramids (castellers) up to 10 people high.

Eggs

Then there is the dancing egg — also a tradition from Catalonia. On Corpus Christi, a hollowed egg, sealed with a little wax, is placed into the fountain of the cloister of the city’s cathedral. Called, “l’ou com balla,” this egg is meant to symbolize the Eucharist, but probably has earlier pagan connections, since the egg is also a symbol of fertility. The egg stays dancing in the air because it rides on the spray of the fountain. This dancing egg tradition dates back to the middle-1600s.

Wreaths

Finally, let’s get to the wreaths. Corpus Christi wreaths, unlike Christmas evergreen wreaths, are made from flowers and herbs. Popular in Poland, Lithuania, Austria and Germany, the wreaths give another name to the feast of Corpus Christi: Kranzltag (“wreath day” in German.)

The wreaths are also part of the Corpus Christi processions — worn on the heads of girls and the arms of priests and altar servers. There are also countries that fix wreaths or floral balls on long poles for the processions. But there’s more to the wreaths than floral colors and scents.

Herbs

In 2012, the U.S. National Institutes of Health printed a 2012 article from the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, exploring the “many species of aromatic and medicinal plants” that are traditionally placed in the wreaths used in Poland.

The scientists found that many of the traditional herbs are being forgotten in modern wreaths. However, they were still able to identify five herbs of widespread use in wreathes: chamomile, golden moss stonecrop, lady’s mantle, lemon thyme and wild ginger. Each of these has been widely used for centuries for herbal remedies across Europe and is still valued today.

For example, a 2010 study in Molecular Medicine Report, noted that “Chamomile has been used as an herbal medication since ancient times … (and) contains various bioactive phytochemicals that could provide therapeutic effects. Chamomile can help in improving cardiovascular conditions, stimulate immune system and provide some protection against cancer.”

Whether flower wreaths contain healing medicine or eggs can dance, what is certain is that the world — even if it doesn’t remember all beginnings behind the religious traditions — celebrates the healing that comes to us through Christ in the holy Eucharist.

 

Sources: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov; Cathedral of Barcelona at Catedralbcn.org; Hiddeneurope.co.uk; festacatalunya.cat; and “The Catholic Encyclopedia.”

Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor Press (2011). Her newest book, “Making Sense of Saints,” is now available through Our Sunday Visitor Press.

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