Corpus Christi celebrations sweep across the country

Grzegorz Michałowski

The small town of Łowicz will erupt into colour today as locals take to the streets to celebrate Corpus Christi (Boże Ciało). Women in colourful Masovian costumes, young girls in their white holy communion dresses and men in colourful medieval culottes carrying standards of the Virgin Mary join solemn priests, draped in clerical red leading a procession — while a carnival including, ferris wheels and folk art workshops will turn the event into a weekend-long affair.

Poland is known for its baroque Catholic folk traditions, which punctuate the national calendar with metronomic regularity and the Corpus Christi (Boże Ciało) celebration is no different. A public holiday in Poland, the annual celebration of the eucharist will see hundreds of thousands around the country participating in solemn, ornate processions through towns large and small.

The feast of Corpus Christi, one of the oldest traditions in the Catholic Church, dates back to the 13th century when the canoness Juliana of Liege campaigned for a holiday to mark transubstantiation (the Catholic belief that the wafer and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ). A moveable feast, it was pegged to the lunar calendar so that it fell 60 days after the Thursday before Good Friday and became a time for celebration —  in medieval times, plays depicting Biblical life were often performed to mark the occasion.

In Poland, the celebrations converged with folk traditions. Colourful feasts accompanying spring and old Slavic customs fed into the Corpus Christi traditions and many of them are still present today. In many places, the faithful dress up in regional folk outfits, while flowers and twigs adorn the four altars key to the commemoration. In some cases, participants will still hit each other with twigs, as a way of wishing each other good health. Interestingly, during the time of partitions, Corpus Christi also served as a vehicle for Polish independence, with the procession taking on a more patriotic zeal.

Nowadays, each parish marks the festival with a major procession —  often accompanied by liturgical incantations and singing —  which weaves its way through cities, towns and villages, as the faithful make their way to the altars. The priest will walk beneath a canopy, while a member of the clergy carries a monstrance with the eucharist . Little girls will throw flower petals, while followers —  from men dressed as Sarmatian knights to women in solemn black —  follow the lead.

In this way, Corpus Christi is also a community event. The four altars the procession must stop at often carry a broader significance for the community —  they are often created by the most important people in the parish, and their placement sometimes carries a specific meaning. It is one of the few times in the year when a Catholic bishop must return to the seat of his diocese, and others, returning for the long weekend, often treat it as a time to celebrate their unique colourful heritage.

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