Fronleichnam or Corpus Christi, the Catholic feast of the Eucharist, is a fine example of how closely related culture and religion are in Austria. As Protestants with a Calvinistic upbringing, the colourful processions which accompany many Catholic religious holidays were new to us when we arrived in Tyrol. It felt like we drove back in time when we rode into our first Fronleichnam procession in Tulfes in 2010. Since then, we have come to look forward to this beautiful traditional celebration. Not because it is a public holiday, but because the people in it are no longer strangers, but fellow townsfolk – friends and acquaintances. This year was extra special because we shared the experience with a good friend visiting from South Africa. Watch the video at the end of the post to listen to the music and hear the shots fired.
The Body of Christ
Fronleichnam celebrates the bodily presence of Jesus Christ through the sacrament of the Eucharist following the example of the Last Supper. The first official celebration was in 1264 after Pope Urban IV declared it a universal feast for the entire Latin Church. By 1285, celebrations were also recorded in Tyrol.
In Tulfes today, Fronleichnam is announced by the ringing of the church bells. It is also visible in the flags hanging from the church tower and roof trusses. Windowsills along the procession route are decorated with flowers, embroidered cloths and candles.
The Fronleichnam procession is preceded by Holy Mass. Thereafter, the Eucharist is placed in a monstrance. The Eucharist is the term used for the bread and wine when transubstantiated into the body and blood of Jesus. The monstrance is the vessel hosting the Eucharist. The village priest carries the monstrance to altars along the route, where prayers are said and hymns are sung.
The Mountains Echo
Different local clubs and associations participate in the procession, including the Musikkapelle (town band) and the Schützenverein (marksmen’s club). In the middle comes the clergy and other important participants, with the ordinary parishioners forming the tail.
After each stop, everyone braces themselves for the deafening blank shots fired by the marksmen. These shots are answered by a canon firing more shots. When the mountains echo, goosebumps are almost guaranteed.
Back at the church, the band and marksmen wait outside while a last prayer is said. Finally, the priest and mayor emerges to be told by the chief marksman that the procession is officially over.
And in true Tyrolean style, the band members carrying the schnapps vats head over to the circle of important people to end the proceedings with a hearty shot!
- Fronleichnam is always celebrated on the 2nd Thursday after Whitsun (Pentecost Sunday).
- Fronleichnam is also sometimes called Kranzltag, Blutstag or Sakramentstag.
- The name Fronleichnam is derived from the Middle High German words vrôn and lîcham (Body of the Lord).
We are grateful to the residents of Tulfes for allowing us to take pictures and video. Like our friend remarked, this wasn’t a show put on for tourists. It was ordinary townsfolk celebrating an annual religious holiday exactly as they’ve been doing for over 700 years. In fact, there were only a handful of interested “outsiders” watching the procession. I’m afraid I got so carried away by the ceremony, I hope I didn’t get in the way in my eagerness not to miss a thing!
Interested to know more about Austrian and Tyrolean traditions and festivals? Then read what the local people do around a Maypole or when the first radishes are harvested.