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Catholic church - Corpus Christi.

Exploring Corpus Christi: Faith, Culture, and Folk Tradition

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The Feast of Corpus Christi, or the Dies Sanctissimi Corporis et Sanguinis Domini Iesu Christi, is one of the Catholic Church's most vibrant celebrations, celebrated across the world via an array of folk traditions. This feast, traditionally held 60 days after Easter Sunday, commemorates the Christian belief in the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. While mostly associated with the Latin Church, the Western Orthodox, and even Anglican churches also celebrate the feast. Beyond its religious significance, Corpus Christi has evolved into a cultural spectacle, showcasing local customs, colorful processions, and unique rituals. From the intricate flower carpets of Tenerife to the spirited dances of Cusco, there are lots of diverse ways to celebrate one of the Church’s oldest traditions. 

Celebrating Corpus Christi Around The World 

The origins of the Feast of Corpus Christi can be traced back all the way to the 13th century. Arguably, the tradition’s founder was Juliana of Liege, who was raised by the Augustinian nuns at the convent and leprosarium of Mont-Cornillon after being orphaned at the age of five. She experienced visions urging her to advocate for a special feast dedicated to the Blessed Sacrament. After nearly forty years, her efforts caught the attention of Pope Urban IV, who, in 1264, instituted Corpus Christi as a universal feast with the papal bull " Transiturus de hoc mundo ." 

On top of Juliana’s efforts, the tradition was partly influenced by the Eucharistic Miracle of Bolsena in 1263, where it was reported that blood began to seep from a consecrated host during Mass. This event significantly bolstered the belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, prompting Pope Urban IV to create the feast to reaffirm and celebrate this core Catholic doctrine. 

Tapestry of one of the banners stained with blood used in the Corpus Christi procession 

Tapestry of one of the banners stained with blood used in the Corpus Christi procession (Public Domain) 

Early on, Corpus Christi was celebrated with great solemnity and reverence. The central feature was the procession of the Blessed Sacrament, displayed in a monstrance, through the streets of towns and villages. These processions served to publicly express faith and devotion, bringing the sacred out of the church and into the community. 

By the Middle Ages, the feast had gained popularity and the celebration had become a little more boisterous. In much of Europe, especially England, Corpus Christi plays, or ‘mystery plays’, emerged as a key tradition. These plays dramatized biblical stories and were performed by different guilds, educating the public on religious narratives while providing entertainment. 

As Corpus Christi spread globally, it began to incorporate local customs and cultural elements, particularly in regions like Spain and Latin America. The melding of Catholic and indigenous traditions created unique celebrations that reflect both religious devotion and local heritage. Thus, the history of Corpus Christi is not just a tale of a religious feast but also a story of cultural integration and expression over centuries. Here are some  

Spain: The Flower Carpets of Tenerife 

In Spain, the feast is celebrated across all dioceses. In Castilla-La Mancha, Toledo the celebration holds particular importance, and its date is marked as a holiday and has become one of their main festivals. 

In Tenerife, the Corpus Christi celebrations have taken on a life of their own, renowned for breathtaking flower carpets called “alfombras.’ Sporting intricate designs and made from colored sand, flowers, and other natural materials, they adorn the streets leading to the church. The procession, featuring the Blessed Sacrament, passes over these carpets, symbolizing the transitory nature of earthly beauty. 

In the small village of Castrillo de Murcia, located near the city of Burgos locals celebrate the feast with the practice of El Colacho. Also known as “baby jumping” this tradition sees men dressed as devils jumping over babies born over the last 12 months. It’s believed the devils absorb babies’ future sins. 

The El Colacho baby jumping festival. 

The El Colacho baby jumping festival. (Viaggio Routard/CC BY 2.0) 

The Catalonians have their own unique Corpus Christi tradition, the dancing egg. An egg is placed and suspended in a water fountain’s vertical jet. It’s believed this tradition started during the 16th century, most likely at the Cathedral of Barcelona although the why has been lost to time. 

In the Catalonian city of Berga, the Patum de Barga is also held to celebrate Corpus Christi. Made up of a series of dances, this feast is attended by locals dressed as mystical figures and features plenty of pyrotechnics.  

Peru: The Vibrant Dances of Cusco 

Outside of Spain, Cusco, Peru sees some of the most impressive Corpus Christi celebrations. A spectacular fusion of Catholic and indigenous Andean traditions, the celebrations begin with the "Entrada," a procession where richly adorned saints’ statues from various churches are carried to the cathedral.  

The feast day itself then features traditional dances, such as the "Qhapac Negro" and "Qhapac Ch'unchu," performed by locals in colorful costumes. These dances, accompanied by lively music, reflect both devotion and the region's rich cultural heritage. 

Qhapaq negro in Cuzco, Peru.  

Qhapaq negro in Cuzco, Peru. (Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia/CC BY-SA 2.0) 

The statues of the saints are held at Cusco Cathedral for eight days where it is said they “debate” the region’s future and judge the behavior of local worshippers. There is then a farewell procession around the Plaza de Armas before the statues are returned to their home temples.  

Poland: The Solemn Processions and Altars 

Across Poland, Corpus Christi is marked by solemn processions where the faithful walk through the streets, praying and singing hymns. Along the route, temporary altars are set up, often decorated with flowers and religious icons.  

In Spycimierz the feast is marked in a comparable way to Tenerife. Local churchgoers arrange a carpet made of live flowers that stretches one kilometer long. At 5 pm a solemn procession passes over the stunning carpet towards the church.  

Every year at Corpus Christi, parishioners from Spycimierz in Poland lay a two-kilometer-long colorful carpet of flowers. 

Every year at Corpus Christi, parishioners from Spycimierz in Poland lay a two-kilometer-long colorful carpet of flowers. (ASzoszk/CC BY-SA 4.0) 

Mexico: The Feast of Corpus Christi and Indigenous Syncretism 

In Mexico Corpus Christi celebrations, known as “Dia de las Mulas,” are a beautiful blend of Catholic rites and ancient indigenous customs. One notable tradition is the "Danza de los Voladores" (Dance of the Flyers), a pre-Hispanic ritual involving performers climbing a tall pole and then descending gracefully, tied by ropes. This dance symbolizes the connection between the earth and the divine. Additionally, rural communities often present offerings of maize and other agricultural products, thanking God for the harvest. 

Mexico’s Papantla Danza de los voladores 

Mexico’s Papantla Danza de los voladores.  (rulojmp / Adobe Stock) 

Austria: The Lake Procession of Hallstatt 

In Hallstatt, Austria, the Corpus Christi celebration features a unique procession on the lake. After a church service, participants board elaborately decorated boats, carrying statues and the Blessed Sacrament across the tranquil waters. The tradition dates back to the 17th century and is meant to highlight the harmonious relationship between faith and nature.  

Across the rest of Austria, the feast is both a high festival and a public holiday.  

Corpus Christi procession on Lake Hallstatt in Hallstatt in the Salzkammergut  

Corpus Christi procession on Lake Hallstatt in Hallstatt in the Salzkammergut (Gmunden district, Upper Austria, Austria) (DoKuPiX/Adobe Stock) 

Brazil: The Festive Parades of Ouro Preto 

In Ouro Preto, Brazil, Corpus Christi is celebrated with festive parades and street decorations. Residents create "tapetes de serragem," intricate carpets made from colored sawdust, along the procession route. These designs often include religious symbols and motifs reflecting local culture. The procession, accompanied by music and traditional dances, highlights the community’s artistic talent and deep-rooted faith. 

Italy: The Infiorata of Genzano 

In Genzano, Italy, Corpus Christi is celebrated with the "Infiorata," a tradition where the streets are covered with beautiful flower petals arranged in elaborate patterns. These floral carpets depict religious scenes and artistic designs, creating a vibrant, fragrant pathway for the procession. This tradition, which began in the 18th century, transforms the town into a living artwork, attracting both locals and tourists. 

The "Infiorata," Flower Festival in Genzano, Italy. 

The "Infiorata," Flower Festival in Genzano, Italy. (Cbvideo45/CC BY-SA 3.0) 

Conclusion 

Corpus Christi folk traditions make up a rich tapestry of global folk traditions, where religious devotion intertwines with local culture. From the intricate flower carpets of Tenerife and Genzano to the vibrant dances of Cusco and the unique lake procession in Hallstatt, each region brings its own distinct flavor to this sacred celebration. 

These diverse practices not only reinforce communal faith but also preserve and display local heritage. As Corpus Christi continues to be celebrated worldwide, it remains a vibrant fusion of faith, tradition, and cultural expression, uniting communities in a shared reverence for the Holy Eucharist. Even for non-believers they are stirring events that reinforce one’s belief in community spirit and shared celebrations, whatever they may be. 

Top image: Catholic church - Corpus Christi. Source: sidneydealmeida/Adobe Stock  

References 

Sparks. T. 2024. The Tradition of Corpus Christi Floral Tapestries. Barcelona Metropolitan. Available at: 

Rios. L. 2023. Corpus Christi: history and tradition. OMNESMag. Available at: 

Editor. 2024. Non-Religious Traditions Associated with Corpus Christi Around the World. CatholicTT. Available at: https://catholictt.org/2024/05/29/non-religious-traditions-associated-with-corpus-christi-around-the-world/ 

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Corpus Christi is a Catholic feast commemorating the belief in the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Celebrated 60 days after Easter, it features vibrant processions and various local traditions worldwide. 

The origins of Corpus Christi date back to the 13th century, initiated by Juliana of Liège, who advocated for a feast dedicated to the Blessed Sacrament after experiencing visions. Her efforts were recognized by Pope Urban IV, who in 1264 instituted Corpus Christi as a universal feast with the papal bull "Transiturus de hoc mundo." The feast was further influenced by the Eucharistic Miracle of Bolsena in 1263, where a consecrated host reportedly began to bleed during Mass. 

The most well-known Corpus Christi celebrations include the intricate flower carpets in Tenerife, Spain, and the vibrant traditional dances in Cusco, Peru. Spycimierz, Poland, is famous for its long live flower carpet, while Hallstatt, Austria, features a unique lake procession. Other notable celebrations are the festive parades and sawdust carpets in Ouro Preto, Brazil, and the stunning floral carpets in Genzano, Italy. 

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Robbie

I’m a graduate of History and Literature from The University of Manchester in England and a total history geek. Since a young age, I’ve been obsessed with history. The weirder the better. I spend my days working as a freelance... Read More

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