Corpus Christi is a Roman Catholic holy day that has been observed since the 13th Century A.D. to celebrate the Holy Eucharist. In heavily Catholic Poland, Corpus Christi is a public holiday and is celebrated with much fanfare and vigour.
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The Latin term Corpus Christi means “body of Christ,” in reference to the bread administered by priests during holy communion. Though communion is held every Sunday during mass throughout the year, a special day to celebrate the taking of communion was instituted on the basis of visions reportedly seen by Saint Julianne in the Belgian town of Liege in 1247. The first celebrations of Corpus Christi on Polish soil took place in 1320.
The date of Corpus Christi is based on Easter, being set on the Thursday of the ninth week following Easter Sunday. In Poland, many people take off not only Corpus Christi but also the following Friday, to create a festive four-day weekend.
Corpus Christi is one of the five days of the year on which Catholic bishops are not to be away from their dioceses unless absolutely unavoidable. It is day on which special masses are held in honour of the Eucharist. However, the processions immediately after mass are the real centre of attention. Devotees dressed in traditional Polish garb, varying region by region, march through the streets holding up banners. The priest holds high a canopy-covered Eucharist, and children throw flowers in the priest’s path as he walks along. At four different altars along the way, the procession stops to allow the crowds to sing hymns and say prayers. Finally, the procession returns to the church building, where the priest pronounces a blessing upon the Eucharist.
Some Poles will decorate their homes for Corpus Christi, putting religious pictures or flower garlands in their windows. Streets along which a procession is to pass are often lined with flowers and other decorations, and in large cities, each church will have its own procession and at different times of day. Some believe that Jesus walks on the flowers strewn on the streets, and some even tear of twigs adorning the street altars to bring themselves “good luck”.
Should you visit Poland for Corpus Christi, here are some ideas on what to do while there:
- See the large procession in Warsaw, particularly the one beginning at Saint John’s Cathedral in the Old Town district and traveling along the Royal Route. It is led by the leader of the entire Polish Roman Catholic Church.
- See the many famous churches concentrated in Poland’s earlier capital of Krakow, and stay for mass and the following processions. Of particular note are the Church of the Virgin Mary overlooking Market Square and the Corpus Christi Basilica built by King Kasimir III in 1335.
- If still in Poland exactly one week after Corpus Christi Day, attend the Lajkonik festival in Krakow. A traditionally costumed parade will march down to Old Market Square, and a “joker” on a wooden horse will try to dash members of the crowd with a “rag ball” and “capture” any fair maidens he happens to spy. Additionally, throughout the day, you will hear several bugle calls that are suddenly cut short. These commemorate a bugler who once warned the town of an impending invasion but had an arrow hit his throat in the middle of a bugle call.