Corpus Christi, Feast of

Corpus Christi, Feast of

Type of Holiday: Religious (Episcopalian, Roman Catholic)
Date of Observation: Between May 21 and June 24; Thursday after Trinity Sunday
Where Celebrated: Austria, Belgium, Canada, England, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, Spain, South America, Switzerland, United States, and by Roman Catholics all over the world
Symbols and Customs: Battles between Moors and Christians, Corpus Christi Plays, Flowers, Flying Pole Dance, Stations, Wreaths
Related Holidays: Easter, Maundy Thursday


The Feast of Corpus Christi is a Christian holiday in honor of the Blessed Sacrament. Christianity is the largest of the world's religions, with nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe. The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ, a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity.

There is no one central authority for all of Christianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects.

It was a thirteenth-century Belgian nun named Juliana who first suggested that a special feast be held in honor of the Blessed Sacrament on a day other than MAUNDY THURSDAY . Juliana had seen a vision repeatedly since the age of sixteen in which a full moon appeared, while part of it remained black. Finally, Jesus came to her and explained that the moon represented the ecclesiastical year, and the black spot indicated the lack of a festival in honor of the Blessed Sacrament. Although she was ridiculed when she spoke publicly about her vision, eventually the bishop of her diocese in Liège listened to her and instituted such a feast for the local churches in 1246.

One of the men who initially supported her efforts in Belgium later became Pope Urban IV. Six years after Juliana's death in 1258, he established a festival in honor of the Holy Eucharist for the whole church, to be celebrated on the Thursday after PENTECOST week. But the feast didn't really catch on until Pope Clement V renewed the decree in 1314, after which it spread quickly. Originally known as the Feast of the Most Holy Body of Christ, it commemorated the Last Supper, held on the day before Jesus' crucifixion. Worshippers received Holy Communion and, in some countries, the consecrated bread (or Host) was paraded through the streets, held by priests in a special receptacle known as a monstrance.

By the fourteenth century, the custom of carrying the Blessed Sacrament in a procession through the streets after Mass on Corpus Christi (which means "body of Christ" in Latin) was well established. Such processions were approved by the Council of Trent (1545-63) and recommended as a way for Roman Catholics to publicly express their faith in the Holy Sacrament. During the later Middle Ages, these processions developed into elaborate pageants of devotion, and they are still held in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Belgium, Ireland, and the Catholic regions of Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Canada, the Slavic countries, and South America. Members of the royal family, presidents and ministers of state, members of trade and craft guilds, and honor guards from the military accompany the religious procession while church bells ring, bands play hymns, and spectators often fall to their knees and pray. In Spain and Provence (southern France), these processions can be spectacular, with saints and characters from the Bible following a path decorated with WREATHS and strewn with FLOWERS .

The Corpus Christi feast was brought to the United States by Catholic missionaries in Florida, California, Texas, New Mexico, the Great Lakes region, and what is now Canada. There is a town in Texas named after the feast, and it is located on Corpus Christi Bay, at the mouth of the Nueces River.


Battles between Moors and Christians

In Mexico, Corpus Christi is often observed with symbolic battles between the Moors (Muslims) and Christians, particularly in the Sierras of Puebla and Veracruz. Although the costumes vary from one area to the next, the Moors can usually be distinguished by their turbans, while the Christians wear either elaborate plumed helmets with visors or derby hats with pink masks. The symbolic "battle" between the two groups can last four to five hours, at the end of which the Moors are defeated and their leader is symbolically buried.

Corpus Christi Plays

So-called Corpus Christi plays were an outgrowth of the Corpus Christi procession. At first the plays were simple tableaux of scenes from the Bible, but they gradually developed into little dramas enacted on platforms carried on men's shoulders during the procession. Eventually the dramas were held separately, usually in public squares or churches.

In Ireland during medieval times, roles in the Corpus Christi play would be assigned on the basis of membership in various trade guilds; for example, the fishermen might play the Twelve Apostles, while the butchers would play the part of executioners. The subject matter of these plays was usually a well-known legend or story from the Bible, such as St. George and the Dragon or the Passion of Christ. Corpus Christi plays were especially popular in England, Germany, and Spain. One of the most famous was the Autos Sacramentales or "Plays of the Sacrament" by the Spanish priest and poet Pedro Calderón de la Barca, which is still performed today.


Perhaps because Corpus Christi is a springtime feast in most countries, it is often associated with flowers. In Latin countries especially, it is customary to cover the streets with carpets of grass and flowers arranged into beautiful designs. On San Miguel in the Azores, the people make a flower-petal carpet almost three-quarters of a mile in length. Over this carpet passes a colorful procession of high-ranking clergy and red-robed priests, who are followed by young boys and girls who are about to receive Holy Communion for the first time. The high point of the ceremony comes when the bishop raises the silver monstrance and exposes the Blessed Sacrament or Body of Christ.

Flying Pole Dance

The Totonac Indians who live near Veracruz on Mexico's eastern coast perform a rain dance on Corpus Christi that dates back more than a thousand years. Four men climb a 90-foot ceremonial pole, wind ropes around its top, and attach the loose ends of the ropes to their ankles. On a signal, the dancers suddenly leap outward, head first, with arms outspread. The ropes quickly unwind and the men spin around the pole, swinging in wider and wider circles until they reach the ground. As they descend, which takes about two minutes, a Totonac priest on a platform at the top of the pole chants, "Mother Earth is everything, Mother Earth is life and death. Without rain, there is no life."

As he descends, each man makes 13 turns around the pole. Together, the four men make a total of 52 turns, one for each week in the year. Each dancer also represents a season-spring, summer, etc. The Indians say that the pole dance has never failed to bring rain, and the dancers themselves are symbolic of the rain that is certain to fall soon.

What the flying pole dance has to do with the feast of Corpus Christi is uncertain. The Spaniards brought Christianity to Mexico when Cortez first conquered the Aztecs in 1519, and the Indians appear to have mixed many of their ancient beliefs with those of Christianity. Other Central American Indian tribes perform a similar ritual, but associate it with other Christian holidays (see ST. THOMAS THE APOSTLE'S DAY ).


The ancient Roman custom of setting up stations or stopping-points along the route is very common in Corpus Christi processions. It can be traced back to the Stations of the Cross-the sites in Jerusalem and the surrounding area associated with various events in the crucifixion of Christ on GOOD FRIDAY.

In Corpus Christi processions, stops are made at various points, the Blessed Sacrament is placed on an altar table, and a passage of the Gospel is sung, followed by a hymn and a prayer asking for God's blessing. This ritual, approved by Pope Martin V in the mid-fifteenth century, is still observed in the Catholic regions of central European countries and in some Latin countries.

In Mexico, the reposiar is a small shrine or altar set up along the path of a Corpus Christi procession, covered with a lace-trimmed altar cloth and decorated with candles, flowers, and garlands. As the priest makes his rounds of the village, he stops at each of these shrines and gives his benediction, or blessing.


In central Europe and in France, Corpus Christi is also the "Day of Wreaths." Wreaths are attached to flags and banners, to houses, and to arches of green boughs that span the streets. Clergymen and altarboys wear little wreaths on their left arms in the Corpus Christi procession, while girls carry wreaths on their heads. Even the monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament is decorated with a wreath of flowers. In Poland, these wreaths are blessed by the priest on the eve of the feast day and then used after the ceremonies to decorate private homes. People hang them on the walls of their houses or fix them to the doors and windows, much like CHRISTMAS wreaths. Others put them up in gardens, fields, and pastures, with a prayer for God's blessing upon the growing harvest.


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New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
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