09 June 2012

Corpus Christi: the body of Christ, flavoured with rosemary

This week Alcalá celebrates yet another religious festival; Corpus Christi, literally the Body of Christ, proclaiming the transubstantiation whereby bread and wine change into the actual body and blood of Christ during the Eucharist.  Masses are held at both of the town's churches and at the Santuario, and tonight there will be a procession, bearing the Holy Host enshrined in silverware through the narrow streets, accompanied by our inimitable silver band.

Lining the streets with greenery
in Zahara de la Sierra
Corpus Christi is a moveable feast, meaning that it takes place on a different date every year; the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday, which is the eighth Sunday after Easter.  It started in 1208 when a Belgian nun had a vision of a moon half covered by cloud, which she interpreted to mean that God was unhappy that the Eucharist was not celebrated on earth. In 1246, the Bishop of Liège approved a Eucharist celebration in his diocese, which Pope Urban IV then extended to the rest of the Catholic Church in 1264.

Every town and village in Spain celebrates Corpus Christi, and the festival usually lasts for four days.  The biggest and most extravagant event is in the city of Granada, where it coincides with the annual feria.  This week-long binge was used by the Catholic rulers after the Reconquista to help "Christianise" a population that had been under Muslim occupation for more than seven centuries.  With festivals as the carrot and the Inquisition as the stick, their mission was quickly accomplished.

Sitges Floral Carpet
It is traditional before the procession to carpet the streets with greenery.   In Zahara de la Sierra, a beautiful hill-town between Alcalá and Ronda, they use all sorts of aromatic herbs, thyme, rosemary eucalyptus, oleander and palm leaves.  The Zahara festival is quite spectacular, and has the status of Fiesta de Interés Turístico Nacional.

In Sitges (Cataluña) they decorate the street with flower petals, forming elaborate patterns.  (They clearly don't get the Levante up there ...)

In Alcalá they scatter rosemary on the streets.  There were two big sacks of it in Dominguitos when I went in for coffee this morning.  I'm not sure of its significance for Corpus Christi, but  it does have religious symbolism. The Virgin Mary is said to have spread her blue cloak over a white-blossomed rosemary bush when she was resting, and the flowers turned blue. The shrub then became known as the 'Rose of Mary' .  It was also burnt as incense in some Roman and pagan ceremonies.

Some photos of previous years' Corpus processions in Alcalá, from the Spanish blog Mi Alcala:

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