1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Echternach
ECHTERNACH, a town in the grand duchy of Luxemburg, on the Sûre, close to the Prussian frontier. Pop. (1905) 3484. It is the oldest town in Luxemburg, and was the centre from which the English Saint Willibrord converted the people to Christianity in the 7th century. There are the Benedictine abbey, the hospital almshouse, which is said to be the oldest hospital in Europe except the Hôtel-Dieu in Paris, and the church of St Peter and St Paul. The Benedictine abbey has been greatly shorn of its original dimensions, but the basilica remains a fair monument of Romano-Gothic art. The church of St Peter and St Paul stands on an isolated mound, and for the ascent sixty steps have been built in the side, and these are well worn by the tread of numerous pilgrims who come in each succeeding year. The interior of the church is curious more than imposing, and is specially noteworthy only for its gloom. Under the altar, and below a white marble effigy of himself, lies Saint Willibrord.
Echternach is famous, however, in particular for the dancing procession held on Whit-Tuesday every year. The origin of this festival is uncertain, but it dates at least from the 13th century and was probably instituted during an outbreak of cholera. Nowadays it is an occasion of pilgrimage, among Germans and Belgians as well as Luxemburgers, for all sick persons, but especially for the epileptic and those suffering from St Vitus’ dance. The ceremony is interesting, and the Roman Catholic Church lends all its ritual to make it more imposing. The archbishop of Trier attends to represent Germany, and the bishop of Luxemburg figures for the grand duchy. There is a religious ceremony on the Prussian side of the bridge over the Sûre, and when it is over the congregation cross into the duchy to join the procession, partly religious, partly popular, through the streets of the town. The religious procession, carrying cross and banners and attended by three hundred singers, comes first, chanting St Willibrord’s hymn. Next comes a band of miscellaneous instruments playing as a rule the old German air “Adam had seven sons,” and then follow the dancers. Many of these are young and full of life and health and dance for amusement, but many others are old or feeble and dance in the hope of recovery or of escaping from some trouble, but on all alike the conditions of the dance are incumbent. There are three steps forward and two back; five steps are thus taken to make one in advance. This becomes especially trying at the flight of steps mounting to the little church where the procession ends in front of the shrine of the great saint. There are sixty steps, but it takes three hundred to reach the top for the final time. It is said that those who fall from age or weariness have to be dragged out of the way by onlookers or they would be trampled to death by the succeeding waves of dancers. The procession, although it covers a distance of less than a mile, is said to take as much as five hours in its accomplishment. In olden days the abbey was the goal of the procession, and King William I. of the Netherlands—great-grandfather of Queen Wilhelmina—changed the day from Tuesday to Sunday so that a working day should not be lost. This reform did not answer, and the ancient order was restored. Some critics see in the dancing procession of Echternach merely the survival of the spring dance of the heathen races, but at any rate it invests the little town with an interest and importance that would otherwise be lacking.