Girls dressed up as pink, white and blue angels, choirboys in purple outfits, women wrapped in red shawls, men dressed in white carrying lanterns, candles or a staff. All have their role and place in the annual procession to commemorate Corpus Christi.
What is the Celebration of Corpus Christi?
Corpus Christi is primarily a Catholic celebration although I have been told that some Anglican and Lutheran churches celebrate the occasion as well.
Not having a Catholic background myself, I was totally unfamiliar with this holiday until I traveled in Brazil and came across one such celebration. When I asked some locals what exactly they were celebrating the most heard answer was, “The wafer,” upon which I asked, “But don’t you celebrate the Eucharist in church every week?”, which was followed by a vague, “Well, actually I’m not sure what we are celebrating.”
These kinds of answers sound reminiscent of the answers you get when asking the average kid in Europe why we celebrate Christmas or Easter, which is often answered with, “Something with Jesus”, or words to that effect.
A Google search taught me the following about Corpus Christi, “The celebration commemorates the ritual of the Eucharist and is a reflection of the Maundy Thursday observance during Holy Week. Corpus Christi is unique in several ways. The feast was not instituted within the Church until the 14th century AD, and the advocates for its inclusion in the Church roster of holy days were two women.”
Corpus Christi in São João del Rei
In Brazil’s colonial town of São João del Rei I concluded that you don’t need to be a Catholic to appreciate this celebration. The art of decking the streets with carpets of flowers (tapetes de rua in Portuguese), the energy of so many people solemnly following the priest through the cobblestone streets and the tradition of keeping the tower bells in mid-swing are all eye-catching elements of the tradition.
During the morning hours, locals created intricate, colorful and stunning flower carpets in front of the town’s 16th-18th-century churches, which by the way are all worth a visit for their architecture, sculptures and/or paintings.
In between working on the carpets, citizens took the time to gather in Cathedral de Señor do Pilar for a mass.The morning really was too short to admire all the creations of carpets, and how unfortunate they only last a couple of hours.
At 4 pm we joined the crowds in front of the cathedral. In the center of the procession walked six men carrying a canopy of bright-yellow cloth, which provided shade and protection for the priest walking underneath it with a monstrance, a vessel used to display the consecrated Eucharistic host.
When the procession was about to enter a new street, citizens living there hung a lace cloth out of their window, sometimes embroidered with a cross.
Shops and offices were closed during the day, but the bars and restaurants only closed for the time needed by the procession to pass by. In the church towers young men jumped up and down pulling the ropes that kept the bells ringing continuously.
At each church the procession stopped to perform some rituals, which were impossible to follow due to the crowds, except for Iglesia São Francisco de Assisi, where I could watch down from the stairs.
As I said, you don’t need to be a Catholic to appreciate a celebration of Corpus Christi in Brazil.