A brief introduction to Corpus Christi in Switzerland
For many people in Switzerland, Corpus Christi is a holiday filled with reverence and symbolism. For those curious about this fascinating occasion, here is what Corpus Christi is, how the event is celebrated across Swiss cantons, and whether it is a public holiday in the alpine nation.
What is Corpus Christi?
Exactly 10 days after Whit Monday, Christians celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, better known as the Feast of (or just) Corpus Christi. The festival itself is designed to commemorate the Holy Eucharist - the body, blood and divinity of Jesus Christ.
On the day itself, Corpus Christi celebrations usually involve large processions of people in traditional clothing and uniforms. Activities include parades, prayers, hymns, displays of icons and jewelled statues of the Virgin Mary and other saints, and church services.
Meaning of Corpus Christi / Domini
Corpus Christi means “body of Christ” in Latin, although in Switzerland it is often called Fête-Dieu (Celebration of God) in the Romande, Corpus Domini in Ticino and Fronleichnam in German-speaking areas. Fronleichnam comes from the Middle High German word "vronlicham" - "vron" meaning "lord" and "licham" meaning "body", hence “body of Christ.”
The history of Corpus Christi
The origins of the festival begin with the story of the Last Supper, when Jesus is said to have broken bread and drunk wine with his disciples, proclaiming the bread to be his flesh and the wine his blood. This created the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, which is still honoured in Christian doctrine today by eating bread and wine during the Blessed Sacrament at communion.
Corpus Christi as a feast has its origins with Juliana of Liège, a 13th-century canoness from Belgium. As an orphaned child growing up in a convent, she developed a focus on the Blessed Sacrament and longed for a feast to celebrate it - although the body and blood of Christ are also honoured during Lent and on Maundy Thursday. From 1208, she even claimed to be beset with visions of Christ telling her to create the feast of Corpus Christi.
After 40 years of advocacy, Juliana of Liège submitted the idea to the Pope with help from the Doctor of the Church, Thomas Aquinas. Pope Urban IV recognised the event as an official feast in 1264, extending the practice to the whole western Christian faith - although as we explain below, the authenticity of the holiday would become a matter of debate in the following centuries.
Is Corpus Christi a holiday in Switzerland?
Today, Corpus Christi is a fully or partially recognised holiday in 25 countries around the world, including parts of Germany and Switzerland. This means that workers in these countries can kick back and enjoy a paid day off.
Which Swiss cantons have Corpus Christi as a public holiday?
Today, Corpus Christi is a holiday in Cantons Appenzell Innerrhoden, Jura, Lucerne, Nidwalden, Obwalden, Schwyz, Ticino, Uri and Zug, as well as in some but not all areas of Aargau, Fribourg, Graubünden, Neuchâtel and Solothurn. Generally speaking, the higher percentage of people who follow Catholicism in a canton, the more likely it is to be a holiday.
Why is the holiday not observed in all of Switzerland?
During the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, the father of Protestantism Martin Luther spoke out against the use and celebration of consecrated items and holy bodies like the Eucharist, calling it “only play-acting” and “vain idolatry.” Luther especially disliked the use of symbols and figures during Corpus Christi, instructing his followers to not observe the holiday.
Ulrich Zwingli, the man who would convert Canton Zurich to his form of Protestantism, also refused to observe the feast day for this reason. The Calvinists of Geneva also followed suit, along with most Protestant-dominant areas of Switzerland.
Corpus Christi 2023
In 2023, Corpus Christi falls on June 8. Next year, the holiday will be celebrated on May 30. Bear in mind that the date will always fall on a Thursday, providing an excellent opportunity for employees to take one day of paid leave to make a four-day weekend.
Corpus Christi events in Switzerland
Despite not being a universal holiday, many communities across Switzerland hold events on and around Corpus Christi. While every canton that celebrates the holiday will have a number of marches and parades to choose from, here are some of the biggest and best-known events:
The cannoneers of Gütsch in Lucerne
On top of the local mountain in Lucerne, Gütsch, cannoneers fire a number of gun salutes to celebrate Corpus Christi. Three historical artillery guns are fired on the day itself and the night before. They are operated by members of the Lucerne Brotherhood of Cannoneers of Our Lord - an organisation of retired Catholic soldiers from the Swiss Army, first founded in 1580 to promote the Catholic Church's influence during the Counter-Reformation.
Once the rounds are fired, a large procession of people in military uniforms make their way from the Church of St. Leodegar down into the city centre in Lucerne. The military men are accompanied by large Catholic banners and marching bands. Having taken place in some form for more than 400 years, the event is classified as a “Living Tradition” by the Swiss government.
Corpus Christi parades in Canton Valais
In Visperterminen, Bürchen, Törbel, Mund, St. Niklaus, Lötschental, St-Martin and Savièse - the largest parade of all - the people of Canton Valais march in celebration of Corpus Christi. The parades are a great place to see the uniforms of old Swiss mercenaries and the old Valaisanner regiments that used to form the backbone of the military.
Mass and march in Fribourg
The Corpus Christi celebration in Fribourg is when children who have taken their first-ever communion are honoured. After a morning mass in the courtyard of the College St-Michaels, a large parade makes its way through the streets of Fribourg, with the lucky children following right behind the local bishop.
The procession takes its time to pray at every altar on the route, before returning to the start point and indulging in a bit of a party. While processions do take place across all Catholic cantons in Switzerland, the largest ones will almost always be in the capitals.
The Täfelimeedles of Appenzell
As it is arguably the most traditional part of the country, Corpus Christi is taken very seriously in Appenzell Innerhoden. In the capital Appenzell, practically the entire town turns out in traditional clothing in mainly Baroque colours, a highlight of which is the impressive headdresses and outfits worn by the women.
During the procession, church and secular leaders holding holy relics are followed by standard bearers and members of the local elite called "Junkers". The parade also includes 15 Täfelimeedle - unmarried women who wear white and black and carry wooden signs painted with the 15 Mysteries of the Rosary. This event is also classified as a “Living Tradition” by federal authorities.
See the heritage of Switzerland showcased on Corpus Christi
At Corpus Christi, expats and visitors to the alpine nation are able to experience a very traditional view of Switzerland. Whatever you plan to do during the holiday, we hope you have fun!