Luxembourg's annual Octave pilgrimage begins and lasts for two weeks as of Sunday 12 May. But what is this religious tradition seemingly unique to the Grand Duchy all about?

The Octave marks one of Luxembourg's most significant annual religious celebrations and honours Our Lady of Luxembourg ( Our Lady of Luxembourg, Maria Mutter Jesu, Consolatrix Afflictorum, Patrona Civitatis et Patriae Luxemburgensis), the patron saint of the Grand Duchy. The celebration is one steeped in Luxembourg's history, but also slightly transcends the religious connotations with its popular two-week market.
 
Whilst the Octave officially begins on Saturday 11 May, the pilgrimages start on the Sunday.

When and what

The Octave celebration takes place on the third Sunday following Easter and lasts two weeks. The tradition is one in which pilgrims from all over Luxembourg flock to the Notre-Dame Cathedral in the capital throughout the two weeks. The tradition ends after two weeks with the Octave procession: the statue of the Virgin Mary is taken through the streets of Luxembourg City (and is especially dressed for the occasion), often accompanied by public figures including the Grand Ducal family.

Throughout the two weeks, there will also be a host of masses organised for the period. Some pilgrims also come from the surrounding areas outside of Luxembourg, notably the Luxembourg province in Belgium, the Eifel region in Germany, and the Lorraine area in France. This is possibly due to the tradition existing longer than Luxembourg's current borders.

Pilgrims arriving in the capital form processions towards the Cathdral whilst praying. For the duration of the Octave period, the statue of the Virgin Mary stands on a special votive altar.

History

The Octave celebration's history is closely linked to the Jesuits. The Jesuit college in Luxembourg was founded in 1603, at the beginning of the century which would mark the roots of the Octave pilgrimage and procession. Starting in 1613 and lasting until 1621, the Jesuit Church was built. This is a key moment as that church later became the Notre Dame Cathedral in Luxembourg City.

The Octave celebration's history is deeply affected by major events that occurred in the surroundings areas in the 17th century - both the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and the Plague (1626-1636) had effects on the population of Luxembourg, which coincided with the Jesuit mission to make Catholicism attractive to the population. This also had a component of countering the rise of Protestantism.

The roots of the pilgrimage go back to 1624, when students from the Jesuit carried a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary in front of the city walls on the Glacis. At this point, the statue received its title of Consolatrix Afflictorum (Comforter of the Afflicted). Some forty years later, the provincial council chose the Virgin Mary/Comforter of the Afflicted to be the country's patron saint as a means to protect the people from a further outbreak of the plague. The Jesuits transferred the wooden statue of Mary from the Glacis chapel to the then-Jesuit church, now the Notre Dame Cathedral. The church became a cathedral in 1870 when Luxembourg became a bishopric.

In 1921, an extended Octave celebration took place as the belated 250th anniversary of the election of the patroness upon the initiative of Bishop Pierre Nommesch - the actual anniversary was in 1916 and the Octave celebration did not take place due to the First World War. At this point, the Octave took place over two weeks rather than one week.

The Oktavmäertchen

The market's history returns to that of the pilgrimages, with pilgrims heading to the market for food and drink or to buy trinkets and ornaments after mass. Today, the market remains a cornerstone of Luxembourg's festivities, with many taking advantage of the market stalls and food on offer.

The market, which takes place on Place Guillaume II every year, is similar to local Kiermes festivals, except larger. On average, 90,000 people take advantage of the market. For those of us fond of Gromperekichelcher, the market is yet another opportunity to feast on the tasty snack.

The market is open for the duration of the celebration from 8am to 10.30pm each day.