Every year on Ascension day Bruges returns to its old tradition dating back to the end of the thirteenth century. What was originally a purely religious procession, has transformed into a procession that marries religion with cultural tradition and heritage and evokes historical events that took place in Bruges.
The Procession of the Holy Blood passes right through the city centre, which becomes completely traffic free. It is an event that attracts tourists and locals alike. For many locals the religious aspect is still important, while tourists are drawn by the entertainment value. Every year it creates little irritations between both groups. The locals take their place on the pavement long before the event starts, and patiently watch the whole procession that takes about an hour and a half to pass by. They know that the last part is what it is all about: the passing of the shrine with the relic of the holy blood, which is for many locals a spiritual moment. Locals know that you should not shout at or hinder the passing procession, but should show respect.
One can applaud for a passing band, a dance group, flag wavers or re-enactors. And when the shrine passes one should stand up, take off his hat and remain silent. Often tourists are taken by surprise by the procession and find their way suddenly cut off. Often they will wait a bit thinking that after 10 minutes it will have past, but getting impatient after 15 minutes or half an hour, try to get through anyway. It annoys the people who have taken their place often long before the start of the procession, hinders their view and breaks the flow of the procession. I heard a local lady reprimand visitors that they should stand still because the holy blood was passing by. But many tourists also come especially to see the procession and often buy a ticket for a seat along the route. Many locals get a seat from friends who live along the route, sit down on the sidewalk or stand behind the barriers that close off the route for incoming traffic.
For many locals it is also about spotting friends. The 1700 participants of the procession are people living here. Sometimes different generations of one family take part year after year. Eighty percent of the participants take part every year. The music, dance, singing and acting is often done by local dance and music groups. So the procession is really owned by the city and its inhabitants. And then there are the animals: chickens, doves, dogs, sheep, donkeys, camels, predatory birds and lots and lots of horses. Horses with their cavaliers and horses that draw the carts.
It had been some time since I last went to see the procession. It was beautiful weather this year and I wanted to try out my analogue old camera and needed a good subject. I left home around the time the procession started, and after leaving my bike locked, looked for a suitable place on the pavement. I chose the beautiful “Dijver”, with the “Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk” (church of our Lady) in the back. I sat down on the pavement, out of the burning sun, and patiently waited with thousands of others. In 2016 a record number of 60000 people came to watch the procession. It creates a bond if you have someone also from Bruges next to you, especially with the medley of languages around you. The police came to make sure our feet where of the street, since the street was a bit narrow where I sat.
And then the procession arrives, with small girls announcing the procession with little signboards forming the words which translate as follows: “Procession of the holy blood, the most beautiful day of Bruges”. Always cute! The whole life of Jesus is re-enacted in many scenes, with dance groups and music bands in between. Then follow the historic scenes telling the story of how Jesus’ blood came to Bruges, becoming the relic it is today which is venerated in the Chapel of the holy blood. Then comes the religious part of the procession. Preceded by members of the Noble Brotherhood of the Holy Blood, two prelates carry the golden shrine with the relic: a subdued moment which leaves a deep impression on (some of) the audience. The final piece of the procession is the mobile carillon, ensuring an upbeat end. And then everyone scatters back home to enjoy the rest of their day off from work.
Even if you have seen it before, it still is a real joy to watch. The procession is really impressive and the organizers keep innovating by improving the decoration, costumes, props, renovating floats and carts or adding new scenes. So even for the die hard fans there is always something new to see. And even if 60000 spectators sounds really enormous, everyone always manages to find a nice spot to watch and enjoy the day. Already mark the date for next year!
UNESCO included the Bruges Procession of the Holy Blood on the list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity on September 30th, 2009.