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New list of UNESCO “intangible” cultural practices include Catholic traditions

Ethiopian epiphany

Minasse Wondimu Hailu | ANADOLU AGENCY | AFP

John Burger - published on 12/19/19

Dances in honor of the Christ Child, Holy Week processions and a forgiveness ceremony inspired by a pope are some of the newly recognized practices.

Dances in honor of the Christ Child, Holy Week processions, a forgiveness ceremony inspired by a pope and more Catholic traditions were recognized by UNESCO on its Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, promotes international collaboration in education, sciences, and culture in order to increase universal respect for justice, the rule of law, and human rights. It is perhaps best known for its list of World Heritage Sites.

Here are some of the traditions cited by UNESCO at its meeting in Bogota, Colombia, earlier this month:

Hatajo de Negritos and the Hatajo de Pallitas from the Peruvian south-central coastline: two complementary expressions featuring music and singing as part of Christmas celebrations. The expressions are biblical representations of the story of the visit of a group of shepherds to the newborn baby Jesus and the arrival of the Wise Men. Both expressions combine pre-Hispanic Andean values with the European Catholicism and rhythmical inheritance of African descendants arriving in the Americas in colonial times. This complexity has allowed both expressions to become representations of the mestizo and afro-descendant identity of the region. The dance of the ‘negritos’ is mostly performed by men to the tune of a long fiddle, along with singing, shoe-tapping dance and bells. The dance of ‘pallitas’ is performed by women to the sound of the guitar or fiddle, accompanied by a ‘zapateo’ and singing. Both dances—regarded as symbols of religious devotion and spiritual contemplation—are performed by groups of up to 50 people in town squares and churches in December and January, as well as in family homes. Both expressions are taught to the younger generation from early childhood, with elders encouraging children to learn a large variety of Christmas carols, ‘zapateo’ rhythms and dance sequences as a sign of devotion.

The Holy Week processions in the historic town of Mendrisio, Switzerland, on the evenings of Holy Thursday and Good Friday, attracting over 10,000 spectators. On these occasions, the city’s lights are turned off and the streets are lit by the glow of “transparencies”—translucent paintings mounted on wooden frames and illuminated from within, made using a specific painting technique developed since the late 18th century. Nowadays, the 260 transparencies depict biblical scenes and symbols. The Thursday procession is devoted to staging the Passion and the Stations of the Cross and involves around 270 extras. The sounds of trumpets and drums set the pace and fill the streets with a contemplative atmosphere. The Good Friday procession is more austere: hundreds of children and adults march along carrying over 500 ceremonial objects, including 320 lanterns representing symbols of the Passion of Christ. The choreography and scenography of the processions foster a contemplative atmosphere, and the transparencies promote local craftsmanship. Hundreds of men and women volunteer to organize the practice, and a significant portion of the population supports it by attending the processions.

The Carnival of Podence. Winter festivities, Carnival of Podence is a social practice which initially functioned as a rite of passage for men. Now extended to women and children, it has been readjusted to its contemporary context. The festivity is associated with the celebration of the end of winter and the arrival of spring and takes place over three days just before lent, in the streets of the village and in the houses of neighbors who visit each other. During the performance, the Caretos—modeled on the traditional masked character—dance around women with their cowbells, rhythmically moving their hips. Possibly connected symbolically to old fertility rites, this action is performed by those behind the mask as a way of interacting with others anonymously. The Caretos wear tinplate or leather masks, costumes covered with colourful wool fringes and small bells. On Monday night, there is a theatrical play, when a group of men announce a fictional list of engaged couples, satirizing them and eliciting collective laughter. On Shrove Tuesday, some people mask themselves as matrafonas’ a masked character from rural carnivals. On Tuesday afternoon, the ritual of the burning of a Shrovetide figure takes place, and the group of Caretos then goes around the homes of friends and relatives. Participation in the Carnival begins during childhood, and the activities of the Group of Caretos Association have considerably boosted opportunities for transmission.

The festival of the Santísima Trinidad del Señor Jesús del Gran Poder takes place on the Day of the Holy Trinity in the city of La Paz, Bolivia. The celebration transforms and stimulates the social life of La Paz every year, emanating from a particular way of understanding and living Andean Catholicism. The Parade begins with a procession through the western part of the city. This procession is central to the event, involving 40,000 devotees who dance and sing in an offering to the patron saint. The dance has a sacred significance for the 69 fraternities involved, which are greeted in the streets in a euphoric atmosphere where the music of 7,000 musicians resonates. The heavy dances begin with the Morenos, the iconic dance of the festival, mixed with light dances; meanwhile, the Sikuris and Qhantus native dances hark back to the origins of the Ch’ijini festival. The next day, the procession members solemnly carry the patron saint on their shoulders in the Gran Poder district; devotees pay tribute to the image with incense, flowers and confetti. The fraternities prepare their musical repertoires throughout the year; embroiderers and jewelers transmit their knowledge within the families of the Gran Poder, and the devotional aspect of the practice is transmitted through devotional ceremonies, evenings and processions.

The Celestinian forgiveness celebration in the city and province of L’Aquila, Italy, was inspired by Pope Celestine V, who issued a Bull as an act of partnership among local populations. The tradition comprises a set of rituals and celebrations transmitted uninterruptedly since 1294. The Forgiveness Walk opens with the lighting of the Fire of Morrone and its descent, accompanied by a candlelight procession. The procession proceeds along a traditional itinerary marked by the lighting of tripods in each of the 23 villages involved, where the mayor signs a parchment recalling the Bull’s symbolic values. The community gathering ends on August 23 in L’Aquila with the lighting of the last tripod. Drums, clarions and flag bearers enliven and mark the rhythm of the Parade, which involves 1,000 citizens dressed in traditional costumes. Participants walk along with the three main characters—the “Lady of the Bull,” the “Young Lord,” and the “Lady of the Cross”—symbolizing the traditional values of the celebration: hospitality, solidarity and peace. The meanings and traditional practices of the tradition are transmitted through tales told at home, in schools and in community gathering places, and the community’s constant participation in the celebration has ensured its viability over time.

The Cultural Complex of Bumba-meu-boi from Maranhão, Brazil, is a ritualistic practice involving forms of musical, choreographic, performing and ludic expression, in which the practitioners’ relationship with the sacred is mediated by the figure of the ox. The practice features certain key distinguishing elements: the cycle of life; the mystical-religious universe; and the ox itself. The practice is heavily charged with symbolism: by reproducing the cycle of birth, life and death, it offers a metaphor for human existence itself. There are similar forms of expression in other Brazilian states, but in Maranhão Bumba-meu-boi is distinguished by the various styles and groups it includes, as well as by the intrinsic relationship between faith, festivities and art. Each year, the Bumba groups from Maranhão reinvent this celebration, creating the songs, comedies, the embroideries on the ox leather and the performers’ costumes. Divided into five main “accents” with particular features, the groups share a yearly calendar of performances and festivities. The festival cycle—which reaches its peak at the end of June—may last for four to eight months, involving the following stages: rehearsals; the pre-season; baptisms; public performances or “brincadas,” and rituals around the ox’s death.

Ommegang of Brussels, an annual historical procession and popular festival takes place annually over two evenings in July in the historic center of the Belgian capital. It originated as a religious event in 1348. The celebration begins with a crossbow competition and a ceremony in Sablon Church. In the surrounding streets, various groups form a large procession. The procession follows a 1.5 km route through the city to the Grand-Place, where the groups join the Magistrate of Brussels and bearers of various forms of living heritage. Together, they march around and some groups partake in an organic performance that has evolved since 1930.

Byzantine chant in Cyprus and Greece. As a living art that has existed for more than 2,000 years, Byzantine chant is a significant cultural tradition and comprehensive music system forming part of the common musical traditions that developed in the Byzantine Empire. Highlighting and musically enhancing the liturgical texts of the Greek Orthodox Church, it is inextricably linked with spiritual life and religious worship. This vocal art is mainly focused on rendering the ecclesiastical text.

Ethiopian epiphany is a colorful festival celebrated all over Ethiopia to commemorate the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. The commemoration starts on the eve of the main festival on January 18. The eve is known as Ketera, which means blocking the flow of water for the blessing of the celebrants. On the eve of Ketera, people escort their parish church tabot (replica of the Ark of the Covenant) to Timkete-Bahir (a pool, river or artificial reservoir), transported by a priest and accompanied by a great ceremony. The people attend night-long prayers and hymn services, including the Eucharistic Liturgy. Hundreds of thousands participate in the actual festival on the following day, January 19. The celebration starts early in the morning with pre-sunrise rituals. These are followed by the sprinkling of the blessed water on the congregation, as well as other ceremonies. At around 10 a.m., each tabot begins its procession back to its respective church, involving an even more colorful ceremony with various traditional and religious songs. The viability of the practice is ensured through its continued practice, with Orthodox clergies playing a pivotal role: they sing the praises dedicated to the rituals and hymns, carry the Ark, and preach relevant texts.

Armenian letter art and its cultural expressions constitute the centuries-old art of Armenian letters, Armenian scripts, the rich culture of decorating letters and its various uses. The practice is based on the Armenian alphabet, created in 405 by Mesrop Mashtots, following the “one-letter-for-one-sound” principle. The tradition is also distinguished by its wide range of ornamental scripts, generally classified by their shapes; knots, birds, animals, people, and mythical or imaginary creatures. Since their invention, Armenian letters have not only served their primary function to create written heritage, but also as numbers, cryptographs, riddles etc. Today, the letters are also used in handicrafts. Armenian letter art has penetrated almost all layers of society, particularly folk art. The tradition is practiced across the Armenian territory and is integral to the cultural identity of Armenian people. Its bearers and practitioners include artists, carpet weavers, embroiderers, sculptors, linguists, calligraphists, jewelers and others. Since 2008, continuous support has been shown for the annual ‘Granshan’ international design competition, and the Armenian Apostolic Church is central to acquainting children and youngsters with the tradition.

The spring rite of Juraǔski Karahod is performed by residents of the village of Pahost, Belarus, on St. George’s Day, May 6. For Belarusians, St. George safeguards livestock and agriculture. In Pahost, the holiday is observed through a specific ceremonial rite that encompasses various ceremonial activities, songs, games, omens and beliefs. Traditionally, the ritual involves two cycles. The first cycle takes place in the courtyard, where the animals are led out of the barn for the first time after winter, with a series of ritual acts to protect the livestock. The second cycle is associated with the agricultural tradition; it begins on the eve of the holiday with baking the ceremonial bread (Karahod) and “black” (sacrificial) bread. The next morning, the villagers go to the field, carrying a ceremonial towel, the bread and an eight-pointed star. Led by a man carrying an icon of the Theotokos, women sing ceremonial songs and men carry the Karahod. They form a circle and sing, and a piece of the black loaf is buried in the ground while pronouncing the plea to God for a good harvest. Participants then hand out pieces of ritual bread throughout the village and the festivities continue until evening.

In addition to these, the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage selected two projects for inclusion on the Register of Good Safeguarding Practices. One is the activities associated with the biocultural program for the safeguarding of the tradition of the Blessed Palm in Venezuela. This involves gathering several palm species in a specific group of mountains. After receiving a blessing during the religious ceremony, the palmeros go up to the mountain, where they spend several nights, undertaking different activities. They tell stories, stop at specific points as if going through the Stations of the Cross, take care of the trails and plant and prune palm trees. These palm leaves—blessed as part of Holy Week—are then distributed within several communities. The tradition was close to disappearing three decades ago as the palmeros did not have reforestation plans in place, and national park authorities saw them as a threat to the environment. Aware of the need to change how the palm was collected, the palmeros started pruning the plant rather than cutting it completely. Several innovative measures were designed as part of the biocultural program, including educational projects for young people and cultural activities for the wider community.

UNESCO also cited several other practices around the world, such as Irish harping, traditional Turkish archery, carpet-making art in Turkmenistan, Kosiv ceramics in Ukraine, Khorazm dance in Uzbekistan, provision of services and hospitality during the Arba’in visitation in Iraq, the practices and craftsmanship associated with the Damascene Rose in Syria, and traditional Thai massage in Thailand.

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