“Europe is much older than its nations. It’s an ideal approved for more than a thousand year by its best spirits”.
Denis de Rougemont
“There are all mad those Europeans!” We all acknowledge that the old continent is full of ancient traditions. Sometimes boring, sometimes folkloric, they teach us a lot on Europeans’ history, culture and philosophy. But besides the most famous ones, there are others, less known, which can be surprising, amazing or funny and deserve a special focus… The following list draws a panorama of how Europeans sometimes go crazy. Let’s join the tomato fight in Spain or the sausage tossing in Switzerland! Let’s twist on the frog dance in Sweden or the Bear dance in Moldova! Let’s compete in the wife carrying race in Finland or the Naked run in Denmark! Let’s swim in the cold Danube in Romania or the Polar Bear Plunge in Netherlands… We have here a whole set of weird and strange traditions across Europe! A question remain : which one is the craziest?
Festa de São João do Porto (Saint John’s fest)
Every year, on the night of 23 June, the city of Porto, in the north of Portugal, becomes lively and seemingly crazy. Thousands of people come to the city centre and to the most traditional neighborhoods to pay a tribute to Saint John the Baptist, in a party that mixes sacred and profane traditions. And what to people do there ? People simply hit each other either with garlic flowers or soft plastic hammers ! The festivities have been held in the city for more than six centuries, yet it was during the 19th century that Saint John’s day became impregnated in the city’s culture and assumed the status of the city’s most important festival.
La Tomatina (Tomato fight)
Isn’t it strange ? On the last Wednesday of August, in the city of Buñol, a Valencian town located 30 km from the Mediterranean, people there throw once a year around 150,000 i.e. over 40 metric tons tomatoes and get involved in a tomato fight purely for fun. The most popular theory about how the Tomatina started is that, in 1945, during a parade of the “Little Rabbit” some woodland creatures were eating all the watermelon so, the people at the parade threw tomatoes at the animals; one missed and hit a person. Then, they started throwing the tomatoes and the police had to attack everyone. However, there are many other theories.
Omelette géante (Giant Omelette)
In the city of Haux and other French villages, France celebrates the upcoming holiday in a unique way: one day after the celebration, a giant omelet made of over 4,500 eggs is served up in the town’s main square to feed up to 1,000 people. This tradition stems from Napoleon’s time, when the leader and his army stopped in a small town in the south of France and ate omelets. According to the legend, Napoleon liked the omelet so much that he ordered all people to gather their eggs and make a giant omelet for him and his army the next day….
Þorrablót (Month of Þorri)
In January many Icelanders celebrate the “feast of Thorri” and eat the worlds most disgusting food, consisting of sour ram testicles, boiled sheep heads, blood pudding, liver sausage and fermented shark. Sounds delicious! In manuscripts from the middle ages the Thorri is depicted as a personification of winter. It is unclear how the feasts were celebrated back then, but it seems clear that people had a great party with much food and drink. Today, people in Iceland uphold the same customs by eating “traditional” food. In former times Icelanders used to salt, smoke, bury and or ferment their food for storage which has become a delicacy today. In modern Icelandic culture, eating Thorri food is also a sign of personal strength.
This is a true Irish tradition! Celebrated on 26 December, Wren Day consists in “hunting” a fake wren, and putting it on top of a decorated pole. Then the crowds of mummers or strawboys celebrate the wren by dressing up in masks, straw suits and colourful motley clothing and, accompanied by traditional céilí music bands, parade through the towns and villages. These crowds are sometimes called wrenboys. It is theorised that wren celebrations descends from Celtic mythology. The tradition may also have been influenced by Scandinavian settlers during the Viking invasions of the 8th to 10th centuries. Various associated legends exist, such as a wren being responsible for betraying Irish soldiers who fought the Viking invaders by beating its wings on their shields, in the late 1st and early 2nd millennia.
In Scotland, you may encounter people throwing trunks! This is normal: the caber toss is a traditional Scottish athletic event in which competitors toss a large tapered pole called a “caber”. It is normally practised at the Scottish Highland Games. The primary objective is to toss the caber so that it turns end over end, falling away from the tosser. Ideally it should fall directly away from the tosser in the “12 o’clock” position. The distance thrown is unimportant. The sport is said to go back a few hundred years and is believe to have originated in the times of war as a means of battle or bridge building.
Russefeiring (Russ celebration)
In their final spring semester, Norwegian high school students traditionally celebrate Russefeiring. The russefeiring traditionally starts on 1 May and ends on the 17th of May, the Norwegian national day. Participants wear coloured overalls, often red, drive matching cars, vans and buses, and celebrate almost continually during this period. Drunkenness, and public disturbances are regularly linked to the celebration… The modern Norwegian russefeiring dates back to 1905, when the red russ caps (russelue) were introduced to graduation celebrations as a sign of the imminent acceptance into the system of higher education. At this occasion, it is common to appoint a russpresident, a party coordinator, a newspaper editor, some journalists, a contraceptive responsible person and some other funny titles.
Små Grodorna (Frog dance)
In Sweden, halfway through Midsummer celebrations, Swedes meet around a maypole, drop everything and start singing and dancing around the pole to a song called ‘The Small Frogs’. They also mimic frogs for the dance. The song lyrics say: “The small frogs, the small frogs, are funny to look at. No tails, no tails, they have no tails. No ears, no ears, they have no ears.” The melody originates from a military march from the french revolution ‘La Chanson de l’Oignon’ (“The onion song”), with the chorus ‘Au pas, camarade, au pas camarade / au pas, au pas, au pas!’ (‘In step, comrade’). The enemies of the French at the time, the British, changed the text with condescending irony to ‘Au pas, grenouilles!’ (‘In step, little frogs’). It is still not known how the melody ended up in Sweden, but the Swedish lyrics are clearly inspired by the English version.
Eukonkanto (Wife carrying)
Well, well, well, it seems that Finnish people have really odd traditions, including the annual competition of Wife carrying. Believe it or not, wife carrying is a sport in which male competitors race carrying a female teammate. The objective is for the male to carry the female through a special obstacle track in the fastest time ! It is a bit unclear how this competition originated in Finland. Legends have been passed down from generations to generations about a man named Herkko Rosvo-Ronkainen. This man was considered a robber in the late 1800s, lived in a forest, and ran around with his gang of thieves causing harm to the villages. Rosvo-Ronkainen and his thieves were accused of stealing food and women from villages in the area he lived in; then carried these women on their backs as they ran away.
Nøgenløbet Roskilde (Roskilde’s Naked Run)
Every year since 1999, on the Saturday of the Roskilde Festival, organizers set a naked run around the camp site. One male and one female winner receives a ticket for the next year’s festival. In the past few years, the naked run has become so popular that the Festival Radio has been forced to arrange qualifier events for the male participants. There’s also a naked run in Padasjoki, Finland in mid-June but the two-km course tends to get the older, dumpier crowd, whereas Roskilde gets heavy-metal and electro-pop fans: think Scandinavian twinks with tight bodies and extra-large endowments.
Nieuwjaarsduik (Polar Bear Plunge)
In Scheveningen, the main resort town of the Netherlands, held every winter swimming festival known Nieuwjaarsduik (Polar Bear Plunge). On the first day, about 10 thousand people come to the beach to swim in the cold sea. In 89 locations on beaches and in lakes all over the country, each year around 30,000 people participate in this “Nieuwjaarsduik”, with a record 36,000 participants on January 1, 2012. Since 1998 Unox, a Unilever food brand often associated with winter, adopted the Nieuwjaarsduik and ever since it is tradition to wear Unox branded winter caps and gloves.
Régate de baignoires à Dinant (Bathtub Regatta)
Every year on August 15, the city of Dinant hosts the Bathtub Regatta. The regatta attracts as many as 25,000 visitors who watch this procession of bizarre boats racing down the Meuse River. In 1982, Alberto Serpagli, a famous chef of the city with an equally famous mustache, went to Namur and heard on the radio a story about a Frenchman sailed along the Meuse in a bath! This story inspired him to lobby for the creation of a bathtub regatta. Determined to make his race happen, despite being laughed at, Serpagli found 40 bathtubs left for trash. After finding a way to plug the drain, Serpagli would sell them at the market explaining his idea and people were amused by the idea! In June and July, the various participants hid their boats to surprise the other. Then on August 15, the boats were unveiled making the first bathtub regatta a huge success!
Iechternacher Sprangprëssessioun (Hopping procession)
The hopping procession is a centuries-old religious ritual based in the eastern village of Echternach, near the German border. Dancers holding handkerchiefs perform a hopping procession through the streets. Up to 14,000 men, women and children dressed in white shirts and dark trousers or skirts take part in the event, which is connected to the veneration of a local saint, St Willibrord. Documents of the fifteenth century speak of it as a long-established custom at that time, and a similar “dancing” procession, which used to take place in the small town of Prüm, in the Eifel, was documented as early as 1342. The Echternach procession is inscribed in 2010 as hopping procession of Echternach on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Männertag (Men’s day)
Männertag, or gentlemen’s day, Herrentag is tradition for groups of males (young and old but usually excluding pre-teenage boys) to do a hiking tour with one or more smaller wagons, Bollerwagen, pulled by manpower. In the wagons are wine or beer(according to region) and traditional regional food, Hausmannskost. Many men use this holiday as an opportunity to get drunk. These traditions are probably rooted in Christian Ascension Day’s processions to the farmlands, which has been celebrated since the 18th century. Men would be seated in a wooden cart and carried to the village’s plaza, and the mayor would award a prize to the father who had the most children, usually a big piece of ham.
In Germany and Austria, the maypole is a tradition going back to the 16th century. It is a decorated tree or tree trunk that is usually erected either on 1 May or the day before. Part of the tradition is a ritual of good-natured maypole theft from the nearest village during the night of 30 April/1 May. Rivals attempt to steal any reasonably portable maypole, despite the fact that most will be specifically guarded against such an eventuality. There are differing local rules: guards can be coaxed away, guards must have/must not have a hand on maypole all night, etc. Once the maypole is stolen, it has to be released against a forfeit, which is usually some kind of alcoholic refreshment… of course !
Eis-zwei-Geissebei (Sausage tossing)
The odd tradition of sausage tossing dates back centuries: every year on Fat Tuesday at 3:15 PM, hundreds of children and adults will gather in front of Rapperswil’s city hall. In response to the mayor’s question, “Are all my boys here?” (“Sind alli mini Buebe doo?”) the kids will effectively scream “One, two, goat leg!” As a result, the mayor and council members will open up the windows and toss out sausages, loafs of bread and pastries into the crowd! Yep, you read correctly! Its origin may go back to the siege and destruction of the city of Rapperswil at St. Matthew in 1350 by Rudolf Brun, first mayor of the city of Zürich. At that time, compassionate citizens served food to hungry children through the windows of their houses, to which the current practice recalls.
Partita a Scacchi Di Marostica (Human chess game)
Marostica is a small town located northeast of Vicenza and is famous all over the world for the human chess game it carries out every other year, with living chess pieces, in the city public square. Rather than calling for a high-octane sword duel to win the hand of his daughter, Linora, Lord Taddeo Parisio decreed that her two suitors must instead play a game of chess. After a few hours of rollicking entertainment, the winner would take home his older daughter, and the loser his younger, Oldrada. In true Italian fashion, this 1454 match has become bigger and more ostentatious in the modern day with living chess pieces re-enacting the game in the piazza outside the castle where the original took place.
Czech Republic - Slovakia
Pomlázka (Whipping girls)
On Easter Monday in towns and villages all across the country, boys and men arm themselves with a pomlázka and join up with friends and relatives to pay visits to as many houses in their area as possible. Girls stay at home, and when visitors arrive, they are happy to bend over and be whipped with this Easter stick. So happy, in fact, that they will reward their male visitors with a stiff drink before the group moves on to the next house. As the superstition goes, if a woman is beaten by a pomlázka, she will remain both beautiful and fertile in the coming year, which explains why women are eager to be hit. Some, of course, make a game of it and allow themselves to be chased around the garden a few times before submitting.
Szopka (Creche show)
In Poland, on the first Thursday of December, creche masters from around the country and other parts of the world display their szopki at the history museum in the Krzysztofory Palace. The winning models are placed on display throughout the Christmas season. The szopka is a traditional Polish folk art dating back in the Middle Ages. The tradition is a rich and colorful one, having evolved over the ages. The szopki depicts the Wawel Cathedral, which is a part of Krakow’s Wawel Castle with a Nativity scene set inside its doors. Some of the models are as small as 6 inches while others are around 6 feet high.
Siaudu Sodas (Straw village)
In the Lithuanian village of Naujamiestis, when winter is around the corner, people build a village of straw only to burn it down in a ritual that draws thousands to the tiny locality, nostalgic for old traditions. The cultural centre’s employees spent the month of September creating the sculptures, with some eight tonnes of straw and 10 kilometres (six miles) of rope donated by a local farmer. Straw is an age-old fixture here. Lithuanians use it to weave fruit baskets and other items for the home, while children make straw angels for the Christmas tree. The first theme, in 2006, was Count Cicinskas, a character from local folklore known for his depravity, while another year the sculptures were all musical instruments. In 2013, the theme was a farmer’s market with 40 huge straw sculptures of chickens, a goose, a carp, a large pig big enough for children to straddle, a baker’s oven, even a tavern where visitors could buy food on the opening day.
Ligo (Summer Solstice)
Latvia’s most important national holiday is arguably not Christmas but the summer solstice celebrations of Ligo – a pagan tradition when Latvians celebrate the shortest night by staying up to greet the rising sun. As the sun slowly sets about an hour and a half before midnight, it peeks out briefly from behind the clouds. Women pick flowers to make into crowns for their heads, while men are supposed to strip naked and jump into a nearby lake or river. Everyone sings medieval Latvian songs around the fire and couples are encouraged to disappear into the forest to look for a mythical flowering fern.
Laulupidu (Estonian Song Festival)
In Estonia, every 5 years, you can hear 18 000 voices singing at once! This happens during Estonia’s Song Festival, which occurs in Tallinn. The number of participants in the Song Festival can reach up to 25 or 30 thousand, but the greatest number of people is on stage during the performance of the joined choirs—there are usually 18 000 singers on stage at that moment, and their powerful song touches even the most frigid Nordic disposition. The tradition of the song festival was born along with Estonian national awakening. The first national song festival was held in Tartu in the summer of 1869. Starting from 1947, the Soviet authorities forced foreign songs into the repertoire.
Купалле (Kupala Night)
On 23/24 June, on Kupala day, young people in Belarus and Ukraine jump over the flames of bonfires in a ritual test of bravery and faith. The failure of a couple in love to complete the jump while holding hands is a sign of their destined separation. Girls may float wreaths of flowers (often lit with candles) on rivers, and would attempt to gain foresight into their relationship fortunes from the flow patterns of the flowers on the river. Men may attempt to capture the wreaths, in the hope of capturing the interest of the woman who floated the wreath. On Ivan Kupala day itself, children engage in water fights and perform pranks, mostly involving pouring water over someone. Many of the rites related to this holiday within Slavic religious beliefs, due to the ancient Kupala rites, are connected with the role of water in fertility and ritual purification.
Malanka (Second New Year’s Eve)
Funny enough, Ukrainians have two New Year Eves. The first one follows the Gregorian calendar and falls on January 1st, while the second one follows the Julian calendar and thus falls on January 14th. For the second New Year’s Eve, Ukrainian throw in a bit more of their strange ancient customs, and hold the vibrant ‘Malanka’ celebrations. On the ‘Old New Year’, crowds of young people walk around people’s houses, carol, play pranks and act out small Christmas-related plays. One of the bachelor guys is dressed up in women’s clothes and leads the troop as the so-called ‘grandma Malanka’. Participants can also try the roles of the Goat or the Grandpa. In any way, Old New Year’s Eve is one of Ukrainian’s last chances to go wild and have fun, before the long 40-days Lent comes along.
Plivanje za Casni krst (Danube Race for the Cross)
Romanians have one of the weirdest traditions in Europe! It consists in an orthodox priest throwing a cross into the river, a hundred or more people watching and young men swimming in the freezing cold water. This tradition is celebrated all along the Romanian and Serbian side of the Danube and is supported by the Orthodox Church as a celebration of the baptizing of Jesus in the Jordan River. Because throwing a cross in the half-frozen Danube and baptizing someone in the desert are somehow equal in the minds of Romanians. Probably the home-made vodka everybody drinks before the event helps make the connection between the two. The best part of this tradition is the prize: if you manage to get the cross back to safety, you are guaranteed good luck for a year – luck which will hopefully cure you from hypothermia.
Ursul (Bear Dance)
“Dance well, you old bear, And I’ll give you bread and olives”. In Romania and Moldova, there is the Christmas carol which involves carolers to be dressed up as bears. In the past, a real bear was involved in the dance, but now, the tradition, called Ursul (the Bear Dance), is mostly kept in Bucovina and Moldova on New Year’s Eve. The dance is meant to purify and fertilize the soil for the next year. The bear cult is of Geto-Dacian origins; back then, it was a sacred animal. The person wearing the bear costume is accompanied by fiddlers and followed by a whole procession of characters, among them a child dressed-up as the bear’s cub.
Vizbeveto (Water Plunge Monday)
Quite weird and maybe a bit misogynous, on Easter Monday, young hungarian farmhands are allowed to throw a bucket of cold well water over girls of marriageable age; and even to dip them in a stream. The girls scream and resist, but are said to be secretly delighted. Now eau de cologne has mainly replaced the water. A few splashes, rather than a costly bucketful, suffice. The ritual now involves women of all ages, married or unmarried, with female relations just as much a target as girlfriends, neighbors and work colleagues. The day still has special significance for unmarried women and girls. They wear pretty clothes and await the unannounced arrival of their admirers. Girls take a pride in attracting many visitors and “waterers”. After the boy has carried out his ritual role, he is offered gaily painted eggs, home-baked cookies, and an alcoholic drink. He is then free to go on to the next girl.
Kravji Bal (Cows’ ball)
The summer season in Slovenia’s alpine region officially ends in mid-September with one of the country’s most unique, if lesser known, festivals: the annual Kravji Bal, or traditional Cow Ball. Held in Bohinj since 1954, the event celebrates the return of local shepherds and their cattle to the valley after a summer of grazing high up in the pastures of the Julian Alps. Cows are decked out with flowers and bells to make it a festive occasion as crowds, with many dressed in traditional Slovenian costume, gather to watch them make their way down from the mountains. Then everyone celebrates with traditional music, dancing, food and drink.
Sinjska Alka (Chivalric Tournament)
The Sinjska Alka is a chivalric tournament that has taken place for about 300 years in Sinj in Dalmatia. It is held on the first Sunday of August. Knights ride horses at full gallop and aim their lances at an iron target consisting of two concentric rings. Only men born in Sinjska krajina (city of Sinj and surrounding villages) can take part in the Alka and it is considered a great privilege to participate in the tournament. The voivode (“Duke”) of Alka is a ceremonial title representing the commander of the alkars. It is a great honour to become the alkarvojvoda, and only the most notable men from Sinjska krajina become one. The tournament was established in the early 18th century to commemorate the victory of the knights of Sinj over a much more powerful Turkish army which besieged the town in 1715…
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Stari Most Diving
Stari Most diving is a traditional annual competition organized every year in mid summer (end of July). It has been done 477 times as of 2013. It is traditional for the young men of the town to leap from the bridge into the Neretva. The bridge is frighteningly high at 22m. As the Neretva is very cold, this is a very risky feat and only the most skilled and best trained divers will attempt it. The practice dates back to the time the bridge was built, but the first recorded instance of someone diving off the bridge is from 1664. In 1968 a formal diving competition was inaugurated and held every summer.
Poklade (Serbian Carnival)
The months of January and February are the time of carnival throughout the country. Dancers appear wearing fantastic masks, sometimes more than six feet tall, decorated at the top with bird wings and feathers, heads of creatures, as well as mirrors and colored streamers. Covered with sheep skins and armed with long clubs and wooden swords, they leap and jump to the deafening sound of drums and the cattle bells on their belts. In some areas the men blacken their faces and wear womens overdresses to perform these carnival dances that drive out evil winter demons and ensure health and good crops.
Vasilij (Mud Parade)
In the city of Vevchani, 180 kilometers southwest from capital Skopje, there is a carnival with troop covered with mud parades on 13 January. The Vevchani carnival is 1,400 years old and is held every year on the eve of the feast of Saint Basil (14 January), which also marks the beginning of the New Year according to the Julian calendar, observed by the Macedonian Orthodox Church. Revelers covered with mud symbolize people from the bottom. The Vevcani carnival with its fourteen centuries tradition presents various pagan rituals, bible issues and political satire of actual events seen through the masks of the participants.
Korçës Karnavale (Korça Carnival)
Nowhere in Albania is carnival celebrated as much as in Korça and this summer event with a parade of local and international groups attracts thousands of visitors. The Carnival is meant to revive the city’s long-lasting customs, to cultivate new values and to preserve the old ones. The event is all dressed-up in music, color and folklore. It represents an essential part of Albanian culture and cultivates the values of a specific folklore, oral, burlesque, humorous, and musical. The festival promotes the interests of individuals and organized groups also to create new values.
This one is really exotic! Kukeri is a traditional Bulgarian ritual to scare away evil spirits, with costumed men performing the ritual. Under skies darkened by thick clouds, they pour out into the streets, clanging with the sound of giant bells. Soon they will enter the houses of the villagers – by force if they should so choose. Their faces are a terrifying mix of snapping jaws, twisted horns, and large, unblinking eyes. The kukeri traditionally visit peoples’ houses at night so that “the sun would not catch them on the road.” After going around the village they gather at the square to dance wildly and amuse the people. The ritual varies by region but its essence remains largely the same.
Rouketopolemos (Battle of Rockets)
On the Greek island of Chios, there is a small town called Vrontados. In this town, the two churches Agios Markos and Panagia Erithiani face each other from across a ravine. On Easter day, rival members attempt to ring the bell of the opposite church… with rockets. The rockets are wooden sticks loaded with an explosive mixture containing gunpowder and launched from grooved platforms. Direct hits on each belfry are supposedly counted on the next day to determine the winner, but each parish invariably claims victory over the other. The result of this apparent disagreement is that both parishes agree to settle the score next year, and the rivalry is thus perpetuated. The origin of this event is unclear, but local tradition holds that it goes back to the Ottoman era.
Deve güreşi (Camel Wrestling)
Turkey is home to a rather cruel tradition that dates back thousands of years, that of camel wrestling. It’s not what you might first think. People do not go toe-to-toe with camels in a test of strength. Rather, the animals are pitted against each other during their breeding time to see which one will dominate. The loser of the fight is the first camel to run away, fall down or scream. Camel wrestling happens all throughout the year, but there is only one Camel Wrestling Championship. This event takes place on the third Sunday in January, in Selcuk, at the height of the camels’ mating season. Apparently, camels have their own fighting style, consisting of pushing, using their mouths to hold and pin opponents and even tripping them.