“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 beyond the most famous ones, there are others, less known, which can be surprising, amazing or funny and deserve a special focus… Let’s join the tomato fight in Spain or the sausage tossing in Switzerland! Let’s twist on the frog dance in Sweden or groove on the Bear dance in Moldova! Let’s compete in the wife carrying race in Finland or the Naked run in Denmark! We have here a whole set of weird and somewhat exciting traditions across Europe! A question remains: which one is the craziest?
The Fests of Saint John (Festa de São João do Porto)
Every year, on the night of 23 June, the city of Porto becomes lively and seemingly crazy. Thousands of people come to the city centre to pay tribute to Saint John the Baptist – in a party that mixes sacred and profane traditions. And what do people do to mark this day? Well, they simply hit each other – either with garlic flowers or soft plastic hammers! The festivities have been held for more than six centuries, yet it was during the 19th century that Saint John’s day assumed the status of the most important festival of the city.
The Tomato Fight (La Tomatina)
Every year on the last Wednesday of August, people gather in the Valencian city of Buñol to engage in a gigantic tomato fight involving around 150,000 i.e. over 40 metric tons of tomatoes. It is said that La Tomatina started during a parade of the ‘Little Rabbit’ in 1945 where some woodland creatures started to eat all the watermelon. So, people threw tomatoes at them to scare them, but one missed its target and hit a person. Everyone started throwing tomatoes at each others and the police had to intervene – themselves engaging in the tomato fight…
The Giant Omelette (Omelette géante)
In the city of Bessières in the South of France, locals celebrate the arrival of spring in a (very) special way: one day after the Easter celebrations, they cook in the town’s main square a giant omelet made of over 4,500 eggs 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…
The Month of Þorri (Þorrablót)
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. The Thorri is depicted in manuscripts from the middle ages 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. In modern Icelandic culture, eating Thorri food is also a sign of personal strength. Bon Appétit!
The Wren Day
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. Why? Because, according to legends, a wren was responsible for betraying Irish soldiers by beating its wings on their shields… The crowds of mummers or strawboys celebrate the myth by dressing up in masks, straw suits and colourful motley clothing. It is said 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.
The Caber Toss
In Scotland, you may encounter people throwing trunks – and this will be considered 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 a “12 o’clock” position – the distance here being irrelevant. The sport is said to go back a few hundred years, as a training for battle or bridge building in times of war.
The Russ Celebrations (Russefeiring)
In their final spring semester, Norwegian high school students traditionally celebrate Russefeiring. At this occasion, participants wear coloured overalls, often red, drive matching cars, vans and buses, and party almost non-stop for two weeks. Groups of friends appoint a russpresident, a party coordinator, a newspaper editor, a contraceptive responsible person and any other appropriate funny titles. Every year authorities get ready for constant drunkenness and public disturbances all throughout the celebration…
The Frog Dance (Små Grodorna)
In Sweden, halfway through Midsummer celebrations, Swedes meet around a maypole, drop everything and start singing, dancing and immitating batracians to a song called ‘The Small Frogs’. The melody originates from a French revolutionary march called ‘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 Brits, changed the lyrics with condescending irony to: ‘Au pas, grenouilles !’ (‘In step, little frogs’). It is still not known how the melody crossed rivers to end up in Sweden…
The Wife Carrying Race (Eukonkanto)
Well, well, well… it seems that the Finns lost it… Believe it or not, wife carrying is a sport in Finland where men compete in a special obstacle track, carrying their wife on their back. It is a bit unclear how this competition originated in Finland. Legends have been passed down from generations to generations about a 19th century man named Herkko Rosvo-Ronkainen who was a robber accused of stealing food and women in villages in the area he was living in. It is believed that he used to carry them on his back as he ran away…
The Naked Run (Nøgenløbet Roskilde)
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 Finland mid-June but the two-km course tends to get the older, dumpier crowd, whereas Roskilde gets heavy-metal and electro-pop fans..
The Polar Bear Plunge (Nieuwjaarsduik)
Every New Year’s Day around 10,000 people dive collectively into the icy cold sea water at Scheveningen, a Dutch beach resort town, since 1960. The first Nieuwjaarsduik took place in 1965 and the event is sponsored by smoked sausage maker Unox, which provides all the swimmers with an orange hat. Unox now sponsors 140 swims nationwide plus a handful abroad. The main swim has only been cancelled once – in 2007 – when the weather was too cold and strong currents made the sea too dangerous.
The Bathtub Regatta (Régate de Baignoires à Dinant)
The city of Dinant hosts every year on August 15 a procession of bizarre boats racing down the Meuse River – they call it the ‘Bathtub Regatta’. Why? Because in 1982, Alberto Serpagli, a famous chef of the city with an equally famous moustache, heard on the radio a story about a Frenchman sailing along the Meuse in a bathtub! This anecdote inspired him to lobby for the creation of a bathtub regatta, converting for this purpose 40 bathtubs left for trash. After finding a way to plug the drain, Serpagli sold them at the market to all interested participants! And this is how it started
The Hopping Procession (Iechternacher Sprangprëssessioun)
In Luxembourg, you can easily bump into a procession of dancers holding handkerchiefs and hopping like Easter bunnies through the streets… Up to 14,000 men, women and children dressed in white take part in this annual event, which is linked to the veneration of a local saint, St Willibrord. Documents of the fifteenth century speak of it as a long-established custom. The Echternach procession has even been inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The Fathers’ Day (Vatertag)
What do responsible German fathers do for fathers’ day? They obviously use this opportunity to let their wife and children home, gather with their friends and get drunk! On Männertag, they go on a hiking tour with one or more small wagons, called Bollerwagen, pulled by manpower and filled with beer and traditional food. Sounds not responsible to you? But they have an excuse: this tradition is probably rooted in old Christian Ascension processions to the farmlands, which has been celebrated since the 18th century.
The Maypole (Maibaum)
Austrians usually erect their maypole on the 1s of May. Part of the tradition is a ritual of good-natured maypole theft from the nearest village at night. Rivals attempt to steal any reasonably portable maypole, despite the fact that most will be specifically guarded against such an eventuality. There are several local rules: guards can be coaxed away, guards must keep their hands away from the maypole all night, etc. The maypole can be given back against a forfeit, which is usually some kind of schnaps… of course!
The Sausage Tossing (Eis-zwei-Geissebei)
Every year on Shrove Tuesday at 3:15 pm precisely, hundreds of children and adults 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 shout loud and clear “One, two, goat leg!” As a result, the mayor and council members open up the windows and toss out sausages, loafs of bread and pastries into the crowd! Yep, you read it correctly… This tradition is said to go back to the siege of the city when compassionate citizens served food to hungry children through their windows…
The Human Chess Game (Partita a Scacchi Di Marostica)
Marostica is a small town located northeast of Vicenza and is famous all over the world for its human chess game, played with living chess pieces. 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.
Czechia – Slovakia
The Easter Whip (Pomlázka)
You found the German tradition pretty misogynistic? Wait for this one! On Easter Monday in towns and villages, boys arm themselves with a pomlázka and 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 even 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…
The Creche Show (Szopka)
In Poland, on the first Thursday of December, creche masters from around the country 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 to the Middle 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.
The Straw Village (Siaudu Sodas)
A goose, a carp, a rooster, 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… All these made entirely of straw! 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. The cultural centre’s employees spent the month of September creating the sculptures, with some eight tonnes of straw and 10 kilometres of rope!
The Summer Solstice (Ligo)
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 songs around the fire and couples are encouraged to disappear into the forest to look for a mythical flowering fern.
The Estonian Song Festival (Laulupidu)
Every 5 years, you can hear 18 000 voices singing at once! This happens during Estonia’s Song Festival, which occurs in Tallinn and can reach up to 25 or 30 thousand. 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. And for the little story: the Soviet authorities forced foreign songs into the repertoire from 1947.
The Kupala Night (Купалле)
On Kupala day, young people in Belarus 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.
The Second New Year’s Eve (Malanka)
For their second New Year’s Eve which falls on January 14th, Ukrainians throw in a bit more of their strange ancient customs, and hold the vibrant Malanka celebrations. Crowds of young people walk around people’s houses, sing carols, 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 play the roles of the Goat or the Grandpa…
The Danube Race for the Cross (Plivanje za Casni krst)
Romanians have one of the weirdest traditions in Europe: an orthodox priest throws a cross into the river, a hundred or more people watch and young men swim in the freezing cold water. Probably the home-made vodka everybody drinks before the event helps. 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.
The Bear Dance (Ursul)
“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, 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 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.
The Water Plunge Monday (Vizbeveto)
On Easter Monday, young hungarian farmhands are allowed to throw a bucket of cold well water over girls of marriageable age. 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. 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.
The Cows’ Ball (Kravji Bal)
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. Of course, everyone celebrates with traditional music, dancing, food and drink.
The Chivalric Tournament (Sinjska Alka)
On the first Sunday of August, Croatian 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 this 18th century old tradition which commemorates the victory of the knights of Sinj over a much more powerful Turkish army which besieged the town in 1715…
Bosnia and Herzegovina
The Stari Most Bridge Dive
Stari Most diving is a traditional annual competition organized every year in mid summer. 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.
The Slavic Carnival (Poklade)
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. They leap and jump to the deafening sound of drums and the cattle bells on their belts. In some areas the men wear overdresses to perform these carnival dances that drive out evil winter demons and ensure health and good crops.
The Carnival of Vevcani (Вевчански карневал)
Every Orthodox New Year, Vevcani, a tiny town of around 2,500 people in western Macedonia, holds an annual carnival that allows the heavily Orthodox locals to indulge in unbridled paganism and show off their creativity. Dedicated to St. Basil the Great (Vasilij), the event turns the sleepy little hillside municipality into a “theater without borders in which every house is part of a street scene with masked actors performing their games.”
The Korça Carnival (Korçës Karnavale)
Nowhere in Albania is carnival celebrated as much as in Korça and this summer event 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. This festival represents an essential part of Albanian culture and cultivates the values of a specific folklore, oral, burlesque, humorous, and musical.
The Masked Kukeri (Кукери)
Under skies darkened by thick clouds, they pour out into the streets, clanging with the sound of giant bells… Their faces are a terrifying mix of snapping jaws, twisted horns, and large, unblinking eyes… The y are the kukeri – visiting peoples’ house at night so that “the sun would not catch them on the road.” After going around the village they gather at the square and dance wildly. The Kukeri Dance is an old tradition with costumed men performing the ritual. It is said to scare away evil spirits.
The Battle of Rockets (Rouketopolemos)
On the Greek island of Chios, there is a small town called Vrontados where two churches face each other from across a ravine. Well then, on Easter day, rival members attempt to ring the bell of the opposite church… with rockets. 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. Local tradition holds that this event goes back to the Ottoman era.
The Melting Lead Ceremony (Kurşun Dökme)
Turkish people are obsessed with the evil eye, or the belief that the negative energy of other people (usually due to jealousy) travels from their eyeballs into your life, causing bad luck. Against the evil eye, there is a very traditional ceremony that involves the melting of lead. What happens is that an expert comes to your house and makes you sit under a tablecloth. She then melts lead and violently plunges it into cold water with a ladle, so that the hot lead explodes and disperses the negative energy that surrounds you…
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