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Written by Bhavika G on April 27, 2016 Share on

Welcoming Spring, the European way

Spring in colder countries is invited with an enviable scale of fanfare. The season has given birth to a legacy of interesting rituals and festivals that have emerged throughout Europe, some originating form pagan customs too. Here’s a look at the most interesting European festivals –

Beltane Fire Festival: Edinburgh, Scotland; April 30

Beltane 2013 Acropolis Sequence View from the Nelson Monument
Image Credit : fest300

Move over to Edinburgh, Scotland and there is furor of vigorous activity to organize the 2016 edition of Beltane Fire Festival. Organized by the Beltane Fire Society, it was incepted in the year 1988 to revive the pagan practice of celebrating the arrival of summer. People from around the world throng the Calton Hill in central Edinburgh to participate, or even just spectate the proceedings.

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Entry to the Calto Hill begins from 8 pm on April 30. The event begins at the National Museum with a procession led by the May Queen and the Green Man, followed by Red Men and White Woman accompanied by the rhythm of the processional drummers. The procession, inclusive also of fire dancers and flame throwers, wind their way down the hill and upon reaching the base light a bonfire that welcomes the summer. This pagan celebration finds origin in a legend that narrates how on this particular day the marriage of Queen May and Green Man.

The legend narrates how the Horned God (the Winter aspect of the Green Man) upon sighting the May Queen realizes that to be with his love he would have to transform. Upon surrendering his life to her, he is resurrected by May Queen. He is now the Green Man – representative to the transformation of summer. The pagan celebration earlier involved the passing of livestock between two lit bonfires. The community then carried the bonfire’s flame in their torches to reclaim summer and rid of any negative spirits.

May Queen oversees the fire acrobats’ performance during Beltane Fire Festival, 2015. Image credits: beltanefiresociety

Today, the bonfire climaxes the procession as the procession gathers at the base of the hill to admire as skilful acrobats, flame-throwers and fire dancers put on a spectacular show. The entire event comes to a close at 1:30 am, grandiose welcome being laid out to the approaching summer. As the trees revel in various embellishments such as ribbons and other tokens of offerings to the pagan fertility goddess, people clamber from the Calton Hill to wander Edinburgh to soak in the last winter night – some painted red.

Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling: Gloucestershire, England; May 2

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The Gloucestershire County in England is set to play host – unofficially – to the Cheese Rolling competition that is held every year on the Cooper’s Hill. Initially organized for the residents of the Brockworth, Cheese Rolling has garnered international attention and participation in the recent years. Set on the rolling-hills-British-countryside landscape, the race starts from the Cooper’s Hill – the steepest hill in the region.

Organized on the Bank Holiday Monday, the event starts with the Master of Ceremonies raising his staff. He proceeds to cry out: “One to be ready, Two to be steady, Three to prepare (cheese is launched) and Four to be off.” What follows is a vigorous downhill descent of 14 men, almost always is punctuated with a tumble here and a fall there, as they chase after an 8 pound wheel of cheese that is hurtling down the hill at the speed of 70 miles per hour.

The 200 meters descent is as rugged as the hill’s terrain is, accompanied by an equal measure of bruises, splinters, sprains and – if you are unlucky – broken bones. At the finish line “catchers”, the local rugby team’s members, stand to receive participants who are hurtling down the slope in a bid to avoid further injury. Alongside, paramedics are also lined to receive and treat participants who have been injured severely. This is followed by two more downhill races for men and one for women. Racing uphill is also organized, with one being organized especially for children. The person who reaches the base of the hill first is declared winner and is presented with a Double Goulcester cheese – a dense and crumbly cheese made from raw milk – that up until last year was presented by the Smart’s Farm. The second and the third runner-ups are presented with cash prize.

Diana Smart, 86, the only Double Goulcester cheese maker using traditional methods. Image credits : AoI.

Cheese rolling as an activity is said to have emerged – some say – in the early 1800s as a part of pagan rituals, while other accounts record its presence even in the fifteenth century. The rolling of things down the hill is associated with a pagan cleansing ritual or related to healing or even exorcism. The event – originally – was touted to involve the scattering of fruit cake across the ground by the Master of Ceremonies. Today this can be traced to the event of scattering sweet treats across the rolling hill of Cooper for children to climb up and collect.

The event has questionable origins and is potentially perilous – there have been cases of onlookers being attacked by the wheel of cheese speeding down the hill. Yet, there is no dearth in the audience and participants that gather religiously every last Monday of May to witness as 20 to 40 people chase after a 8 pound wheel of cheese, some tumbling down, some rolling down the hill, some injured and in need of assistance.

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Rouketopolemos: Chios, Greece; May 1

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Easter celebrates the resurrection of Christ, when after three days after being crucified, he resurrected from his tomb and appeared to his disciples. Today in Vrodantos, a coastal town on one of the largest Greece island, Chios; the Easter festival calls for evocation of a different kind of resurrection – resurrection of an ancient rivalry between the two parishes – Angios Marcos, Panaghia Ereithiani – of Chios. Set 400 meters apart, these parishes choose to resolve their rivalry – not with a bake sale, no. These parishes have and continue to resort to Rouketopolemos or a rocket war of sorts.

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Unlike (most of) the rest of the world, the Greek consult to the Julian Calendar to celebrate Easter. Regular masses are held at church, while the residents here dye their eggs red – to symbolise life, victory and the blood of Christ – and roast lamb on their front porch to mark this occasion. Yet the day before Easter Sunday, as the clock strikes 8 pm, rockets are set to be launched from each parish. These home-made bottle rockets – wooden sticks capped with gunpowder – are launched from grooved cannons towards one’s rival parish’s bell.

Precautions are, of course, of utmost priority. Neighbouring and the church buildings are secured in metal sheets and shielded with mesh armour to negate or at least reduce the amount of damage the rocket war would cause. Despite these measures, sidewalks, small brushes and unsecured vehicles have fallen prey to a stray rocket on numerous occasions. The rocket war is a delight to watch – from a secured, indoor location – and often attracts tourists from all over the world. And interestingly, while shots are being fired from respective parishes, midnight anastasi (mass) continues inside the church as devout congregators gather within. The entire festivity and warring stops at 12:30 am.

The next morning, the casualties are assessed – rockets stuck in the meshes, burnt vehicles, burnt out rockets in church yards – and the number of rockets that have struck the rival’s church bell is appraised. Invariably each parish claims victory and the war is extended to yet another year. Yet another year to fire shots and light up the Greek skies.

Walpurgisnacht: Germany, northern and central Europe; April 30

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No, Halloween has not arrived early at Hexentanzplatz in Germany. As – what appear to be – witches and warlocks dance in a drunken stupor around a bonfire they are, in fact, only partaking in a yearly ritual while celebrating Walpurgisnacht or the Walpurgis Night. On the night of April 30, every year, people gather at the Brocken Mountain to light bonfires and dance around them in a bid to welcome spring and drive away evil/malicious spirits.

Again originating from pagan lore, it was believed that witches would gather at the Hexentanzplatz – literally translating to ‘Witches’ dance floor – and fly up to the Brocken Mountain where they would convene with the devil. Joined by evil spirits, it was believed they would together try preventing the Queen of Spring from entering the country. Fearing the witches’ and demons’ wrath on them, people began to light fires and dance wildly around these bonfires in a bid to deter the witches from coming too close to their homes.

Today people continue to dance around bonfires and maypoles – albeit dressed as witches and warlocks; and driven not by fear but by a mood of merry-making and an inviting warmth, consequent of the enormous bonfire. The Walpurgisnacht today is a night of dancing, dressing up and delighting your taste buds. The celebration has, of course, evolved over time and today is celebrated across parts of northern and central Europe.

In rural Germany~ It is now a part of popular youth culture to vandalize and – literally – paint the town red. Spraying graffiti on private property, hiding possessions and tampering with neighbours’ gardens has increasingly become an intricate part of the Walpurgis Night celebrations.

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In Sweden~ Celebrated as the ‘feast of Valborg’, this involves enjoying a breakfast of champagne and strawberries. Choir groups around the country are engaged in performing traditional songs, while picnics will now become a commonplace affair. In Gotherburg, The Cortege, an annual carnival parade featuring around 600 students from Chalmers University of Technology is held. Trucks designed to represent significant events – satirically and comically – since the last Cortege are paraded, accompanied by marching bands, people in costumes, and students on bicycle – sometimes featuring a quadricycle.

The Cortege parade that is held annually as a part of Walpurgis Night celebrations in Gotherburg, Sweden. Image credits :

In Czech Republic~ Effigies of witches along with old brooms are thrown into bonfires as tall as 8 meters. When the pyre emits black and dense smoke formations, it is cheered on by the assembled crowd as a witch flying away. As the evening saunters into night, people begin to disperse in search of cherry trees in “blossom” to declare their love. This day is also celebrated as the day for those in love.

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In Finland~ Walpurgisnight witnesses a carnival style festival beginning from the night of 30th April till the morning hours of 1st May. The festival is observed while toasting to sima, a homemade mead, and sinking into warm funnel cakes, sprinkled sugar on top.

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In Netherlands~ The festival is celebrated as Meierblis with bonfires lit near nightfall, symbolizing the driving away of the remaining cold of the winter and welcoming of spring.

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Making their way through pagan customs – most of them, at least – festivals celebrating spring have acquired new characteristics over the years. Every year they become more grander and attract more international attention. Want to be a part of these grand celebrations? Browse through our collection of Europe Tour Packages at Pickyourtrail to discover more vacation ideas for yourselves!

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