Each country has its own unique traditions that continue to be observed today. These customs are often very old, originating thousands of years ago when nomads and farmers, the Slavic peoples or the Romans, began to populate that part of the world. The traditions that are practiced today combine ancient pagan rituals relating to the seasons and agricultural cycles with the holidays of Christianity (often Eastern Orthodoxy). Below are descriptions of the cultural practices in a few Eastern European countries.You may find that these descriptions often resemble each other, and that several countries have similar traditions.
Folk Customs and Holidays
Bulgarians became Christians in the year 865. Their faith is Eastern Orthodox, and they maintain many of the traditional holidays of the Orthodox Church. Their customs include both Christian traditions and those from their original, non-Christian culture. For example, on Christmas Eve Bulgarians burn wood in their fireplaces. This wood is supposed to burn all night long. Bulgarians believe that this symbolizes their desire for a long life. At the same time, Bulgarians celebrate Christmas with a midnight mass at the church.
For New Year’s day children in Bulgaria walk from house to house holding small tree branches decorated with flowers, popcorn, and small bagels. They tap adults on the back or shoulders and recite a small poem wishing for good health, wealth, and success during the new year. In return, the adults give the children candy or other treats.
Another Bulgarian tradition is called Martenitsi. Bulgarians consider the beginning of spring to be March 1. During the whole month of March, Bulgarians wear small red and white tassels on their clothing. These tassels are supposed to bring good health. On the last day of the month, Bulgarians attach the tassels to a tree.
Decorative Easter eggs are traditionally prepared by women on Holy Thursday or Good Friday. The most beautiful style, pisanki, have elaborate designs achieved by a process similar to batiking: the egg is dipped into each dye used in the pattern, with successive wax applications between dippings channeling the dyes to form the ultimate design. Good Friday and Holy Saturday are traditionally days of prayer and contemplation. On Holy Saturday, a basket of food containing bread, eggs, fresh butter, and a small piece of meat is carried to church, usually by the family’s sons, to be blessed by the priest. The Easter Resurrection Mass is celebrated at sunrise, and is followed by a breakfast (a symbolic breaking of the Lenten fast) at which the blessed food is eaten. The traditional Easter table includes hard-boiled eggs, ham with fresh horseradish, braided breads, a cheese and herb-flavored flat bread, and a tall, hat-shaped cake, or baba. In rural Poland, Easter Monday was traditionally a day for the rowdy ritual of dyngus, when young men could catch young unmarried women and douse them with buckets of water. In some parts of Poland, the women repaid the favor on Tuesday.
Christmas Eve, or Wigilia (Vigil Day), is traditionally more sacred than Christmas Day. The house is decorated with evergreen branches; a spruce or pine bough, decorated with apples and nuts, paper chains and cutouts, hangs over the table at which the Christmas Eve supper is eaten. The table for the Christmas Eve dinner is usually covered with a white tablecloth under which straws of hay, reminiscent of the manger, have been placed. The meal begins when the evening star is sighted. After prayer, an oplatek, a round wafer similar to communion wafers, but not consecrated, is broken into pieces and shared among everyone at the table, with each person offering good wishes to everyone else present for the year to come. (It is traditional to invite close friends and family members to share the Wigilia dinner, which is both solemn and joyous.) No meat is served during the Wigilia meal, which consists of thirteen different dishes as a reminder of the Last Supper. These dishes may be simple or elaborate; the point is to have abundant variety, of which everyone can partake. The one required food, aside from the oplatek, is kutia, a dish eaten after the sharing of the wafer. Kutia is a thick farina or barley porridge, sweetened with honey and often containing milk and poppy seeds. It is also served on All Souls’ Day in commemoration of the dead, and sometimes at funeral meals. After the meal, gifts are distributed to the children and the family gathers to sing carols until it is time to leave for church to attend the midnight Mass of the Shepherd (pasterka).
Christmas Day traditionally was observed much more solemnly than Christmas in America. It was a day of complete rest, on which not even meals were to be prepared. The more social celebrations of the Christmas season began the day after Christmas, on St. Stephen’s Day, which was a day for exchanging visits. Poles have a tradition of group caroling, and of constructing elaborate manger scenes which are either displayed in churches or public halls, or carried around by the carolers as they sing. Unlike the singing of carols in the family home, which takes place on Christmas Eve, group caroling begins only on St. Stephen’s Day. In the old days, wandering troupes of carolers might perform throughout the month of January was well, including in their repertoire religious dramas performed as either puppet shows or plays with live actors.
Hungarians, who are either Catholic or Protestant, celebrate Karácsony (Christmas) with large family reunions. The Christmas tree is decorated in the afternoon of Christmas Eve, while the children go for a lengthy walk with an aunt or uncle. When everything is ready and the children have returned home, another relative secretly rings a small bell and the entire family enters the room where the decorated Christmas tree stands, lit by candles and sparklers. Presents – brought by Jézuska (Baby Jesus) – are opened then. On Christmas Day, after attending the Church service, the family meets again in the home of another member, and sits down to a large dinner. Beigli is a dessert on everybody’s menu. A week later, on New Year’s Eve, the celebration takes a boisterous turn: just before midnight city dwellers go out in the streets, and greet the arrival of the New Year by making loud noises and throwing confetti and streamers.
Easter is the greatest festival of spring. Every family paints eggs, often using a special traditional technique: designs – mostly flower patterns – are drawn on the eggs with wax, then the eggs are dipped into cold paint. The second day of Easter used to be called Luca napja (Dunking Monday), because of a peculiar custom: on this day young men would throw girls into water and dunk them. Nowadays the custom is much milder and very sweet smelling: a drop of perfume applied on the girls’ or women’s hair takes care of the ritual, for which the boys or men are rewarded with Easter eggs and cakes.
The Romanians’ religion is Orthodox, but, unlike their Orthodox neighbors (Serbs, Bulgarians, Russians), they celebrate Christmas and the other religious festivals and holidays according to the Gregorian calendar (i.e. the holidays coincide with those of the Catholic and Protestant believers). The winter holiday season starts with the day of St. Nicholas (December 6) and ends a month later, on St. John’s day (January 7). People bearing the names of Nicholas, John, or Basil (January 1) throw large parties for their friends. Christmas trees are decorated with garlands, balls, and special candies wrapped in shiny paper. On Christmas Eve groups of children go from house to house and sing carols or sometimes carry a large decorated star of Bethlehem and tell the story of the birth of Christ. Hosts reward them with oranges, cookies, or money. On Christmas Eve, family members, after giving presents to each another, sit down to a rich dinner, which among other courses, must feature sarmale (stuffed cabbage). Often, the dinner ends in caroling. On Christmas Day people go to church and then sit down to another big dinner where the great quantity of food is matched by the abundance of wine and spirits. New Year’s Eve is the time for children to team up again and go about their neighborhood. They make loud noises by cracking whips, ringing sheep bells, and reciting traditional poems for the New Year. This is similar to an old farm custom called plugu(orul (the plow). In this ceremony boys hold rods decked with paper flowers called sorcova and wish every passer-by wealth and happiness in the New Year. The departure of the Old Year and the arrival of the New one is yet another reason for friends and family to get together and party until dawn. Another kind of new year is observed throughout the month of March: women wear m(r(isor (little March) i.e. tassels of red and white thread with little charms attached to them, a custom honoring the onset of the new year in ancient Rome.
The Christmas season begins on December 6, Saint Nicholas day. On that day Czechs hold parties at which there are three guests of honor dressed as an angel, a devil, and St. Nicholas. The devil looks for naughty children and rattles his chain. He will give bad children a sooty lump of coal or might even try to drag them off. The Angel smiles upon the good children and helps St. Nicholas to distribute gifts.
A few days before Christmas, families get busy with preparing cookies, food, and presents. Although Americans will usually have a turkey or ham or other festive meat for Christmas, the traditional Czech dish is carp. Carp are rather like large goldfish, and are used as ornamental fish in many fancy gardens here in the US. Czechs who live in the villages raise carp in artificial ponds all year long. When Christmas time comes around, the villagers will drain their ponds and gather the fish in big tubs to take to the city for sale. On the street corners in big cities, fish sellers will stand with a butcher block and scales to weigh and sell the fish. If you want, they will clean the fish right there on the street and wrap it up. However, many Czechs want their carp to be as fresh as possible, so they bring a bucket of water to take their fish home in. Once at home, they will fill up the bathtub and let the fish swim around in it until they are ready to cook it. You might have to wait until the carp is roasting in the oven before you can take your bath on Christmas Eve!
After the carp is eaten, the children are sent off to their room for a while, where their mother might read them a story, because the father has an important job to do. He will put up the Christmas tree and decorate it all at once, put the presents in piles (one for each child) under the tree and light candles and sparklers on it. Czechs like to hang chocolates on their trees, and other ornaments are often made of common domestic materials such as straw, cloth, or baked dough. When the tree is all ready, the father rings a bell and the children come running to see the tree brightly shining. They open their presents and then the family stands around the tree singing Christmas carols. Because St. Nicholas already brought them gifts a couple of weeks earlier, the children are told that these presents are from the baby Jesus. People also go caroling from one house to another, and like our trick-or-treaters, they will receive various goodies, such as nuts, fruit, and chocolates.
The holiday season closes with a New Year’s party, called Silvestr in honor of St. Sylvester, whose name comes on that day. This party is very similar to ours, with feasting , drinking and waiting to ring in the new year at midnight.
The other big holiday that is observed is Easter. Weeks before the actual holiday there is a masquerade parade in which people put on all kinds of funny costumes and walk through the streets. This is similar to, though not as extravagant as, the Mardi Gras celebrated in New Orleans. Czechs enjoy using a variety of noisemakers on this holiday, and a favorite one is a wooden ratchet. These come in many sizes, and most of them work by waving them in the air, which causes them to spin with a loud clatter. In some villages they have ratchets so big that they are like wheelbarrows, and you have to work them by pushing them down the street, since no one could wave them.
When it gets closer to the actual holiday, Czechs also color eggs like we do, although it is still popular to use natural dyes of one sort or another. The easiest one to use is old onion skins — you just collect all your onion skins for a few weeks and then boil the eggs along with the onion skins, and this gives them a lovely rich yellow-orange color. Sometimes people will paint designs of starbursts or flowers on the eggs in wax to create a pretty pattern. This leads to another round of trick-or-treating, this time for Easter eggs.
Boys take branches from trees or bushes (willows work best) and braid them and decorate them with ribbons, making switches about 2 feet long called pomlazky. They carry these about and occasionally use them to spank young girls (just in fun, of course).
A traditional Easter meal will include lamb or a cake made in the shape of a lamb (from dough like the one used for the Czech Christmas bread).
Other times of year
On every day of the year there is at least one saint who is commemorated, and these days are holidays for anyone who has that name. They are called namesdays and are celebrated rather like birthdays. Czech calendars have these names printed right on them, so you will know when to congratulate your friends and bring them presents. It’s a lot easier than remembering birthdays!
If you don’t live in the city, every once in a while someone in your neighborhood will slaughter a pig. Maybe this doesn’t sound very nice, but it is always a big occasion. It can happen at any time of year, but is more common in the summer. This is a festive ritual that involves making every part of the pig into some useful (usually edible) product, and there are some special pork delicacies that are served up only at this time. You can think of it as a distant relative of our local pig pickin’.
Courtesy of eliznik.org.uk