You may have heard of the tomato-throwing La Tomatina in Spain or the cheese rolling festival in England… But did you know there are many other festivals in Eastern Europe that are just as unique and wonderful? From masquerades and animal costumes to bonfires and flower wreaths, here are five of the most spectacular and unusual festivals in Eastern Europe.
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1. Surva Festival – Pernik, Bulgaria
The Surva Festival is one of the most fantastic festivals in Eastern Europe. This annual event is held in the region of Pernik in Bulgaria The festival takes place exactly 49 days before Eastern Orthodox Easter, usually in the second half of January, and is all about chasing away evil spirits and bringing good luck.
Also known as the International Festival of the Masquerade Games, the Surva Festival sees people, called “kukeri”, wearing demon masks and parading down the streets. They also wear bells around their belts, and as they dance through the streets, they make lots of noise with their bells and stage fights representing good and evil. At night, you’ll see lit torches chasing the evil away. You’ll also see people known as “Survakari” tapping others on the back with a decorated tree branch to bring good luck.
Along with the parades, the festival also has workshops and exhibitions showcasing the craftsmanship in creating masks and costumes. Said to date back to Pagan times, the Surva Festival is a beloved celebration of cultural tradition in Bulgaria. In 2015, UNESCO placed it on its List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The festival is now globally known for its spectacular costumes and performances, drawing thousands of people to the event each year.
2. Wianki – Poland
Wianki is a traditional Polish festival held on the night of the summer solstice, usually around June 21-24. The festival has its roots in pre-Christian Slavic traditions and pagan rituals associated with the summer solstice and celebrates love, fertility and the abundance of nature. Over time, it’s become intertwined with the Christian celebration of St. John’s Eve (the night before the feast of St. John the Baptist), so it’s observed in both religious and secular ways in Poland.
The name “Wianki” translates to “wreaths” in English, an important symbol of the festival. People make and wear wreaths made with flowers and herbs, and some girls like to set their wreaths adrift on a river or lake. As the wreaths float away, it’s believed the course they take can predict the future of the young women’s love lives, including when they might meet or marry their future partners.
Today, the Wianki festival includes lots of different events including concerts, dancing, singing, bonfires, and firework displays. Warsaw and Kraków are famed for their Wianki celebrations but you can find festivities all over the country.
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3. Dragobete – Romania
This February celebration of love may be similar to Valentine’s Day, but Dragobete has nothing to do with Saint Valentine. Held annually on February 24th, Dragobete has its roots in ancient Dacian and Roman traditions. This festival of love, spring and fertility is named after Dragobete, the son of Baba Dochia, a mythological figure associated with the arrival of spring and the end of the winter.
While Dragobete is celebrated throughout Romania, it’s marked with different customs in many areas of the country. People play traditional games or go dancing and singing. Couples exchange gifts and flowers, particularly snowdrops, as symbols of love. Dragobete is also a popular day for couples to get engaged or married. In some areas, it’s said you’ll be protected from bad luck and evil spirits for the year if you take part in the celebrations. Here’s to spring love!
4. Busójárás – Mohács, Hungary
Busójárás, meaning “Busós walking”, is a traditional six-day Hungarian festival held annually in the town of Mohács. This centuries-old event is one of the oldest festivals in Eastern Europe. It takes place in February and is about driving away winter and evil spirits while welcoming the arrival of spring.
During Busójárás, people dress up as “Busós”. They wear wooden masks with scary features and animal-like horns, and huge sheepskin costumes. The Busós parade through the streets of Mohács to traditional music, while ringing their wooden noisemakers. You’ll see dancing, bonfires and feasting throughout the festival, and don’t forget to try pálinka, the traditional fruit brandy). On the last day, they light a symbolic funeral pyre to bid farewell to winter and signify the end of the celebration.
Busójárás has its roots in pagan rituals and customs, with some saying it originated from when the people of Mohács dressed up in demonic costumes to scare away the invading Ottoman (Turkish) troops. In 2009, UNESCO added Busójárás to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, recognizing its significance as a cultural tradition.
5. Trifon Zarezan – Bulgaria
Trifon Zarezan is a traditional wine festival dedicated to St. Trifon, the patron saint of vine growers and wine producers in Bulgaria. Celebrated annually on February 14th (Gregorian calendar) or February 1st (Julian calendar), the festival marks the beginning of the grapevine pruning season. It symbolizes the awakening of nature and the rebirth of the vineyards after the long winter.
The rituals of Trifon Zarezan are deeply rooted in Bulgarian folklore and culture. One of the main traditions sees vine growers and their families perform the first pruning of the vines. They usually start by cutting three twigs from three separate vines in the shape of a cross. They then dip it in wine and sprinkle the vineyard, the vine growers, and the pruning tools to bless them and ensure a bountiful harvest.
After the pruning ritual, the vine growers have a celebration with friends and family. They often share food, wine and rakia (fruit brandy) and enjoy traditional dancing and singing. Trifon Zarezan is not only a time to honor age-old wine growing traditions, but also to celebrate the enduring connection between the Bulgarian people and the land.
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Are you planning to travel to any festivals in Eastern Europe? Let us know in the comments below!