Egg museums, reindeer races and water fights: celebrating Easter across Europe

09/04/2020 08:13

Written by Bradt Guides

In a time of staying at home, Easter weekend will certainly feel a little different this year. But while we might not be able to enjoy midnight mass with our families or embark on giant egg hunts, we can still explore the world from our armchairs.

So, to celebrate, we thought we'd take you on a virtual tour of our favourite Easter traditions from our European neighbours. Some are as you'd expect; others are much more unusual  but with all, the importance of eggs should not be underestimated...   

Serbia: painting eggs and midnight mass

Easter is probably a more important event in the Orthodox calendar than Christmas, and a time when even non-believers attend church for midnight mass on the night of Good Friday. Again, the timing of the Gregorian calendar means that Easter in Serbia usually takes place later than in western Europe. On this night, attendance of the mass is accompanied by much jollity afterwards and the drinking of šljivovica.

Easter eggs, Serbia by Julija Sapic, ShutterstockPainting hard-boiled eggs is an Easter tradition in Serbia © Julija Sapic, Shutterstock

The painting of eggs is another Serbian Easter custom that still survives, especially in Vojvodina in the north of the country, and which takes place the week before Easter. During this week whole families become engaged in painting hard-boiled eggs red and sometimes decorating them, although this is a later tradition. The painting of the eggs symbolises the renewal of life and one egg remains on the family altarpiece throughout the coming year. The red colouration is thought to frighten away the devil.

Hungary: 'sprinklings' and spring cleaning

The week leading up to Easter is a busy one for the women of Hungarian households, who perform a thorough spring clean and go into baking overdrive. In addition, they paint hard-boiled eggs with folksy motifs and patterns, and present them to visitors as Easter gifts. The celebrations themselves begin on Good Friday, with mass services held at 15.00 in churches all over the city. On Easter Sunday, following morning services, children are treated with chocolate eggs and small presents from the Easter Bunny.

Easter Budapest, Hungary by Atla, FlickrA 'sprinkling' is an Easter Monday custom in Hungary © Atla, Flickr

The real fun, though, comes on Easter Monday, when the traditional ‘sprinkling’ (locsolkodás) takes place. Men customarily ‘sprinkle’ their female relatives and friends with cheap perfume, in return for which they receive a reward – a painted egg, some chocolate coins or a shot of pálinka (potent fruit brandy). The last reward means that by mid afternoon there can be some rather giddy sprinklers!

Originally this ritual was a fertility rite, when men visited the single women of the village and sprinkled their friends and relatives along the way. Even today it is used as a form of courtship. It is less sodden than it was in the past, however – when buckets of water were used in the villages rather than cologne.

Ukraine: abstinence and egg shells

Most traditional Ukrainian holidays fit into a meticulous Orthodox calendar which changes from year to year. Easter is the most important of these holidays, and in Ukrainian Orthodoxy, believers will fast for the Lenten period by abstaining from meat and dairy products. All-night church services (standing!) and ritual parades around the church at midnight mark the beginning of the Velyky Den (‘Great Day’) and the festivities begin.

Ukraine egg museum Easter SvitlanaNiko, ShutterstockEaster is so important in Ukraine that they even have their own egg museum © SvitlanaNiko, Shutterstock

But Ukraine takes the celebration of Easter that one step further with its very own Easter egg museum. Located in the pretty little town of Kolomiya, it's a monument to the most Ukrainian of Ukrainian crafts: the intricate, layered colouring of blown-out eggshells. Pysanky designs are drawn with melted wax, and then dyed in different colours for each design (usually red, yellow, orange, brown and black).

Every region in Ukraine has its own specific colours and patterns and the museum displays them all, as well as some talented submissions from the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada. You may think that a pink egg-shaped museum filled with over 10,000 eggs sounds wacky, and you’re right, it is.

Norway: reindeer and chickens

The village of Kautokeino comes alive at Easter when it is consumed by a week-long festival, a historically traditional event when the local Sámi community celebrate (albeit with snow still on the ground) the end of a long winter and look forward to the coming of spring. It is a time for religious festivals and wedding ceremonies.

Norwegian Easter chick An inflatable chicken marks the festivities in southern Norway © mariusz.ks, Shutterstock

Although today’s festival still is an important religious event, it is also the time for the reindeer racing world cup, a film festival focusing on the indigenous people of the Arctic, concerts, theatre performances and the Sámi version of the Eurovision song contest when, in addition to the selection of the best song, the best joik (a traditional Sámi song) is chosen. 

Armenia: egg fights and sandwiches

A night-time Easter Eve church service is attended followed by a family meal on Easter Sunday. As with Christmas, fish forms the centrepiece of the meal and there will also be green vegetables cooked with whipped eggs and a sweet pilaff rice dish. There are egg fights for the children, with hard-boiled eggs which they have painted or dyed the previous day.

Easter Echmiadzin Cathedral Armenia by Raffi Kojian, FlickrEaster decorations outside Echmiadzin Cathedral © Raffi Kojian, Flickr

The pointed ends of the eggs are engaged first then, when they have all cracked, the blunt ends are tested. The winner is the one whose egg lasts the longest without breaking. The eggs are then made into an Easter sandwich with lavash flatbread, greens (usually tarragon) and cheese. 

Belarus: blessings and beeswax 

Orthodox Easter is the biggest festival in the religious calendar in Belarus. In rural communities especially, the woman of the house will spend all day on Easter Saturday preparing food to be blessed by the local priest, before taking it by hand (and generally on foot) to church.

Church Vetka Belarus Easter Sunday The church in Vetka, scene of Easter midnight mass and the holy vigil © Nigel Roberts

At midnight, families congregate at their local church and parade three times around the outside of its perimeter in solemn procession behind the priest, carrying beeswax candles and thinking positive thoughts for good fortune. After returning home in the early hours, everyone except the matriarch (who has muchstill to prepare and cook) will go to bed, then wake to a sumptuous feast that has by then received the solemn blessing.

Malta: processions and pastries

Marzipan Maltese Easter sweets by Kira_Yan, ShutterstockA traditional Maltese figolla © Kira_Yan, Shutterstock

The Maltese take Easter week very seriously and many processions take place as well as devotional church visits. On Easter Sunday, church is followed by a large family lunch. Children are given Easter eggs and a figolla, a pastry filled with almond paste and topped with icing.

Liguria, Italy: parades and pasqualina

Not surprisingly, Easter is a major event in Liguria. On the evening of Maundy Thursday in Genoa, there is an evocative procession between the seven oldest and most important churches in the old city, a tradition which dates back to the 15th century. There is also a popular Good Friday religious parade in Savona.

Italian torta pasqualina Easter dish Italy by ShutterstockA torta pasqualina, the traditional Italian Easter dish © Dark Art Studio, Shutterstock

A classic Easter dish, now sold all year round, is the Genoese torta pasqualina. The earliest records of it date back to the start of the 16th century. Thirty-three sheets of paper-thin pastry are overlapped in remembrance of Jesus’s age when he was crucified. It’s filled with whole hard-boiled eggs and spinach.

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