From birthdays and weddings to the first day at work: what better reason is there to celebrate than the start of a new chapter? Many seasonal celebrations mark the start of something new - most importantly the arrival of that magical time of year when days lengthen, nature reawakens and the arrival of spring alleviates our yearning for brightness and warmth.
In Romania, Albania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Greece, the warmth and light brought on by spring are honoured during Mărțișor (‘little March’). Central to this centuries-old tradition is the martenitsa: an accessory - usually a bracelet - made of two strings of yarn: white representing purity and the wisdom of men; red for vitality and the passion of women.
The martenitsa is worn from the first day of March until the end of the month, unless the owner spots a stork or a swallow first. Once taken off, it’s attached to a tree or a stone. In the latter case, the animal found in the vicinity of the stone the next day symbolises the fortunes of the martenitsa’s owner: larvae signify success, ants foreshadow intensive labour and spiders are the bearers of doom.
The egg is a widespread and ancient symbol of spring. Through the Christian association of new life emerging from a shell with Jesus’ emergence from the tomb, eggs have become a symbol of Easter. The custom of decorating goes back to the 13th century, when eating eggs was prohibited during Lent. As chickens continued to lay throughout the Holy Week, the saved-up eggs were considered special and adorned with (natural) paint.
Although chocolate eggs have been around for over 150 years, fresh eggs continue to be a staple of Easter, often boasting bright colours and intricate paintings, patterns created with batik or wax-resist techniques (the Ukrainian pysanka), or appliqués. Eggs are often put in a basket with straw mimicking a bird's nest, or scattered outside for children to hunt. More unusual traditions involving Easter eggs are the blessing of the baskets in Poland (Święconka) and the throwing of eggs until a final ‘Pisanica’ survives in Croatia.
Śmigus-Dyngus (‘Wet Monday’) is a Polish Easter Monday custom dating from the 14th century. Symbolising spring rains that bring fertility and purification, Śmigus-Dyngus used to involve boys expressing their romantic interes for girls by pouring buckets of water over them.
If a girl didn’t want to be sprinkled, she could buy her way out by gifting an egg to her pursuer. Despite its pre-Christian origins, the Catholic church linked the feast to baptism through the concept of pouring (holy) water. Śmigus-Dyngus is still celebrated in Poland, though on a smaller scale and more focused on family visits - the visitors being designated ‘włóczebnicy’ or ‘vagabonds’.
Seasonal celebrations often serve to mark endings as well. Finishing education and moving on to the next stage in life is a milestone worth commemorating. In Belgium, it’s customary for senior high school students to celebrate their final 100 days at school during ‘Honderd Dagen’ or Chrysostomos with performances, small acts of mischief and all-night dancing. The Polish equivalent, studniówka, involves a more formal dance similar to the American prom night.
The ultimate rites of passage are connected to people’s final farewell. While the main elements of mourning rituals are similar across the continent, often including sobriety, vigils and certain hairstyles or garments, specific customs differ extensively. Christian, Greek Orthodox and Jewish mourners traditionally dress in black, formal clothes, while Buddhists and Hindus wear casual outfits - the former in dark hues, the latter in white.
While it’s customary for the deceased to be mourned by family and friends, professional mourners such as the ‘cry-women’ of the Orthodox populations of Finland, Ingria and northwestern Russia are sometimes employed.
The itkijät (‘weepers’) help comfort grieving families and recite lamentations with evocative poetry, encouraging mourners to let their tears flow. Today, dedicated associations in Finland keep this tradition alive by offering crying courses, workshops and concerts.
Coming after Halloween and All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day sees many European countries commemorate their departed loved ones. Such practices have been documented since pre-Christian times, but the official feast on 2 November was designated in the 11th century by Odilo of Cluny.
Many eastern churches, however, remember the dead at the beginning of the year, prior to Lent, and the day before Pentecost.
All Souls’ Day is dedicated to prayer and remembrance, often involving a Requiem mass and a visit to the graveyard with offerings of flowers and candles, as well as family gatherings where memories are shared over a home-cooked meal.
Yet in Italy All Souls’ Day is also the day that men intending to propose marriage hide an engagement ring in a container with cookies called ‘fave dei morti’ (‘beans of the dead’). In Sicily, on the other hand, it’s all about indulging children as they leave their shoes outside expecting them to be filled with sweets and presents.