Celebrations in Europe

Feast and Fast

Many traditions across Europe have their origins in religious occasions, and of these, there is a recurrent motif of periods of fasting and reflection preceding or following periods of feasting and abundance.


Fasting is a form of religious worship, with the traditions around it also having a practical purpose - using up food in advance of the fast or saving food for another time.

For many, Christmas includes a large feast, the eating and enjoying of an abundance of food.

In Croatia, there is a tradition to fast or eat modestly on Christmas Eve (Badnji Dan). The idea behind this is to remember those who do not have as much as you. After fasting during the day, many people eat a modest meal of dried cod called 'bakalar' or another kind of fish, along with salads or cabbage in the evening.

Then a large meal is enjoyed on Christmas Day.

In Christian communities, Lent, the 40 days before Easter, is marked as a period of abstaining from food and festivities, to replicate Jesus Christ's 40-day withdrawal into the desert. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. The day before is known in English as Shrove Tuesday.

Today, however, in the UK and Ireland, the day is perhaps better known as Pancake Day. Traditionally, pancakes were consumed to use up rich foods such as eggs, milk, and sugar, before the Lent fast.

Finnish Laskiainen traditions on this Tuesday before Lent are tied to eating food before a Lenten fast.

People spend the day outside sledding, skating or skiing, spending time with friends and family.

After a long day outside building up hunger, it is traditional to eat fatty foods, such as pea soup and laskiaispulla, a Finnish sweet roll, cut in half and stuffed with whipped cream and either almond paste or jam.

Carnival feast

In other countries, the day before Lent begins is called Mardi Gras - Fat Tuesday - (or an equivalent translation) and is the culmination of carnival. There are many differing carnival traditions across Europe, mostly celebrated in parts of Europe with large Catholic communities.

All traditions are marked by excess: by celebrating exuberantly in advance of Lent.

Carnival can be celebrated by parades, masked balls, public parties, eating and drinking and rule-breaking.

In Rome, Italy, Mardi Gras is marked by the tradition La Smozza. During carnival, some austere laws concerning public order, mainly based on religious principles, could be broken. People could take some liberties, without worrying too much about the repercussions. During the day, many wear fancy costumes.

On the night of Mardi Gras, the charming La Smozza candle race is held, in which participants carry a candle or a small lantern and, as they run, try to blow out each other's lights.

Carnival celebrations have been happening all across Europe for centuries. One of the oldest celebrations occurs in Nice, France, where the earliest record of carnival dates from 1294 CE. 

From the late 19th century onwards, Nice carnival has had a parade with people wearing masks, giant puppets and floats with papier-mâché decorations.

Nowadays, the carnival spans a two-week period in the run-up to Lent, with a different theme each year.

In Germany, carnival is known as Fasching. This video, from 1905, shows a carnival procession in a town near Frankfurt.

In Pisa, Italy, the Gioco del Ponte is a historic festival with carnival roots. It’s a game, match or battle between different teams representing different neighbourhoods of the city, who are trying to push a trolley or cart across a bridge spanning the river Arno. 

It now takes place in June but was originally held on the day of Saint Anthony the Abbot (17 January) and continued throughout the carnival period, stopping at the start of Lent.

The game’s chaotic sporting battle reflects its roots in carnival time - where rules are suspended and excessive abandon is embraced.


While carnival’s celebrations and feast come before a period of fasting, for Europe’s muslim communities, feasts come after the fasting of Ramadan.

During Ramadan, people eat and drink before sunrise and then not until after sunset. The fast detoxifies the body after a year of eating and drinking. People pray and meditate during this month more than other months, going to mosques five times a day where they join Teravih Nama, a worship for the month of Ramadan.

Meals in the evenings of Ramadan are called iftar. The big feast at the end of the month lasts three days. The feast of Ramadan is celebrated differently in different nations.

The end of Ramadan is marked by Eid al-Fitr. On the first day, people have a large breakfast. Families visit each other to celebrate. They treat each other with desserts and traditional foods. Children go door to door, kissing the hands of older neighbours as a mark of respect. Older people give them candies or small amounts of money in return.