Across Europe, many long-standing rituals endure to this day. On Easter, things get particularly old-fashioned. We looked into some of the most offbeat Easter traditions still observed, from kids dressing up as witches to butter sculptures that ward off evil. Here are some of the strangest ways Easter is celebrated from Italy to Finland to Slovakia. Trust us, these traditions give the Easter Bunny a serious run for its money.
Easter Monday in Poland is a seriously wet affair. Boys drench girls with water buckets and spray guns, and as folktale has it, girls who are soaked will marry within the year. In parts of Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia, a similar age-old practice calls for “sprinkling” buckets of cold water over women to bring fertility and health. “Wet Monday,” as it’s often referred to, is more commonly observed in rural parts of these Central European countries. In larger cities, the celebratory custom has been reduced to a light spritzing with water, cologne, or perfume.
Bonfires and witches
On the days before Easter across Finland (and parts of Sweden), locals light bonfires and set off fireworks as part of a Nordic practice originally believed to ward off evil spirits. The Thursday or Saturday before Easter, children dress up as witches, draw freckles or smudge soot on their faces, then knock door-to-door reciting hymns in exchange for treats. Behind this Halloween-like tradition is the old idea that witches would fly around to cavort and scheme with the Satan on the days leading up to the religious holiday.
With flying bells
In France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, flying church bells bring local children sweet treats for Easter—or at least that’s what the kids are led to believe. In these countries, religious tradition calls for silenced church bells between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. During that time, children are told that the bells fly to Rome to be blessed by the Pope. Post-blessing, the steeple bells supposedly fly back—loaded with chocolate eggs—just in time to ring in Easter Mass.
A different kind of tree decorating
The Ostereierbaum, or Easter Egg Tree, is a centuries-old tradition in Germany and Austria in which locals hang colorfully decorated eggs on bushes, trees, or tiny branches in or outside their homes on Good Friday. In Bavaria and parts of northern Germany, people also decorate wells and fountains with bright displays. In the town of Lügde, locals send burning “fire wheels” down a slope known as Easter Hill.
In Russia, Poland, and Slovenia, the dinner table on Easter Sunday is embellished with a unique edible decoration: a butter sculpture in the shape of a lamb. Why? In the Old Testament, a lamb is symbolic of Christ, the “Lamb of God,” and is believed to be the one form the devil can’t take on. Plus, everyone needs butter at a feast.
In the Greek Orthodox Church, eggs are dyed blood red on Easter to symbolize Christ’s death. According to long-standing tradition, many Greeks play an egg-cracking game called tsougrisma to celebrate Easter Sunday. The game, symbolizing Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, is simple: Each player holds a red egg. One player taps the end of his or her egg against the end of the other’s egg. The player whose egg doesn’t crack gets good luck for the following year . . . or so legend has it in Greece, at least.
A series of processions
The week leading up to Easter Sunday, Catholics in Spain and Portugal gather in the streets, hefting holy relics around town in celebration of Semana Santa, or “Holy Week.” In the southern Spanish communities of Seville and Malaga, members of hundreds of local church associations called cofradías dress up in robes, then parade ornate floats topped with scenes from the Passion to the dirge of horns and drums. In Braga, Portugal, you’ll find processions of Catholic brotherhood members barefoot, hooded, and echoing Gregorian chants down cobblestone streets while carrying candlelit altars.
A parade that pops off
In Florence, Easter Sunday features a tradition that dates back hundreds of years. During Scoppio del Carro, or “Explosion of the Cart,” oxen garlanded in flowers pull an elaborate 17th-century wagon through the city to the Piazza del Duomo, where a cart stuffed with fireworks sits at the ready. When the parade reaches its end at the Cathedral, the Archbishop of Florence lights a dove-shaped rocket that sets off a dramatic firework display. (Pro tip: Get there before 10 a.m. so you don’t miss the show.)