Eastern European Traditions You Should Know

Eastern Europe is a region rich with traditions that fill events calendars, express national heritage, and define leisure time and hospitality culture. Learning about Eastern European traditions will offer insight into the region’s history, heritage, and values, some of which you may want to investigate further or adopt as meaningful to you.

Coloring Easter Eggs

If you know anything about Easter in Eastern Europe, you understand that it is one of the most important holidays of the year, with regards to both religion and culture. Decorating Easter eggs is a huge part of this holiday which, for serious egg-coloring artists, extends year-round.

Traditionally decorated eggs are not only signs of spring, and their origins do not originate in the Easter holiday as we know it today—in fact, the coloring of Easter eggs dates back to pagan times, when they were used as protective talismans or tokens of affection.

Each region of Eastern Europe has its own preferred decoration styles, color schemes, designs, and important symbols, all which reflect a long heritage of folk culture development and preservation.

Decorated Easter Eggs in a basket with a doll in Eastern European costume
Coloring Easter Eggs is a tradition that dates back to pagan times in Eastern Europe. Photo by Maksym Diachenko on Unsplash

Taking Off Shoes in the House

Eastern European traditions surrounding taking off shoes when you enter someone’s house or apartment in Eastern Europe are widespread. Doing so preserves the beauty of parquet and makes it easier for the homeowner to keep floors clean, keeping outside dirt from accumulating indoors.

Many families will have slippers specifically designated for home wear, with a variety of sizes with guests in mind. If you visit someone’s house during a party while in Eastern Europe, you’ll have to add your shoes to the pile by the door—in the case of many guests, it’s good if you bring your own socks or slippers to wear inside the host’s house.

Visiting Graves

The people of Eastern Europe are conscientious about visiting graves during certain times of year and maintaining them. People may wash the gravestone, replace flowers, clear away weeds or dry leaves, and burn fresh candles.

While holidays such as Easter may be a time to visit the gravesites of deceased relatives, a major day dedicated to doing so is All Saints Day.

This holiday, which is a more solemn and less celebratory version of Halloween, is set aside for lighting candles at graves so they burn through the night, creating a beautiful, ethereal scene for those who visit large cemeteries during this night.

Implements for maintaining a grave: brush, sponge, flowers, and candles and matches
Around holidays, people in Eastern Europe traditionally take the time to tidy and beautify the graves of loved ones. Photo 49883208 © Olesia Sarycheva | Dreamstime.com

Women’s Day

International Women’s Day, celebrated on March 8, has long been an important holiday in the region of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet territories. Though this day has spread in popularity globally with the rise of such movements as #MeToo, its significance during Soviet times cannot be overlooked, and the traditions that surrounded it then continue to be practiced today.

Sometimes described as a combination between St. Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day (though both of these holidays are now observed in Eastern Europe as well), it’s typically a day where men show their appreciation for the women in their lives—mothers, sisters, friends, or colleagues—by bringing them flowers or other gifts.

Women also congratulate each other on this day in solidarity and sisterhood.

A man and a boy hide flowers behind their back, ready to present to a woman and a girl for the tradition of International Women's Day
Women often receive flowers for International Women’s Day in Eastern Europe. Photo 105258323 © Vadimgozhda | Dreamstime.com

Folk Song, Dance, and Crafts

What would Eastern Europe be without its folk culture? It’s colorful, steeped in tradition, and is expressed in unique ways in every country of the region. From beautiful folk costumes worn by song and dance troupes who keep alive the music and performance practices of their ancestors to folk crafts that reflect regional heritage, the folk culture of Eastern Europe is rich and lively.

Even better, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, there was a resurgence in the interest in folk culture in these countries, and now that culture is readily accessible even to visitors in the form of concerts, open-air museums that demonstrate a past way of life, souvenirs depicting folk motifs or reflecting treasured techniques, folk fairs, and demonstrations for groups.

What are some examples of folk culture from Eastern Europe? Consider Hungarian embroidery, the haunting polyphonic singing from the Baltics, Polish papercutting, or various pottery traditions.

Name Days

In the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox religions, name days are days of the calendar associated with particular names—these are sometimes, but not always, associated with saints, and multiple names may occupy a single day of the calendar.

While similar to a birthday, a person may simply recognize when their name day falls during the year rather than celebrate it in any meaningful way; in other cases, the name day may be more important than the person’s birthday.

Each country has its own name day calendar, and these may be used by parents to choose a traditional or religiously meaningful name upon the birth of a child.

Summerhouses

Many people in Eastern Europe make a habit of escaping to the countryside during the summers to make the most of the warm weather, long days, and growing season—they may spend time tending a garden or taking walks in nature. Those who own rural cottages may escape there for the summer months or visit only on weekends.

An alternative to having their own summerhouse (also known as a dacha in Russian) is renting one or spending time with relatives, such as a granny, who live in the village. In those countries with a coastline, families may also flock to the seaside, booking months in advance to secure a spot where they can make the most of summer.

A teapot, teacups, and yellow flowers are arranged on an outdoor table
Days spent in the summerhouse or dacha are associated with relaxation, gardening, and being close to nature. Photo 33169198 © Vbmark | Dreamstime.com

Pagan Traditions

The countries of Eastern Europe uphold pagan traditions and celebrate holidays that predate Christianity. Some of these traditions have been Christianized and incorporated into Catholic or Orthodox customs, while others maintain their ancient spirit in sometimes wild, but always wonderful, ways.

For example, the summer solstice is celebrated as the longest day of the year, with people jumping over bonfires and preserving myths about mystical plants that can only be found on this night.

Carnival, or Shrovetide/Mardi Gras, Eastern European traditions are also expressions of a pagan background: parades of masked characters, effigies representing spring and winter, and symbols of the sun and fertility are integral to these celebrations.

An outstretched hand wearing a flower wreath as a bracelet
Herb markets, making flower wreaths, and other pagan traditions are alive and well in Eastern Europe. Photo by Victoria Strukovskaya on Unsplash

Being Close to Nature

Many people in Eastern Europe appreciate being close to nature. Unlike the US, where air conditioning is ubiquitous and cars are often the only option for transportation, people in Eastern Europe widely use only windows for ventilation in their homes and public transportation to get around, so even city dwellers are more exposed to the elements.

Time spent outside is cherished, even when it is cold or snowy, and many families make sure to take advantage of what nature has to offer seasonally by foraging for mushrooms, picking berries, or collecting nuts in the forest.

Whatever the weather, you’ll see people enjoying riverside promenades, enjoying outdoor activities such as cycling and running, and taking advantage of parks and green spaces. People may also go swimming in lakes within the city limits or take weekend hiking trips in nature reserves close to home.

Hospitality Towards Guests

Eastern Europeans are typically excellent hosts, making sure that their guests are well-fed and their glass is always full. You may get to try handmade local dishes or the host’s favorite alcoholic beverage. Your host will get the most comfortable chair and may even give up a bed if you’re staying overnight. Hospitality in Eastern Europe is about making the guest feel comfortable, welcome, and honored.

As a guest, it’s polite to bring a bottle of wine, some contribution of food, or flowers for the host. But the most important thing is to enjoy the attention you’re given as a guest because your host will enjoy giving just as much.

One very old way to welcome guests in Eastern Europe is by offering bread and salt often accompanied by vodka. Often, the bread is a round, possibly decorated loaf, and the salt is offered in an ornamental dish or placed into a divot into the top of the bread. This welcoming ritual is depicted in folk art throughout the region, and while it may not be used as often today to greet guests, the ritual may still be practiced for ceremonial occasions, during folk events, or at weddings.

A woman serves bread with salt and vodka on a tray decorated with flowers
Serving bread and salt, often with vodka, is an old Eastern European tradition. Photo 173599344 © Aurimas Skirmantas | Dreamstime.com

Foraging for Amber on the Baltic Coast

Baltic amber is the fossilized resin of trees that is one of the Baltic Sea’s most treasured gifts. After a storm, it can wash up onto the shore in tiny nuggets. People who live along the Baltic coast know when and how to look for these golden stone-like pieces of Earth’s history.

While it is rare to find the larger pieces found in jewelry, the joy of finding even small grains of amber can be a joy—and a very special memento of a happy summer, an enjoyable vacation, or time with a loved one.

a woman in a yellow sweater hunts for Baltic amber on a beach
Though only possible when the conditions are right, it’s still possible to find small pieces of amber on the Baltic coast. Photo 6962423 / Amber © Nesjerry | Dreamstime.com

Giving Flowers

The people of Eastern Europe love flowers and love giving flowers. It isn’t uncommon to see people walking down the street, a freshly chosen bouquet in their hand, on their way to meet a friend or relative. Flowers are widely given on birthdays and for other celebrations, and restaurants often keep containers where groups of celebrants can keep the flowers they have brought for the evening’s person of honor. This beautiful, meaningful, and cheerful tradition also makes it easy for guests to a country to know what to present friends or hosts—you can never go wrong with flowers.

A colorful flower bouquet seen from above
A lovely bouquet of flowers is always a great choice when visiting someone at their home. Photo by Niklas Ohlrogge on Unsplash

How to Incorporate Eastern European Traditions into Your Own Life

One of the most beautiful aspects of learning about a different culture is taking away those things that you appreciate and incorporating them into your own life.  Some of the ways you can do so with Eastern European traditions include:

  1. Being a regular customer at your local flower shop. Flowers are always welcome and can serve as a symbol of appreciation or congratulation. A gift of flowers doesn’t have to be an elaborate arrangement. A simple bouquet of fresh, high-quality flowers makes a statement of thoughtfulness and consideration that more permanent gifts don’t always achieve.
  2. Treat your guests like royalty. So what if they think you’re weird when you bring out the house slippers!  Extending the warmth of hospitality to guests will create memories, help strengthen bonds, and make both you and your guest feel good. Simple ways you can show a guest care is by making sure they know where the towels are if they’re staying over, keeping their drinks filled, or having their favorite food available.
  3. Honor the women in your life on International Women’s Day. Doing so could be something as easy as dropping them a text message wishing them a happy day or be more significant, such as setting aside some time to get together. Whether or not International Women’s Day is a holiday they typically celebrate, the acknowledgment will be appreciated.
  4. Discover your community’s group of folk dancers or singers and join them, even if you don’t belong to that culture. You’ll make new friends, get out of the house and possibly some exercise, and learn about a way of life being preserved through folk traditions.
  5. Or pick up a traditional craft—YouTube videos and other resources will teach you the basics. You can easily pick up an egg-dying kit to try your hand at decorating eggs the Eastern European way. You may also want to investigate how to embroider like the Hungarians, create Lithuanian “straw gardens,” or even draw or paint in a traditional style. Your creations may not match the quality of the pros’ at first, but you’ll have discovered a new hobby and introduced into your life an extra element of creativity that makes a neat alternative to binging on social media.
  6. Get closer to nature. Learn about edible or medicinal wild plants or be able to identify mushrooms and trees in your area. Rent a cabin and pretend it’s your very own summer cottage. Tend a garden or grow a tomato plant in your window.

When you visit Eastern Europe, you may notice how practical and down-to-earth many of these traditions are—many are about community, generational continuity, and appreciation for what and who you value. And best of all, you don’t have to be Eastern European yourself to practice these traditions. 

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