Traditions in Eastern Europe are rich, and holiday traditions—experienced at only certain times of year—are an important insight into local and regional culture.
Holiday traditions in Eastern Europe can be experienced throughout the year in the countries of Eastern, Central, Southeastern, and Northeastern Europe or the Baltics. They range from Christian holidays to pagan holidays to secular and commercial holidays. How people celebrate differs slightly from country to country and may also differ between Christian and other religious belief systems.
Let’s take a look at major holiday traditions in Eastern Europe to see how important days are celebrated.
January 1, New Year’s Day, is typically a day off for people in the countries of Eastern Europe. It’s a day to recover from New Year’s Eve or to visit with family.
Old New Year
The Old New Year or Orthodox New Year follows the Julian calendar, the calendar that Eastern Orthodox Christians follow to celebrate their religious holidays. Old New Year takes place on January 14.
In many cases, the Old New Year is a more subdued or miniature celebration compared to those that take place on January 1.
Old New Year may be celebrated in Russia, Serbia, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia.
Epiphany, a January holiday, celebrates the baptism of Christ. Epiphany in Eastern Europe is often associated with people taking an icy bath in a lake. In northern parts of Eastern Europe, if the water is frozen, a hole is cut in the ice so that people can take a dip. Now that the health benefits of an ice-water bath have become more widely known, this Eastern European tradition may be even more popular than in the past!
Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Epiphany later than their Western counterparts due to the difference in calendars. The Roman Catholic calendar marks Epiphany as January 6, while the Orthodox one observes it on January 19.
In some holiday traditions of Eastern Europe, Epiphany is called Three Kings Day and is accompanied by a procession, a cross is thrown into a body of water, or the initials of the three magis are written on doors to bless a household.
Valentine’s Day is not as widely celebrated in Eastern Europe as it is in the West. However, increasingly more often, hotels, spas, and restaurants offer Valentine’s Day specials, both to appeal to local clientele and visitors. Valentine’s Day menus and package deals are often available for this day, especially for the most popular restaurants and other experiences.
Carnival, Fat Tuesday, or Shrove Tuesday
The holiday traditions in Eastern Europe for Carnival date back to pagan times. While the Christian aspect of the holiday indicates it’s the start of Lent, the customary fasting period between Ash Wednesday and Easter, the holiday is also a way to welcome spring and send winter packing.
Celebrants in Eastern Europe often mark carnival with masks or costumes, effigies, and pancakes as a symbol of the sun. In fact, Carnival is often called Pancake Day in some traditions!
Carnival is called by various names in the countries of Eastern Europe, including:
- Uzgavenes in Lithuania
- Maslenitsa in Russia
- Karneval, Maškare, or Fašnik in Croatia
- Masopust in the Czech Republic
- Busójárás in Hungary
- Pust in Slovenia
Some countries of Eastern Europe celebrate March 1 as a way to welcome spring. This holiday tradition of Eastern Europe dates back generations and involves gifting a small token to others—often made of red and white thread. These were symbols of protection and good fortune—so particular and ancient that they’ve been inscribed into UNESCO’s list of intangible heritage.
The name of the day is different depending upon the country, and traditions vary slightly, though the gifting or wearing of the dual-colored token is common:
- Baba Marta in Bulgaria and North Macedonia
- Mărțișor in Romania
- Dita e Verës in Albania
International Women’s Day
After #MeToo, International Women’s Day (March 8) become more widely known and celebrated in the West. But prior to that, the countries of Eastern Europe had been celebrating International Women’s Day devotedly for decades.
Holiday traditions in Eastern Europe for International Women’s Day has been typically marked by men gifting the women in their life with flowers or small gifts. Women also congratulate each other on this day as a mark of appreciation and gratitude.
Mother’s and Father’s Day
Mother’s and Father’s Day holiday traditions in Eastern Europe typically mean spending time with family. That may mean enjoying a meal at a restaurant, enjoying a family outing, or having an extended-family get-together.
Independence Day holiday traditions in Eastern Europe include displays of the flag, possibly fireworks or military parades, and speeches.
Easter is one of the most important holidays in Eastern Europe—sometimes considered more important than even Christmas. Easter holiday traditions in Eastern Europe reflect this importance, combining both Christian and pagan elements for a celebration of spring like no other.
Celebrations vary according to country as well as whether the celebrant is used to following Catholic, Orthodox, or other Christian traditions. However, some essential Eastern European Easter traditions are found across cultures, such as:
- Decorating Easter eggs: Each country has its own way of decorating eggs for Easter, with meaning and symbolism imbued into each egg.
- Easter egg game-playing: Often, games are played with boiled and decorated eggs.
- Easter palms: In many traditions, pussy willows or other types of Easter “palms” are used for Easter, sometimes blessed at church on Palm Sunday.
- Easter basket: Some people in Eastern Europe take a basket full of Easter foods and eggs to get blessed by the priest.
- Easter meal: Easter is typically celebrated with a family meal with traditional foods.
- Easter markets: Some cities host Easter markets where all things related to Easter can be purchased.
Specific Easter Holiday Traditions in Eastern Europe
- Easter in Lithuania
- Easter in Latvia
- Easter in Estonia
- Easter in Poland
- Easter in Ukraine
- Easter in the Baltics
Celebrating the height of summer is especially important in the countries of Eastern Europe that have long winters and short summers. In the northern latitudes, Midsummer may mean the sun never sets at all. This pagan holiday is connected with superstitions and legends, and people may celebrate by staying up all night, sometimes jumping over bonfires as their ancestors did for this day.
Though Midsummer Day was originally a pagan celebration of the summer solstice, it is also associated with John the Baptist.
All Saints Day
All Saints Day in Eastern Europe is celebrated in lieu of Halloween. Holiday traditions in Eastern Europe surrounding this day involve cleaning the gravesites of family members and relatives, visiting graves, and lighting candles that burn through the night.
Visiting cemeteries in the countries of Eastern Europe on this night is a memorable experience. Particularly for those cemeteries in major cities that are home to the tombs of historical figures, the candles are beacons in the dark—in the All Saints Day tradition—for the departed souls, who can cross over into the world of the living on one night of the year.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day
In the holiday traditions of Eastern Europe, Christmas Eve is often considered more important than Christmas Day. This night has customarily been surrounded by superstition and rituals.
However, both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are a time for family gathering. The Christmas tree—or what in some cultures is thought of as the New Year’s Tree—may have a prominent place in the home.
It should be noted that, while Western branches of Christianity celebrate Christmas on December 25, those who follow Eastern Orthodoxy will celebrate Christmas on January 7 due to the difference in church calendars.
Each country has its own version of Santa Claus or Father Christmas and favorite holiday foods. Christmas markets also go up in capitals and other important cities.
Specific Christmas Holiday Traditions in Eastern Europe
Eastern Europe’s Christmas markets are a great place for visitors to listen to traditional music, meet the local Santa Claus, and eat traditional Christmas foods.
- Best Christmas Markets in Hungary
- Best Christmas Markets in Poland
- The Czech Republic’s Best Christmas Markets
- Christmas Markets in Tallinn and Estonia
- Christmas Markets in Riga
- Christmas Markets in Vilnius
New Year’s Eve
New Year’s Eve holiday traditions in Eastern Europe are typical to many countries’ traditions and include attending parties, gathering in main squares to ring in the new year at midnight, and fireworks.
Eastern Europe’s holiday traditions may, in part, be similar to traditions in your own country, or they may be vastly different. However, many of the customs, superstitions, and practices relating to holidays are centuries old, reflecting a rich cultural landscape. That’s just one of the facts about Eastern Europe!
One of the best ways of learning about holiday traditions in Eastern Europe is visiting during times of year when celebrations are taking place–whether you visit the Mohacs area of Hungary to see the Carnival celebrations there or do a multi-city tour to see Christmas markets.
People in these countries will often be happy to talk to you about their cultural traditions and be glad to share them with visitors. Whether it’s a favorite food, a holiday-related souvenir, or a simple ritual, you may then incorporate some of these holiday traditions into your own yearly celebrations.