Editorial Feature

The European Folk Festivals That Are Still Thriving Today

All together now

Europeans like nothing better than getting together to celebrate, whether it’s a saint’s day, the middle of summer, a crazy horse race or just to enjoy a beer and good company. Here we visit eight of the continent’s oldest - and strangest - folk festivals.

Europe is home to a bewildering array of colorful, vibrant and noisy festivals, where people come together to eat, drink, dance and have fun. Tourists flock from across Europe and the world to take part.

The majority of these folk festivals have their roots in the Christian calendar, which is surprising given that today they are usually more about parties than piety.

One of the oldest and most famous is the Carnival of Venice. Legend has it that it began when people gathered in San Marco Square in 1162 to celebrate victory in battle.

Today, it is known for its ornate masks which were first worn in the 13th century, perhaps to protect the identity of the revellers as normally strict codes of conduct were relaxed. This 1756 painting by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo shows the relaxed and decadent Carnival atmosphere that made it a top tourist destination even then.

The Minuet by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (From the collection of Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya)

A very different type of mask is worn for Carnival celebrations in the Lötschental villages in Switzerland, where men roam the streets ringing bells and wearing furs and monstrous masks like the one below from 1925. The mask wearers are called Tschäggättä, or witches, and their job is to go about scaring people.

Tschäggätä (From the collection of Museum Europaäischer Kulturen, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)

In Granada, Spain, the festival of Corpus Christi takes mask wearing in an altogether bigger direction during La Tarasca, which celebrates the mythical defeat of a dragon by St Martha.

The parade, which has taken place since at least the early 19th century, is led by La Tarasca, a woman wearing a specially commissioned dress. She is followed by ‘giants’ with huge papier-mache heads, like this one inspired by Cervantes' Don Quixote from 2005.

A Cabezudo of Don Quixote at La Tarasca (From the collection of Agencia EFE)

Another saint’s day, Lá Fhéile Pádraig - better known as St Patrick’s day - is unusual because it has broken free of its original location in Ireland and is now celebrated by people all over the world. This is largely thanks to the Irish Diaspora, the emigration of millions of Irish men and women to escape poverty and famine at home and seek their fortunes overseas.

Some of the biggest St Patrick’s Day celebrations take place in the United States, which has long celebrated its "Irishness" with special enthusiasm. This postcard from 1907 shows Ireland and America toasting each other on 17 March alongside the words: “Here’s luck to dear old Ireland, the cradle of all true and loyal hearts.”

Postcard (From the collection of The Strong National Museum of Play)

In Italy, Il Palio is actually two festivals, held on 2 July and 16 August every year in Siena, Italy. They may be named in honor of the Madonna of Provenzano and the Assumption of Mary, but they too have very little to do with Christian observances.

Il Palio is two fiercely competitive sets of horse races, between riders representing their contrades or city wards. This picture shows how the riders compete bareback in brightly colored uniforms. It’s not uncommon for most of the horses to finish riderless at the end of three chaotic laps of the piazza.

The Pailio, 2017 by Mauro Guerrini (From the collection of Consorzio Per La Tutela Del Palio Di Siena) 

In Catalonia, castells require a completely different kind of bravery. Castells are human towers built all across the region on festival days. The earliest known was made in Valls, Spain, in 1712, but the phenomenon quickly spread. It became hugely popular from the 1970s onwards.

A tower like the one pictured below at Vilafranca del Penedès is considered successful if it is built and dismantled in one go. In 2010, UNESCO declared castells a "masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity".

Casteliers at Vilafranca del Penedès, Catalonia, Spain (From the collection of HUMAN)

In Bavaria, Germany, the city of Munich is home to a gathering of one of the largest folk festivals in the world, where different heights are scaled. In a typical year at the Oktoberfest, nearly eight million litres of beer will be drunk.

Strangely, the Oktoberfest also began as a horse racing event, but over the years has morphed into a 16 – 18 day long beer festival and funfair, without a horse in sight. It has been held in its current form since 1810 and now attracts millions of festival goers from around the world.

The famous Life magazine photographer Stan Wayman visited in 1961 and took pictures like this one that perfectly capture the spirit of Oktoberfest past and present.

Oktoberfest by Stan Wayman (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Our calendar of events is completed by a folk festival at a calendar.

We know very little about Stonehenge in England, beyond the fact that it was created 5,500 years ago to serve as a calendar, with the avenue through the stones aligning perfectly with the rising sun, once a year, at the summer solstice.

The Bronze Age rituals that were carried out there are lost forever, but every year people gather there to celebrate the solstice with their own pagan rituals, like this wedding ceremony in 2004.

Pagan Wedding during Winter Solstice at Stonehenge, Wiltshire (From the collection of Historic England)
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