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European Rituals of Spring

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Europeans have developed many festivals for driving winter away. And, danged if they don’t all work, because every year, for hundreds of years, spring has followed the holding of spring celebrations.

The emergence of the crocus heralds the approach of spring and the rabbits that come to eat the flowers.

The emergence of the crocus heralds the approach of spring and the rabbits that come to eat the flowers.

The Drowning of Marzanna

Most Slavic people have a wicked goddess of plague, death, and winter. In Poland she is known as Marzanna, and the Poles know you can’t have someone like that hanging about.

So, on March 21, to “encourage the timely arrival of spring and ensure a good harvest [Slavic people] partake in an old-fashioned witch-burning, followed by a drowning . . .” (inyourpocket.com). So, it seems Polish folk are a cautious bunch taking a belt-and-braces approach to bumping off a malevolent force.

In the Middle Ages, children would parade the Marzanna effigy around the community dipping it into water barrels and horse troughs. As night fell, everybody would gather and set the witch on fire before tossing her into a river.

The scorched corpse would then be pulled out of the water and paraded around town by singing and dancing girls.

Bye, bye winter.

Marzanna gets dunked.

Marzanna gets dunked.

The Bloemencorso Bollenstreek (Flower Parade in Bollenstreek)

The Dutch welcome spring with a much more upbeat festival; it’s all about daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, and other flowers. It’s not about banishing winter, it’s about celebrating spring.

Every year, 1,500 volunteers attach millions of flowers to floats that are then driven through villages between Noordwijk to Haarlem, a distance of about 42 km (26 miles). Lining the route is a crowd of about a million people from all around the world.

Unlike many of the festivals dealt with here, the Bloemencorso Bollenstreek dates back only to the 1940s. Holland was emerging from the strangling grip of Nazi occupation and the people needed something to lift their spirits.

It started modestly with people carrying flower garlands and pushing decorated handcarts. It has grown to be a magnificent display of the products of the Dutch bulb industry in the Bollenstreek district.

The Explosion of the Böögg

The people of Zürich, Switzerland try to nudge the arrival of spring along by blowing up a snowman. Called the Böögg (meaning bogeyman), the snowman sits on top of a 30-foot pile of wood, and is not made of snow.

The figure is made of fabric and stuffed with straw and its head contains explosives. On the third Monday in April, there is a big parade and then the Böögg is set on fire. When the flames reach the head, kaboom! winter is blown away.

The length of time it takes for the explosion to occur is said to be a predictor of what kind of summer will follow. Its forecasting record is no doubt as accurate as hanging a piece of seaweed outside the front door.

Its roots are in a festival called Sechseläuten, meaning the six o’clock bell ringing which marked the time when the workday switched from winter hours to summer hours. But, the Böögg did not come to the party until early in the 20th century.

The Furry Dance

In Cornwall, England the springtime celebration is less incendiary than Switzerland’s. In the town of Helston people start a processional dance in the streets at 7 a.m on or around May 8.

There’s a fanciful story about the origin of the dance that involves Satan and St. Michael. The Devil was carrying a large rock with which he planned to block the gates to Hell. He got into an epic with St. Michael, lost, and dropped his boulder. It landed in a place that became known as Hell-Stone.

The people were so overjoyed at St. Michael’s victory that they started dancing in the streets. There are competing narratives, but it’s most likely the festival began in pagan times and was held to mark the start of spring.

Various dances take place during the day, with the main one at noon. Ladies are required to wear formal gowns and their partners have to wear tail suits and top hats. This dance is by invitation only.

The final dance of the day starts at 5 p.m. and is open to anyone who wants to join in. By the end of this dance everybody in Helston must be utterly sick of the repetitive tune that accompanies the dancers.

Obby Oss

Forty miles north of Helston, the people of Padstow celebrate the ancient Celtic festival of Beltane that welcomes the start of summer. Beltane is honoured around the world and marks the return of fertility to the soil.

The Cornwall Guide says that on or about May 1 “Padstow’s narrow streets and ancient harbour are extravagantly decorated with flowers, flags and greenery, the focus of which is a tall and colourful May Pole.”

There are teams of marching accordion players, drums and dancers. One member of each team is dressed up as a stylized horse (Oss). The person in the Oss costume wears a scary mask and chases maidens.

There used to be only one Obby Oss and its appearance was taken as an excuse for ribald and licentious behaviour. To counter this, the temperance movement fielded a Blue Obby Oss to preach the benefits of abstinence. It didn’t work and now the Old Obby Oss and the Blue Obby Os cavort through Padstow on different routes.

But all roads lead, eventually, to The Shipwrights Pub, The Golden Lion Pub, or The Old Custom House where revellers can toast the failure of the temperance movement.

The Obby Oss.

The Obby Oss.

Bonus Factoids

  • Burning winter snowmen isn’t an exclusively Swiss enterprise. Members of the Unicorn Hunter’s Club at Lake Superior State University, in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan burn a snowman every March 20.
  • The citizens of Xenica, Bosnia mark the arrival of spring with scrambled eggs, 1,500 of them. The festival harks back to pagan rites connecting spring with the beginning of new life.
  • The Spanish don’t mess about with one-day galas; Las Fallas in València goes on from March 1 to 18. It started out in the Middle Ages when carpenters burned off-cuts accumulated over the winter as a celebration of the arrival of spring.
Tiptoe through the tulips.

Tiptoe through the tulips.

Sources

  • “In Switzerland, an Exploding Snowman Helps Predict Spring Think Groundhog Day—but with Fire.” Jennifer Nalewicki, Smithsonian Magazine, April 12, 2016.
  • “The Helston Furry Dance.” John Ravenscroft, time-travel-britain.com, 2005.
  • “Obby Oss Festival.” Cornwalls.co.uk, undated.
  • “Drowning Marzanna – Winter’s Witch.” Inyourpocket.com, March 19, 2021.
  • “Bloemencorso Bollenstreek.” Holland.com, undated.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 27, 2021:

I once saw a Maypole in a city in Germany. These are all interesting rituals you listed. I rather like the Dutch celebrations with flowers.

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