Russian festival of Maslenitsa
Russian festival of Maslenitsa [Image: paukrus]
Need an excuse for a party? Celebrate like your ancestors did! You might want to ask guests to sign a waiver, though–these holidays could get way out of hand.

Largely an excuse for binge drinking and gluttony, traditional festivals around the world include everything from fistfights to bonfires to jumping over babies. Here are some of the craziest.


If you have Slavic blood, your ancestors likely celebrated this holiday. Though it has pre-Christian roots as a celebration of spring, today it’s Mardi Gras for the Russian Orthodox Church. Festivities center around pancakes and butter — lots of butter. Plus, there are snowball fights, sleigh rides, and vodka. Depending on the region, there might be burning of effigies or organized fistfights. Oh, and dancing bears.

Feast of Fools

Held at the beginning of the year, this medieval festival was especially popular in France. Its many variations are likely rooted in the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. The chaotic holiday centered on role reversals, such as slaves dressed up as masters or men as women. The Christianized version essentially mocked the church, with townspeople dressing up as bishops or popes and parodies of different rituals. Continuing into the Renaissance, it was eventually banned by the church.


If you’re of Celtic ancestry, Halloween is an excuse to brush up on your Samhain traditions. This ancient harvest festival got tied to All Saints’ Day with the advent of Christianity, becoming All Hallows’ Eve. In Scotland and Ireland, Samhain was a night of drunken revelry, with alcohol perhaps made from the recently harvested grain. Some later Scottish traditions are laid out in Robert Burns’ 1786 poem “Halloween.” What he describes is essentially a party and youthful mating dance, nothing like the American version. The night was associated with the supernatural, with ghosts stalking the land and fairies kidnapping humans. People made bonfires or lit lanterns to scare them away. In Scotland, the lanterns were carved from turnips; today, we use pumpkins. Check Ancestry to see if your relatives came over from Scotland in the mid-19th century; if so, you can thank them for Halloween.

El Salto del Colacho

The Festival of Corpus Christi offers an unusual way to celebrate your Spanish heritage. A major spring feast day in the Catholic Church, it’s typically celebrated with pageants and processions. In Spain, they took things up a notch. In the 17th century, they began incorporating “the devil’s leap,” or baby jumping, into the festivities. A practice that continues to this day, it is meant to guard and cleanse the children of sin. Costumed men representing the devil run and jump over the babies, who lie on mattresses sprinkled with rose petals.

Walpurgis Night

Celebrated in northern Europe and Scandinavia on April 30, this holiday is rooted in pagan festivals celebrating spring and fertility. In Christian times, it became linked to Saint Walburga, an English nun in Germany who was said to cure illnesses and was canonized on May 1. Traditions vary by country. The Swedes sing folk songs, light bonfires, and eat nettle soup. Germans play pranks, wear costumes, and try to keep witches away. In Finland, there are big drunken parties. Part of the holiday’s appeal is that it’s followed by another one — May Day — for nursing the hangover.

—Rebecca Dalzell



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