At a glance: The changing of the seasons
The changing of seasons is always something special. They mark the dawn of a new era and, in many cultures, they’re also marked by celebrations that people look forward to all year long. We'll explain why people dance in spring, how people celebrate Thanksgiving — from the United States all the way to Japan — and much more.
May means it’s time to dance!
The observance of ‘May Day’ on May 1 in Europe likely dates back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who held agricultural festivals to mark the beginning of spring. Some of these celebrations are still held to this day to guarantee fertility for the land and all its inhabitants, with symbols like flower garlands and dancing around a decorated ‘maypole’.
In parts of Northern Europe and Scandinavia, it’s also traditional for people to dance on the night of April 30 into the morning of May 1 in a celebration called Walpurgis Night (Walpurgisnacht). The origins of this festival come from a fusion of pagan fertility rites and the Christian legend of St. Walburga.
In some regions of Germany, the holiday often feels like a ‘second Halloween,’ as people tend to dress up as witches, perform witch dances and host loud bonfires to drive evil spirits away, as St. Walburga was said to have healed witches’ spells.
Many people also associate Walpurgis Night with witches because of an iconic scene in Goethe’s ‘Faust’ in which the title character is taken to a wild satanic ritual in the Harz Mountains in Central Germany where he sees demons and witches engaging in erotic dancing.
The summer solstice: From Midsummer’s Eve to White Nights
In many countries, the summer solstice is considered to be a joyous celebration as it marks the official beginning of summer.
In some regions like Scandinavia and the Baltic countries, this festival (often called Midsummer’s Eve or Midsommar) is the most important one of the year after Christmas. Depending on the region, it’s celebrated on a Friday or Saturday between June 19 and June 25, as family, friends and neighbors gather around a traditional maypole or bonfire.
Each country has its own traditions and rites. In places like Denmark and Latvia, it’s customary to wear wildflower crowns and dance around a large fire. In Spain, the celebration is called ‘Saint John’s Night’ (‘La noche de San Juan’) and it falls on the night of June 23. Beaches along the Mediterranean are dotted with bonfires (and skinny dippers…!) into the morning to welcome the summer solstice.
St. Petersburg is also definitely worth a visit during the summer solstice, as the sun only grazes the horizon and never really sets. Hence the name behind their ‘White Night’ festivals, where one can find museums and restaurants open late into the night, well beyond normal working hours. Highlights include the fireworks and open-air concert that take place around this time of year too.
Fall pumpkins to Thanksgiving
Autumn is all about pumpkins. They can be hollowed out and illuminated with tea lights to make jack-o-lanterns for Halloween, as well as placed elegantly on the Thanksgiving dinner table. Yet what’s the actual story behind these festivities?
Halloween is said to have come out of the medieval Ireland holiday called ‘Samhain,’ which later coincided on November 1 with the Christian holiday ‘All Saints Day’, a traditional feast of the dead. Over time, the night prior (October 31) became known as ‘All Hallow’s Eve,’ which was later shortened to ‘Halloween.’
Irish immigrants brought Halloween customs with them to the United States, where children go from door-to-door in disguise and demand sweets with the slogan ‘Trick or Treat’, and people dress up in scary costumes for Halloween parties – a tradition that started spreading to Europe as well in the 1990s.
The United States is also where Thanksgiving Day is celebrated; it’s an official bank holiday that’s often considered to be just as important as Christmas. On the fourth Thursday of November, families gather ‘round for a large turkey dinner that’s said to commemorate a feast that was believed to have been held between English colonists (Pilgrims) and Native Americans. Canada also celebrates Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October, often with a large feast as well. However, given the violent events that transpired as colonists took over what’s now known as North America, many people refute the common Thanksgiving narrative and treat it as a day of mourning.
Around the same time, Japan also celebrates a holiday called Labor Thanksgiving Day (勤労感謝の日, Kinrō Kansha no Hi), which takes after an ancient harvest festival Niiname-sai (新嘗祭, Shinjō-sai) to celebrate a year’s worth of hard work. After World War II, Labor Thanksgiving Day was established as a modern public holiday, typically held on November 23 to mark workers' rights by giving them the day off.
On to the New Year!
The start of the New Year is celebrated in just about every culture. However, as with most traditions we’ve seen already, they differ from region to region...
In France and in many other parts of the world, champagne is a must on New Year's Eve, as people in places like the United States search for someone to kiss at midnight. Speaking of snogging, in Southern Europe, it’s customary to wear red underwear on New Year’s Eve for good luck in love (and life) in the New Year.
In Spain they eat one grape for each of the 12 strokes of the clock at midnight and only those who make it through all 12 grapes in time (without choking!) will be granted good fortune for the year ahead. Another fruit that makes an appearance in New Years traditions are apples. Czechs read their fate for the coming year by cutting one in half. If the seeds in the core form a star, that’s good news, yet quite the opposite if they form a cross...
We could go on and on with the list of countries with their traditions — including those who celebrate the New Year on a day other than January 1, like the Lunar New Year, Jewish New Year, Cambodian New Year and more. That said, what most cultures have in common are good luck traditions for the year ahead, at whatever time of year that might be.
The festive changing of the seasons
The changing of time and seasons has always fascinated us humans. Thanks to modern science we can now explain the relationships in nature differently or much more precisely. Yet it’s all the more incredible that some customs have not only lasted for centuries but also continue to be passed on to next generations.