European harvest festivals

Harvest festivals are annual events held by people of certain region in the time of harvest.

Saint Leopold III
Saint Leopold III

Saint Leopold III (1073 – November 15, 1136) was the Margrave of Austria in period between 1095 and 1136. He is the patron saint of Austria.

Saint Leopold's feast is on the 15th November. In Austria it is the start of the wine season. Many outdoor parties are held. Wine is tasted. Traditional music is performed.

Stift Klosterneuburg
Stift Klosterneuburg

On this day people go on the pilgrimage to the Klosterneuburg Monastery (in German Stift Klosterneuburg). Klosterneuburg is the city of some 25,000 people located on the Danube, just north of Vienna. The monastery is especially famous for its wine Leopolsberg which is for centuries prepared by the vintner monks.

"Fasselrutschen" or "sliding down the cask" is the name of tradition held on the 15th November. Klosterneuburg's wine cellar includes huge 454 hectoliters (12,000 gallons) barrels from 1704. People climb on top of the cask (barrel) and slide down. This is done for good luck.

"Posviceni" is the name of religious harvest festival held in Czech Republic. People thank God for the good harvest and ask him to bless the crops.

Czech tradition called "Obžinky" is held after the harvest. People make wreaths of rye, flowers, straw etc. Local girls put these wreaths on their head. Then they go to the person owning the land. They put a wreath on his head. The wreath is kept in a special place until the next harvest. What follows is the party with dancing.

All kind of beliefs concerning harvest existed in Czech Republic. Before the harvest people used to roll on the ground. They did it as they used to believe that the soil gives them strength to work for hours.

The second belief was that there is a relation between number of rolls people make and the number of grain bundles collected during harvest.

For Czech peasants the last bundle collected in the harvest had magical powers. It could heal and bring fertility, both for humans and animals. Let's explain. Part of this bundle was given to the bride and groom. After the wedding it was placed on the bride's bed.

It supposed to ensure the safe birth of her first baby. Part of the bundle put in the place where the poultry laid their eggs supposed to ensure more eggs.

The "boroda" or beard is a bundle of wheat left on the field after the harvest was finished. The boroda also included ribbon and straw cord. Boroda should give enough food for the field mice and prevent them to eat the grain placed in peasant's barns.

There used to be something similar to the boroda. It combined the bundle of wheat and some flowers. Everything was tied with some ribbon. This was called "dido" or "grandfather" and served as the decoration, some sort of lucky charm. It stayed in the home until after Christmas.

In other parts of the country people dressed the bundle in female clothes and called it "baba" or "old lady".

French region of Bourgogne or Burgundy is famous for great wines. On the Saint Vincent's day, which is on the 22nd January, local people organize big parades. People carry the statue of the saint. Local wine producers are in the parade too.

The most famous parades are in villages of Cote-des-Nuits and Cote-de-Beaune. These parades have their Templar knights too. They are members of the "Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin".

Parts of Europe famous for their sheep and cows organize festivals dedicated to them. In Switzerland cows are decorated with flowers. They also wear big cow bells. These parades are known as the Alpabzug or Désalpe. One of the most famous parades is the one in Saint-Cergue which is located in the Swiss canton of Vaud.

There are competitions where people bring the biggest pieces of vegetable they managed to cultivate. The Swiss competition for the biggest pumpkin is held each October in the municipality of Seegräben (canton of Zurich). In 2012 Beni Maier brought the pumpkin weighing 768.5 kilograms. The European pumpkin championship is held in Ludwigsburg, Germany.

The deceased had their role in German harvest festivals. In the past German peasants used to break the first pieces of straw brought to the barn with the words "this is the food meant for the dead".

Oktoberfest in Munich

The most famous event in Germany dedicated to beer is the Oktoberfest in Munich. It is organized in the late September and early October. In 2012 it will be held between the 22nd of September and 7th of October. It is traditionally opened at noon when the Munich's mayor taps the first barrel. Each year some 6 million people attend the festival.

First Octoberfest was held between the 12th and 17th October, 1810 to honour the wedding of Prince Ludwig I of Bavaria and Princess Therese of Sachsen-Hildburghausen. Until 1936 the event included horse racing.

Octoberfest takes place on the "Theresienwiese" or "die Wiesn" ("meadow" in the dialect spoken in Bavaria). Beer drank at this festival is brewed especially for the occasion.


People drink it from a tankard called "Maßkrug" (Masskrug) or just "Maß" (Mass). Only six local breweries serve beer at the festival - Löwenbräu, Spaten, Augustiner, Hofbräu, Paulaner and Hacker-Pschorr.

Weisswrust (white sausage)

During Octoberfest people gather in "Bierzelte" (beer tents). Each of these tents has place for 3,000-10,000 people. The largest of them is the Winzerer Fähndl - Paulaner tent. Only in the Augustiner tent you can get beer from a wooden barrel. Others serve beer from steel barrels.

Seven most famous tents are set in the line forming so called “Wirtsbudenstrasse”. There are also six smaller tens set by the publicans from Munich. These tents are called “Wirtezelte”.

It interesting to mention that there is one tent serving only wine. Apart from beer and some wine visitors consume large quantities of traditional Bavarian "Weisswurst" (white sausage), "hendl" (roasted chicken), roasted ox tails etc.

The "Erntedanktag" ("Harvest Thanksgiving day") is German harvest festival held on the first Sunday in October. It is celebrated in churches but also in many other places. People eat fattened up chicken called "Masthühnchen".

Erntekrone (harvest crown)

A "harvest crown" or "Erntekrone" is made of grain ears, flowers and fruit. People carry the crown to local church.

On the Erntedanktag people also have so called "Frühschoppen". It is a brunch or meal eaten before lunch. People get together, discuss different topics. Usually there is a also a music band performing during such events.

From mid-September to early October all across Germany there are many thanksgiving parades. Such a parade includes decorated floats, groups of people in traditional clothes and marching bands. The biggest thanksgiving parades are those in Fürth (Bavaria), Clarholz (North Rhine-Westphalia) and Heidenheim (Rhineland-Palatinate).

There is a harvest festival which is celebrated all over Europe in more or less same way. It is the Feast of Saint Martin of Tours or just "Martinmas". It is held on the 11th November. This feast is honouring Saint Martin of Tours (Sanctus Martinus Turonensis).

Saint Martin of Tours (photo by Eva K.)
Saint Martin of Tours

There is a legend about him. He was chosen as the bishop of Tours, France. He believed that he did not deserve the honour. So, he hid in a barn. But he was discovered by a honking goose.

From that day on goose became traditional food eaten on the Saint Martin Day. In Bavaria the goose is stuffed with mixture of chopped apples, prunes, breadcrumbs, cinnamon and sugar. Little bit of brandy is poured into the mixture too.

There are numerous other traditions. Paper lantern processions are held in Austria, Ireland, Flanders, southern and northwestern parts of the Netherlands and in parts of Germany with Catholic majority. Nowadays such parades are held by Protestants in Germany and the Netherlands despite the fact that they do not have saints.

In Croatia people believe that on that day the grape juice turns into wine. In Malta children are getting a bag full of fruit - nuts, hazelnuts, oranges and tangerines.

In Portugal Saint Martin is honoured by having parties called "magustos". People gather and eat roasted chestnuts and drink wine, "jeropiga" (drink made of grape must and firewater) and "aguapé" (watered-down wine).

There is yet another story about Saint Martin of Tours. Saint Martin cut off half of his cloak to help a beggar. After some time he met the second beggar and gave him what was remain of his cloak.

Without the cloak the Saint was freezing. But suddenly the sun shone strongly and the frost on his clothes melted away. That is why the Portuguese call the 11th November "Verão de São Martinho" (Saint Martin's Summer).

Azeitão cheese
Azeitão cheese

In the Portuguese town of Palmela there is a festival called "Festa das Vindimas". The place is famous for its great wines and Azeitão cheese.

Portuguese archipelago of Madeira is the place with numerous harvest festivals. Probably the most famous is the Flower Festival (Festa da Flor) in the city of Funchal. Funchal is the biggest city and the capital of Portugal's Autonomous Region of Madeira. The Flower festival is held between the 9th and 15th of May.

Flower Festival in Funchal, Portugal<br />
Flower Festival in Funchal, Portugal

The most important event of the festival is the big parade with big flower floats. Over 1,000 people participate in the parade. People can also enjoy in flower carpets, flowers show and different music events. There is a children flower parade from the Avenida Arriaga to the Town Hall Square. Children there use flowers to make the „Wall of hope“ as a wish for the better, more peaceful world.

Madeira is famous for its wine. Local wine growers organize the Madeira Wine Festival held in Funchal and the village of Câmara de Lobos. This event, held in September, includes grapes picking and various other wine related traditions.

Some other harvest festival in Madeira are Lemon Festival (Festa do Limão) in Ilha – Santana, Onion Festival (Festa da Cebola) in Caniço, Cherry Festival (Festa da Cereja) in Câmara de Lobos, Bananas Festival (Festa da Banana) in Madalena do Mar and Chestnut Festival (Festa da Castanha) in Curral das Freiras.

"Festa dell'Uva" (Festival of grapes) is held in a town of Impruneta located in the beautiful Italian province of Tuscany. It has been organized each September since 1926.

Festa dell'Uva in Impruneta, Italy
Festa dell'Uva in Impruneta, Italy

It is a festival of grapes and wine. The festival is opened in a spectacular way. There are big floats pulled by tractors, dancers in thematic costumes, acrobats on stilts fireworks etc. Lot of food, like for example ham, roasting chicken and pigs, is prepared. The festival is also known for "brigidini". The brigidini are anise flavoured cookies.

Brigadini cookies

In Great Britain harvest festivals are held after cutting of wheat and picking of apples. People exhibit their fruit, vegetable and bread. Everything is nicely decorated.

Local peasants sometimes bring a plough to the church. There it is blessed as kind of help for the good harvest next year. People use wheat stalks to make a figure called "corn dolly". It is kept until the Spring. There is an old belief that the corn spirit lives in the wheat.

Corn dollies
Corn dollies

Some people made a special bread shaped as a wheat sheaf. The flour for this bread is made of grain that was harvested last. This bread is being decorated and carried to local church.

There is a special parade for all those employed at London markets. Those people are called the pearly kings and queens.

On the 29th of September English people celebrate the St. Michael's Mass or Michaelmas. Big fairs, horse races are held. The colour of these festivals is gold - the colour of wheat, harvest in general.

Great Britain is a maritime country. So, there are also some festivals honouring people who return from the deep-sea fishing.

The fairs are where the harvest is celebrated in Ireland. People traditionally drink "Poteen" which is made of potatoes.

Some of Irish harvest festival have ancient Celtic origin. "Lughnasadh" is organized on the 1st and 2nd August. Lugh is the Celtic Sun God. The festival is also known as "Lammas" ("loaf Mass"), First Harvest, Bread Festival, August Eve and Elembiuos.

Reaping of corn and symbols related to it are the most important. According to an old belief first grain is harvested during the festival. The festival is celebrating bread as basic food.

Timoleague (in Irish Tigh Molaige – „House of Molaga“) is a village in the south of Ireland. It is located 48 kilometres from Cork. Every August people of this village organize the Timoleague Harvest Festival. It lasts for 10 days. It includes concerts and various events like building of scarecrow, pillow fighting, water tennis and pig racing.

Irish harvest festivals Mabon and Samhain are held on the Autumnal Equinox. These festivals mark the end of harvest activities.