European folk festivals restart as covid-19 ebbs

IN NORMAL YEARS, on Trinity Sunday (eight weeks after Easter), thousands of residents of the Belgian city of Mons chase a huge plastic dragon around the town square until a local, disguised as St George , arrives on horseback and kills him. The procession, known as the Ducasse de Mons or simply Doudou, originated in the 14th century to celebrate the end of a plague epidemic. But for two years, the Doudou has been canceled by a new scourge, as have most carnivals and traditional festivals in Europe.

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This summer, as vaccinations begin to tame covid-19, folk gatherings across the continent come to life. In June, the Swedes held scaled-down versions of their Middle Solstice celebrations. (Unlike the film of the same name, this did not involve throwing old people off the top of the cliffs, although parliament overthrew the prime minister.) In Norway, the Sami, an indigenous Scandinavian people, will hold their annual festival of art and music Riddu Riddu, this time with new additions such as a seminar on sexuality. The village of Goudelin, in Brittany, plans to resume its particular practice in mid-July of leading its horses in a pond and baptizing them.

Many festivals have roots in Christian or pagan rites, such as the big party de Vilafranca in Catalonia at the end of August, in honor of the patron saint of the city, Saint Felix. It’s unclear why its celebration is expected to involve the world’s largest human tower competition. Others have lost their religious ties. Manresa, just up the road from Vilafranca, ended its August procession of holy relics (body parts of saints) decades ago, replacing it with a street carnival involving costumed demons and bonfires fireworks.

Such customs give people a sense of belonging. More prosaically, they bring in tourists. They are also often linked to politics. The Lemko Watra, a festival in July devoted to the music and culture of the Lemko minority in southern Poland, began in the 1980s, when the celebration of ethnic traditions was one of the few types of non- cultural conformism tolerated by the communist regime. Likewise, Soviet Ukraine has retained its summer solstice festivals, called Ivan Kupalo, and oddly shrill folk music. This hypnotic traditional vocal style helped Go_A, a Ukrainian group, to win the second highest number of audience votes this spring at Europe’s largest annual folk gathering: the Eurovision Song Contest.

This article appeared in the Europe section of the paper edition under the title “After the plague, the festivities”

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