Weird, Wild, and Wonderful. Here are the Most Outrageous Festivals in the World.
I’ve been thinking about festivals lately. Festivals are a strange thing. They can start as a goofy way for a few people to kill time and grow over the years until they are major, multiple-day events drawing crowds from all over the world. The best festivals are loved and adored by the locals, yet make no sense to anyone visiting from another area. Some of the most Outrageous Festivals in the world have deep roots in tradition and lore. This is what makes them special, and if you’re lucky enough to participate in one, even as an outsider, you’ve had the experience of a lifetime.
Here are the most outrageous festivals in the world….
La Tomatina – Spain
Tens of thousands of people flock to the Valencian Town of Buñol, Spain, on the last Wednesday of August to participate in a festival known as La Tomatina. If you think that sounds like it might have something to do with tomatoes, you are correct. Over 300,000 pounds of tomatoes, to be precise!
The tomatoes are shipped into the Plaza del Pueblo at the center of the town. When the cannon sounds, it’s every man for himself as one of the world’s biggest food fights begins. Festival goers rush toward the tomatoes and begin lobbing them at each other, resulting in a huge red mess.
If it sounds like it could be dangerous, have no fear. There are six rules that keep it safe:
- Do not throw bottles or hard objects.
- Do not tear or throw tee-shirts.
- Squash tomatoes before throwing them to avoid hurting others.
- Keep a safe distance from trucks.
- Stop throwing tomatoes after the second starter pistol shot.
- Follow the directions of security staff.
Also, I’d recommend wearing something to protect your eyes, such as swimming goggles or mask.
According to Wikipedia, the festival has its roots in a 1945 altercation. Some young boys decided to take part in a “Giants and Big-Heads” parade. The big head of one participant’s costume fell off, at which point he flew into a fit of rage and began hitting everything in his path. Pandemonium broke loose and a market stall of vegetables fell victim to the fury of the crowd as people began pelting each other with tomatoes. It continued until the local forces ended the battle.
The following year, some young people engaged in a pre-planned quarrel and brought their own tomatoes from home. Although the police broke it up, this began the tradition. In the following years, the young boys’ example had unwittingly made history.
If you plan to go, you should know that admission requires a ticket, and lodging in Buñol is scarce.
If you have an aversion to tomatoes, or find that you really enjoy large scale food fights as an adult, there are other, similar festivals elsewhere in the world. For example:
- Els Enfarinats Festival (Flour Fight) – Ibi, Alicante, Spain, December 28
- Throwing Of The Grapes Festival – Middle Swan, Western Australia in February and Binissalem, Mallorca, Spain, in late September
- Battle of the Oranges – Ivrea, Italy, a few days before Lent begins
Surva – Bulgaria
Surva is also known as the International Festival of Masquerade Games. It is held over the course of three days in Pernik Bulgaria (near Sofia), usually in late January.
Masquerade rituals come from old pagan times and are still alive in the Bulgarian folklore tradition. The symbolic meaning of the dancing rituals is related to the end of the old year and the advent of the new and to the upcoming awakening of nature for new life. These rituals represent the wish for a rich harvest, health and fertility for humans and farm animals. They are intended to chase away the evil spirits and prepare people for a new beginning.
The masks, according to folklore beliefs, protect from the harmful influence of impure powers. The masks feature feathers and traditional symbols. Everything is made of leather and natural materials, exactly as it was done in the past. The sound of the bells hanging from the belts of the dancers reinforces the protective properties of the masks.
The festival features a massive costumed parade with over 100 international groups, bonfires and light shows. Spectators can interact freely with performers along the parade routes and on the improvised stages arranged throughout the town. Surva also features interesting outdoor exhibitions and vendors of traditional Bulgarian arts and crafts throughout the town.
Kanamara Matsuri Festival – Japan
I’m just going to come right out and say it. This festival is all about the penis. Yes, that’s right. If you haven’t yet heard of or seen pictures from the Kanamara Matsuri Festival in Japan, prepare to be amazed….
The festival is a Shinto celebration whose name means “Festival of the Steel Phallus” in Japanese, and it centers around a shrine in Kawasaki Japan.
The shrine’s origin story holds that a jealous sharp-toothed demon hid inside the vagina of a young woman with whom the demon had fallen in love. The demon bit off penises of two young men on their wedding nights. After that the woman sought help from a blacksmith, who fashioned an iron phallus to break the demon’s teeth, which led to the enshrinement of the item.
The Kanayama Shrine was popular among prostitutes who wished to pray for protection from sexually transmitted infections. The shrine also offers divine protections for business prosperity, and for the clan’s prosperity; and for easy delivery, marriage, and married-couple harmony.
The festival started in 1969 and is held every year on the first Sunday in April. Today, the festival has become something of a tourist attraction and is used to raise money for HIV research.
As for what the festival actually looks like… well, if you are easily embarrassed, you might want to skip this one. There are literally penises – and, in the interest of equal rights – vaginas everywhere. Lollipops made to resemble genitalia, giant wooden penises, people with penis masks covering their head, penis souvenirs, vegetables carved into the shape of penises, and so much more.
Ducasse de Mons – Belgium
Also known as Doudou, this festival happens every year on Trinity Sunday (8 weeks after Easter) in the town of Mons, Belgium.
Back in 1349, the town of Mon suffered, like so many other places in Europe at the time, from an outbreak of the Plague. Town leaders decided to organize a procession through the town with the shrine of Waltrude, the patron saint of Mons. According to legend, the plague disappeared following the procession – a miracle!
Needless to say, the leaders thought they had done something incredibly right, so they made the procession an annual tradition. It has continued to take place every year since then, except during the French Revolution, both World Wars, and in the year 1803.
There are many activities associated with the festival, such as live music performances, a street sale, and children’s events. However, the core of the festivities are the procession and the battle.
The procession takes place the evening before Trinity Sunday. As part of a religious ceremony, the Priest removes the shrine from its Altar in Sainte-Waudru Collegiat Church and gives it to the town authorities for the duration of the festival. Then a torch-lit procession winds its way through the streets. On the morning of Trinity Sunday, the shrine is placed on a gilded cart, and pulled through the streets by draft horses. The carriage is accompanied by several guilds that represent the history of the region. At the end of the procession, the Car d’Or has to climb a steep, cobblestone street, the Rampe Sainte-Waudru. To help the horses with the immense weight, hundreds of people gather behind to push. Local superstition holds that if the Car d’Or doesn’t reach the top of the hill in one go, the city will suffer great misfortune.
The battle portion of the festivities, called Lumeçon, takes place on Trinity Sunday in the afternoon. It represents the fight between good and evil. On the side of good, you have Saint George riding horseback, protected by a group men dressed in white and others called chinchins (representing dogs). A 30 foot long dragon accompanied by devils and a group of men covered in ivy fight on the side of evil.
Each devil carries a cow bladder full of air. With this weapon, they knock the chinchins and the spectators who have gathered around the arena. The dragon attacks Saint George with his tail, and also attacks the public. People try to take the hair off the tail because they believe it brings luck for a year.
While it may sound like total pandemonium, it’s important to note that the combat is precisely choreographed. Saint George on his horse turns clockwise, and the dragon turns in the other direction. Saint George tries to kill the dragon with his lance, but the lance always breaks upon contact. He then uses a pistol and finally kills the dragon on the third try. At 13:00 (1 p.m.), the carillon of Mons rings and the battle is over until next year.
Following the battle, the celebrations continue into the evening with a grand pageant of actors, musicians, and singers.
The Maiden Fair Of Mount Gaina – Romania
Mount Gaina (which means Chicken Mountain) was once a place where families used to bring their adolescent children and arrange weddings. The young women went to great lengths to prepare for the gathering, packing up their dowry in elaborately sculpted trunks. The weight of the dowry was then measured against the weight of the girl, to make sure it was of a sufficient size. Another key ritual was dancing, to ensure that the girl didn’t have a lame leg. If a couple got together following these rituals, one of the priests in attendance could marry them on the spot.
The practical origins of this celebration stem from the fact that the inhabitants of the Sunset (Apuseni) Mountains do not live close together. The houses are miles apart and travel through the mountains is not easily done. Mount Gaina served as a convenient place to enable them to meet and keep in touch.
The not-so-practical origins come from a legend about a hen that laid golden eggs. Once per year, the people would gather their children to meet the hen. When the hen was ready to descend, it would flap its wings and turn itself into a lovely fairy. Then it would hand over its golden eggs to a newly wedded couple. This was considered a symbol of happiness for them in their future life together. But tragedy struck. When the hen was descending, the devil took away all of its golden eggs ran off with them. Once the hen turned around and saw that her eggs had been taken, she left and never came back. Since then, the people of Romania gather together at the mountain with a hope that the fairy/hen will appear again.
Perchten – Austria
In Austria’s pagan past, Perchta was a goddess whose role was as a “guardian of the beasts.” Her other job was to oversee the spinning of wool.
She had two very different physical appearances – either as light and beautiful or elderly and haggard. In many old descriptions, Perchta had one large foot, sometimes called a goose foot or swan foot, perhaps for working the treadle as she did her spinning.
Perchta enters homes during the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany (especially on the Twelfth Night). She would know whether the children and young servants of the household had behaved well and worked hard all year. She was particularly concerned to see that girls had spun the whole of their allotted portion of flax or wool during the year. If the children did their work in earnest, they might find a small silver coin the next day as their reward.
If the children had not done their work, however, she would slit their bellies open, remove stomach and guts, and stuff the hole with straw and pebbles. (Yikes!) She would also slit people’s bellies open and stuff them with straw if they ate something on the night of her feast day other than the traditional meal of fish and gruel.
Nice gal, huh? Nowadays, thankfully, people omit a lot of the gruesome details. Perchta is a “rewarder of the generous, and punisher of the bad, particularly lying children.”
The Austrian region of Pongau holds large Perchten processions every year. Participants wear masks; some beautiful, some hideous. Beautiful masks encourage financial windfalls, and the ugly masks drive away evil spirits.
The wooden masks resemble animals such as wolf, bear, eagle, etc. They have enormous fangs, tusks and/or horns. In some areas, the animal masks purposely lack ears, so they do not have to hear the painful screams of their victims. The Pongau region of Austria is home to the biggest and most striking Perchten festivals, with the most notable in Gastein, Altenmarkt, St. Johann, and Bischofshofen.
Up Helly Aa – Shetland
In Lerwick, the capital of the remote Scottish islands known collectively as Shetland, a fire festival takes place each year on the last Tuesday of January. Some time around 1840 the traditional Antonsmas festivities grew to include burning tar barrels. Despite the fact that this particular tradition could be hazardous in the narrow winding streets of Lerwick, it lasted for 30 years.
Around 1870, some enterprising young men sought to change the festival, setting the stage for the modern Up Helly Aa traditions still celebrated today. For starters, they were the ones who established the name and the date of the festival. But they also introduced the element of wearing disguises, or “guizing,” and the torchlit procession through town.
The head of the festivities is the Guizer Jarl, who leads his Jarl Squad on a procession through the town on the morning of Up Helly Aa day. Following a visit to the British Legion and a reading of the official Up Helly Aa proclamation, they assemble at the ferry terminal for an official photograph. At a by-invitation-only reception at town hall, the Guizer Jarl receives freedom of the town for 24 hours.
The Guizer Jarl and his Squad visit schools, retirement homes, and the local hospital. Then they stop at the Shetland Museum before heading to an afternoon tea and final preparations for the evening’s festivities.
Because of the northern location of Shetland, the nighttime festivities start around 5:30 in the evening. The Junior procession comes first. The juniors are high school boys who have built their own galley (Viking ship) and carry torches through the town as they follow it to the burning site.
Around 7:30 pm, the Jarl Squad light their torches – around 900 of them! They walk through the town and, when all the torchbearers arrive at the final resting spot of the longship, they form a circle round it and sing the traditional Up Helly Aa song. As soon as the song ends, they throw their torches onto the ship and watch as it burns. Once the longship has burned and the flames die down, guizers sing the traditional song “The Norseman’s Home” before going on to a night of partying. Any available large room become a festival hall, presided over by a hostess who issues invitations to attend, and every guizer squad visits every hall in turn to dance and drink with the guests. As there can be dozens of squads and dozens of halls, this takes most of the night and well into the following morning!
Ain’t no party like a Viking party…
Las Bolas del Fuego – El Salvador
The town of Nejapa in El Salvador holds this fireball festival on August 31 every year. The celebration has two origins – one historical and the other religious. The historical version explains that the local volcano El Playon erupted in November, 1658 and forced the villagers of the old Nejapa village (known as Nixapa) to flee and settle at its current location. The religious version explains how San Jeronimo fought the Devil with balls of fire.
Festival goers enjoy eating tamales and drinking coffee while waiting for the big event. The celebration begins with a music festival and when night falls, the balls of fire start burning. Each ball consists of a bundle of rags tied up with wire. In preparation for the festival, the rag balls soak in flammable liquid (kerosene or gasoline) for about a month.
The brave combatants wear fireproof gloves and wet clothes as a precaution. Once the battle begins, they throw their flaming fireballs at each other while trying to not get hit.
Santa Marta de Ribarteme – Spain
This festival in the Galician town of As Neves celebrates near death experiences. Individuals who have had a near death experience attend the July 29 festival in a coffin, believe it or not. Relatives of the nearly departed carry the coffin through the streets to the church that holds a shrine to Santa Marta de Ribarteme, the saint of resurrection.
There, they pray to Santa Marta (Martha, the sister of Lazarus, the man whom Jesus raised from the dead). The prayer goes something like this: Virgin Santa Marta, star of the North, we bring you those who saw death. Then they give thanks for their lives and give a gift to the Saint, usually in the form of money.
Following a mass, which is projected across the village using loudspeakers, the procession walks to the local cemetery and then back to the church with a large statue of Santa Marta overseeing the celebrations. These celebrations include fireworks, music, and partying that carries on into the night.
Songkran – Thailand
In Thailand, new year comes in mid-April, and is celebrated in a most unusual way: massive water fights. In the traditional Songkran celebration, people carry figures of Buddha into the streets for a ritual cleansing. Tossing water at the statues supposedly washed away bad luck for the coming year. As with many festivals, things can escalate and go a bit over the top. In some parts of Thailand, what started as a dousing of statues has evolved into an all out water war.
Celebrants at this festival use water guns, buckets, hoses… even elephants with a trunk full of water! In Thailand, this goes on for five days: April 12-16 every year. If you go, please keep in mind that while the festival seems like silly fun it is also a religious holiday for many Thai citizens. Behave respectfully. At no time should you be without a shirt in public, male or female. It is considered indecent and may land you with a fine or jail time.
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