World's Strangest Festivals
It’s a freezing cold winter’s day, but that’s not stopping 10,000 men in the northern Japanese city of Konomiya from stripping down to nothing but a loincloth. With the snow flying, these adventurers—fueled by honor, not by hot sake (alcohol is not allowed), and with their extremities turning blue—run all over town on a very specific mission: to find the one completely naked man among them. In fact, this is a ritual repeated all over Japan, and always on one of the coldest days of the year. Why?Because if they find the naked man fast enough, they believe it will bring 12 months of good luck.
Welcome to the wacky world of cultural festivals, which are as integral to society as laws and taxes. Festivals and holidays, of course, break up the normal routine of everyday life, create reasons for parades, allow for exchanging of presents, and provide excuses for large meals. But most important, they allow people to celebrate a significant aspect of their culture—whatever it might be. And for travelers, witnessing something like Japan’s naked man festival can provide a much deeper cultural awareness.
The famed French sociologist Émile Durkheim wrote that social life is made of “high peaks” (ceremonies, festivals, and holidays) and “low peaks” (ordinary life and routine). “High peaks can’t last—they’re exhausting,” says Sarah Daynes, an assistant professor of sociology at the New School in New York City. “Individuals come together, celebrate, and social life is extreme.”
For fire walkers in Greece, it’s probably best that their “high peak” doesn’t last too long. For eight days every May, northern Greeks gather to celebrate the feast day of two revered saints. When the spirit of Saint Constantine fills the worshippers, they’re said to be protected from fire, allowing them to walk over burning coals without showing any sign of pain.
Other festivals celebrate a particular event, which can also help unify a community, according to Daynes. “By coming together on a regular and yet ’extra-ordinary’ basis, the group celebrates its unity and very existence,” she says. In Iceland, that unity comes about through a nationwide beer party on March 1 each year. It’s more than just an excuse to drink during the cold weather: it was on that date in 1989 that Iceland’s ban on beer was repealed after a very long 75 years.
But sometimes a festival is simply a tradition whose origins have been lost over time. Take the annual Tomatina Festival in Buñol, Spain, for example. Since the mid-1940’s, the town has hosted the world’s largest food fight, without even knowing why. Some say it originated as a celebration of the town’s patron saint. Others claim that it began as an antireligious protest. But at this point it doesn’t matter—the festival goes on every year, and when there’s a ripe tomato flying toward your head, who really cares how it all started?
The following are some of the world’s strangest festivals, all of which make perfect sense in the culture of those celebrating.
Lopburi Monkey Buffet
Where: Lopburi, Thailand.
What: Primate party. This feast celebrates the greedy appetites of the city’s most persistent (and fondly regarded) pests: monkeys.
Why: The macaque monkeys that populate Lopburi are well-known gluttons: anyone who leaves a snack unattended for a split second is sure to have it snatched away by a furry “friend.” But residents of the city decided in 1989 that the best way to deal with the monkeys was to embrace them. So every year, all the monkeys’ favorite morsels—including peanuts, cucumbers, bananas, and raw crabs—are laid out in front of the Pra Prang Sam Yot temple. There’s a tea party too (although Lopburi’s monkeys are known to prefer Coca-Cola).
When: The last weekend in November.
Where: Cuzco, Peru.
What: Reenactment of an ancient Incan sun ceremony. Since 1944, hundreds of actors gather, dressed in traditional Incan garb (colorful tunics for the lower class, llama wool for the upper class, and vicuña wool for royalty). In a procession from the Qorikancha, the Incan temple dedicated to the Sun God, the lucky man chosen to portray the emperor is carried on a golden throne to the ancient fortress of Sacsayhuamán, where he asks for the sun’s blessing in Classical Quechua, the original language of the Incas.
Why: For the Incans, the Sun God Inti was the creator of all life—and his return every year after a long, cold winter was enthusiastically celebrated on the winter solstice. The festival traditionally included offerings such as coca tea and a white sacrificial llama—these days, the sacrifice is only a stage act.
When: June 24.
The Anastenaria (the feast of Saint Constantine and Saint Helena)
Where: Northern Greece, Southern Bulgaria.
What: Fire walking! During this eight-day religious celebration for those who celebrate the Anastenaria, worshippers are ostensibly possessed by Saint Constantine and are able to walk, dance, and stomp barefooted over fire. Live musicians play to accompany the dancers, and as the music gets faster, worshippers “touched by the saint” say they don’t feel the flames.
Why: The legend behind this ritual dates back to the Middle Ages, when the Church of Saint Constantine accidentally caught fire. According to the story, as flames engulfed the church, the icons of the saint and of his mother, Saint Helena, could be heard crying for help from the inside. The brave churchgoers who ran in to rescue the icons were unscathed by the fire.
When: Begins May 21. The eight days of dancing, all-night church services, and festivities end with a sacrifice of a sacred bull, from which every village family is given meat and sandals made from the hide.
Where: Throughout Japan.
What: The naked man festival. On one of the coldest nights of the year, thousands of men all around Japan strip down to loincloths (or even less) to test their manhood and secure luck in this traditional celebration. The rituals vary from town to town; in Okayama, for example, men purify themselves in water from the Yoshii river, run once around the Saidaiji Temple, and then try to catch sacred sticks that priests throw into the crowd (those who do are promised a year of happiness); in Konomiya, one fully naked man joins the crowd each year, and the others who find and touch him are granted a prosperous year.
Why: Some 1,300 years ago, Buddhist monks initiated the practice as a way to purify their spirits. It subsequently evolved into a Shinto test of manhood, and then into the rite of passage (and fun Kodak moment) it is today.
When: The third Saturday in February.
Where: Buñol, Spain.
What: The world’s largest food fight. Each year some 30,000 people (including locals and many visitors) fill this town’s main square to hurl locally grown tomatoes at each other. Tractors ride through the streets dumping piles of red, squishy ammunition—and for 90 minutes it’s a marinara free-for-all.
Why: Well, why not?Wonderfully, there’s no explanation for how this tradition began. While sources agree that Buñol’s first tomato was thrown in 1944 or 1945, no one’s sure whether the toss occurred in celebration of Saint Louis Bertrand, the town’s patron saint; as a form of antireligious protest; or as just a whimsical impulse after a tomato cart overturned.
When: The last Wednesday in August.
Night of the Radishes
What: Radish-carving contest, a competition for horticulturists to carve the indigenous regional vegetable, the radish, into figures celebrating the birth of Jesus. Elaborate historical scenes are depicted in radishes (with the use of onions, cauliflower, and corn to decorate), from the Virgin Mary with the three wise men to Emiliano Zapata on his horse backed by the Liberation Army of the South.
Why: This festival developed as so many modern-day holidays do: a marketing ploy. Since 1897, Oaxacan farmers have sold their produce at the Christmas Vigil Market in the town’s main zocalo; over the years, to make their wares more eye-catching, they began carving figures out of their products. The ad hoc ad campaign became a local tradition and is now celebrated every year, with a cash prize for the best carving and the respect of the town.
When: December 23.
Cheung Chau’s Bun Festival
Where: Cheung Chau, Hong Kong.
What: Race to the top of a tower of baked goods. To drive away evil spirits and ensure smooth sailing, the seafaring residents of Cheung Chau (an island off the coast of Hong Kong) disguise themselves as deities. But the really fun part comes when three 60-foot towers, covered from top to bottom with doughy pastries called sweet buns, are set up in front of the temple of Pak Tai. People shimmy up the bun towers, grabbing as many as they can; the more they gather, the better their luck will be for the year ahead. The ritual was abandoned after a tower collapsed in 1978, but has since resumed (using plastic towers).
Why: For some 2,500 years, the main livelihood for Cheung Chau residents has been fishing. The bun festival, started in the 18th century by a local, is an event to appease the spirits of the dead killed in the past by shipwreck, pirates, or plague.
When: The eighth day of the fourth moon in the Chinese calendar—usually in May.
Where: Throughout Iceland.
What: Nationwide beer-drinking party, an excuse for a runtur—otherwise known as a pub crawl. Icelanders love their beer, so this all-day celebration gives them plenty of chances to raise their glasses of Litli-Jón, Thule, or Viking Dimmur (all local brews). While offices and banks don’t change their hours for this joyous occasion, pubs do stay open later than usual.
Why: The holiday celebrates the repeal of the country’s 75-year ban on beer. All alcohol was prohibited in Iceland from 1915 to 1922—but it wasn’t until 1989 that beer was legalized. Understandably, great rejoicing ensued.
When: March 1.
Nenana Ice Classic
Where: Nenana, Alaska.
What: Spring ice-melting lottery. Alaska’s longest-running betting lottery is a contest to guess the exact time and day that the winter ice will crack and make way for springtime. Locals set a giant wooden structure on the ice and tie it to a clock on the shore. When the ice gives way, the rope pulls the clock, stopping it and declaring a winner. Tickets cost $2.50; the largest pot to date is $303,895, given in 2008 to a single ticket holder.
Why: It was during an especially long winter in 1917 that a group of railroad engineers first placed bets on when the ice on the Tanana River would break. The next year, a few more folks got in on the act, and by 2008, more than 240,000 tickets were sold for the year’s jackpot.
Where: Throughout Bali.
What: Silent Night. Balinese ring in their New Year in an uncommon way: in total silence. Pecalangs, or traditional Balinese security guards, patrol the streets to make sure people are at home, contemplating what they want out of life without the distraction of lights, television, radios, sex, food, or talking. Tourists are warned to stay inside their hotels out of respect (but are allowed to watch TV as long as they keep the volume way down).
Why: This Hindu holiday is a time for introspection. Nyepi Day follows a series of cleansing rituals, which include cleaning all effigies from all the village temples in rivers and an “exorcism“ of demons, followed by carnivals where puppets with bulging eyes, fangs, and wild hair are burnt to chase away evil spirits.
When: Nyepi falls on Bali’s Lunar New Year.