Image: Witches jump over fire
Heinz-dieter Wurm  /  Corbis
The origins of the Witches' Night ritual lie in a time when people believed that flocks of witches flew through the air, poised to bring misfortune to the people of Prague.
updated 3/15/2009 1:53:57 PM ET 2009-03-15T17:53:57

Festivals celebrate the best of a culture, but in some parts of the world even the bizarre is cause for celebration. Whether a ritual has religious roots or whether it’s done just for the heck of it, one thing holds true: People everywhere love to celebrate — and some will do it in the strangest ways possible.

Let’s begin in Europe, where its cultures are ancient and its civilizations advanced, and in particular England, host to the Gloucester Cheese-Rolling Festival. In a logic that defies reason, participants of this festival race down a vertiginous hill in pursuit of a 7.8-pound roll of cheese.

The incline of Cooper’s Hill is so steep that an ambulance is stationed at the bottom of the muddy hill, ready for racers who’ve taken a disastrous tumble. Held on the last Monday of May, the event is free and open to anyone willing to risk life and limb for the main prize: the cheese that rolled down the hill.

While the English might simply enjoy the folly of it all, a small Spanish village’s festival harkens back to its medieval roots. The Galician Carnival, held every February, is a throwback to feudal systems and archaic traditions. Masked men, known as peliqueiros, parade around town and whip the townspeople, while a cow masquerader runs amok in the crowd.

On “Dirty Day,” soil from nearby ant farms is dug up for revelers to throw at each other. The angry ants do their damage, but not as much as the “Testament of the Donkey,” when a satirical account is given of the past year’s local scandals. Donkey parts are handed out to the characters featured in this oral history.

Across the globe, in another old and noble civilization, people have found ways to celebrate in a manner that is perhaps counter-intuitive. Japan proudly hosts the Naked Festival, which takes place in the dead of winter.

Perhaps as a test of mettle, men dressed only in loincloths gather in front of a temple of Saidaji-Naka at midnight, ready to compete for a “year of happiness.” This prize can be won in two ways: either by touching the lone naked man hidden in the crowd of shivering bodies, or catching a stick thrown by a monk from the village temple and inserting it in a box of rice. The contestants are aggressive, not least because of the mind-numbing cold.

Image: Naked Man Festival
On the third Saturday of February, in the dead of winter, thousands of men dressed only in loincloths gather on the streets of Saidai-ji Temple in Japan for the Hadaka Matsuri, or Naked Man Festival.

Augie Restivo taught English in Japan for three years and had the privilege of witnessing this carnal melee. "I can tell you hands down,” Restivo says, “that the Naked Man Festival in Okayama was one of the most interesting things I saw in Japan. It’s amazing, and it can get quite violent.”

South of Japan, the Philippines has its own eccentric religious pageantry. The Pulilan Carabao Festival is a tribute to San Isidro Labrador, the patron saint of Pulilan, Bulacan.

This mid-May celebration makes penitents out of its work animals — water buffalo, known as carabaos, are trained to kneel before the town church. Decked out in colorful costumes, the carabaos are trained for weeks to get down on its front knees like supplicants.

Image: Viking Moot Festival Aarhus
Jtb Photo Communications, Inc. / Alamy
Viking lore lives on in the Danish town of Aarhus, where every July Scandinavians pay tribute to their forebears.

“The Philippines is a very religious country,” says Sidney Snoeck, a photographer who attended this affair. “You always meet colorful people during fiestas.”

From the Viking Festival in Denmark to the Mr. Desert Competition in India, people the world over take pride in their esoteric celebrations.

While it may be understandable, if a little kooky, to honor Buddha’s tooth relic, who’s to say chasing after a roll of cheese doesn’t deserve its own fanfare?


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