There’s a reason most cultures around the world celebrate the winter solstice and the approach of spring. Some are religious, others are secular — all help fend off the short days, long nights and chilling temperatures.
With the dark days upon us, what better cure for the winter blues than a party? With help from some party experts, we’ve found 10 of the best and biggest winter festivals from around the world. Some ring in the New Year (Scotland, the Bahamas, China), while others mark the advent of Lent (New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, Rio’s Carnival). Still others, such as Mali’s Festival in the Desert and Quebec’s Winter Carnival, are long-standing cultural traditions that honor the region’s rich history. At least one is deeply religious: The Phalgun festivals in Kathmandu, Nepal, combine elements of Buddhist and Hindu rituals to ring in the Tibetan New Year.
All are opportunities between December and March to leave the winter doldrums at home.
Ringing in the New Year with an out-of-this-world party is common around the world, but some countries do it better than others. Scotland’s Hogmanay attracts upwards of 100,000 revelers to the streets of Edinburgh for a massive end-of-the-year bash. (Smaller celebrations take place across the country.) Grab a loved one — and a glass of Scotch — and join in the traditional country dances. As midnight approaches, head to the Balmoral Hotel and raise a toast as the clock tower welcomes January 1st.
If you’re looking for a warmer New Year’s celebration, head to the Bahamas for the local Junkanoo party. Each year, the streets of Nassau are filled with 1,000-person “crews” in extravagant, coordinated costumes, vying for the coveted Best of the Festival award. But this is no ordinary parade. Rather than a traditional marching line, the Junkanoo crews create a free-for-all mosh pit, with revelers rushing toward each other. It may sound similar to New Orleans' Mardi Gras or Rio’s Carnival, but there’s a unique Bahamian flair to this party.
For something more unusual, head to Africa, where the Festival in the Desert is one of the world’s most extraordinary celebrations. First organized in 2001, in part by the nomadic Tuareg people, the Festival in the Desert is “one of the finest showcases of the diversity of global music and culture.” The celebration takes place deep in the rolling sand dunes of the southern Sahara in Mali, marked by a stone archway known as the “Key to the Desert.” During the day, participants enjoy camel parades and races, crafts shows, discussions of nomadic life and performances of tindé, the women’s traditional singing and drumming. When the sun goes down and the temperature drops, the music begins. Although tents are the only accommodation offered, the artists, musicians and, of course, the camels make this a truly exotic experience.
If you’d rather celebrate in a more modern setting, join the half-million partiers at Brazil’s world-renowned Carnival, considered by many to be the world’s biggest and best party. Be sure to take a few samba lessons ahead of time. More than anything else, this sensual dance embodies the indulgent, sexual and carefree attitude of Rio de Janeiro’s most famous occasion.
For some, the perfect winter festival must be, er, wintry. If you’re among the snow-loving set, head north to Quebec’s 17-day Winter Carnival, which promises snowball fights, ice-sculpture gardens and an internationally renowned snow-sculpture contest. It’s also the perfect family-friendly festival, with kids’ activities during the day followed by adult nightlife jam-packed with dances and parades. As Quebec celebrates its 400th anniversary, this may be the best year to attend — the 2008 parades promise to be grander than ever before.