In the spring-time months of April and May, the festivities again begin with a bang, as two churches in a Greek town blast thousands of rockets at each other to celebrate Easter in a pyrotechnical display of friendly rivalry, but there's also a national water fight in Thailand, elephants aplenty, and the largest festival in the world where millions of devotees wash away their sins - and those of their ancestors - in the Ganges in such crowds that they can be seen from space. Spring is waved off in central and northern Europe with maypoles and bonfires, and Mexicans celebrate independence, whilst the English chase cheese down the hill. Discover more in our guide to colourful and lively festivals and carnivals around the world...
The Spring festivals start off with a bang in Greece, or - rather - tens of thousands of rockets in a sun-washed village amongst olive trees and almond groves. On Greek's fifth-largest island, Chios, there's the small town of Vrontados, home to about 4,500 residents, many of whom are ship owners or shipbuilders, and the place where legend has it Christopher Colombus came to learn how to use maritime charts, and where the ancient poet Homer was believed to have been born or lived. In this small town, two rival churches - Angios Marcos and Panaghia Ereithiani - sit atop two hills overlooking the glittering Aegean sea, spaced roughly 400m apart. There's a great deal of rivalry between these churches and their respective congregations, and over the last two centuries it has become an Easter custom that the congregants of these two churches gather their artillery of wooden sticks capped with gunpowder fired from grooved 'cannons' as the sun sets over the Aegean and begin a battle with around 60,000 rockets fired between the two churches. Originally the battle - known as Rouketopolemos, or 'rocket war' - was fought with actual cannons until the Ottoman Empire banned that practice around 1889! The barrage continues until around 12.30am, although technically it is supposed to end when a rocket hits its rival church's bell - but as both parishes always end up claiming victor, no church ever really comes out on top! Before the battle, Evening Mass is still attended by many residents of Vrontados, and is an important part of the event. Many spectators tend to huddle and watch the pyrotechnic show from a safe and secure indoor location - a much safer way to watch this compelling sight - tucking into sfougato, a popular meat pie, and drinking mastika, a potent clear brandy flavoured with resin from the mastic tree, and tasting a little like licorice.
From cannon fire to an almighty water fight, the Thai New Year is celebrated between 13 and 15 April with what begins with water dousing to representing a purification ritual, but effectively ends up as a massive national water fight. Up until around 1940, the date for the Songkran festival floated around according to the lunar calendar, but the date for the traditional Thai New Year has since been set on 13 April - although, funnily enough, Thailand recognises the Gregorian calendar and the year beginning on 1 January, but continues to celebrate Songkran as a national holiday regardless! Its roots lie in Buddhism, and observant Buddhists continue to douse statues of the Buddha with scented water, fast, pray and give thanks to elders and monks, with a focus on welcoming positive energy and spirituality as they usher in the new year. Small sandcastle pagodas are built outside temples. In cities, such as Chiang Mai, you'll find enormous ornate floats carrying statues of the Buddha through town whilst the crowds pelt with water in order to renew and cleanse. However, there's also a modern flavour to Songkran too, where the emphasis is more on having a good party, particularly in places like Bangkok and Phuket, but the best place to experience Songkran - particularly as a first-timer - is Chiang Mai, where festivities centre around the 700-year-old moat in the Old City. Just before Songkran, the moat is emptied and refilled with fresh water (again, this symbolises renewal - although make sure you don't drink it, as the 'fresh' water isn't potable!). Around this moat, people soak each other, drink, and have a grand old party, with revelers soaking each other with water using water pistols, balloons, spray bottles and hoses, yelling greetings of suk san wan songkran (Happy New Year), while you'll also watch elaborate floats and colourfully painted elephants parade through town.
India has a wonderful reputation for its numerous colourful and lively festivals, some with deep religious meaning, others not so deep-seated in spirituality. The popular Thrissur Pooram Elephant Festival dates back to 1798, and was created by Raja Rama Varma after he and many of his friends were not allowed into a nearby festival due to their tardiness. So he invited temples in the festival-oriented region of Kerala to the main temple in Thrissur to pay respects to Shiva, the presiding deity. Religion continues to play a role in the festival, as does colours and - in particular - elephants. Proceedings begin a full day seven days in advance, once the flag is ceremonially hoisted and the fireworks start from the fourth night, and remain a consistent feature. Although non-Hindus are forbidden from entering the temples, there's plenty for everyone to do, irrespective of religion. The main pooram (festival) kicks into full-swing on day six, with all kinds of temples in the area taking part, but concluding at the Nilapaduthara near the western gorpuram of the Vadakkunnathan Temple. The elephants, resplendent with their golden headdresses (nettipattam), decorative bells and ornaments, palm leaves and peacock feathers, are the main attraction, while their mahouts (elephant riders) carry ornate parasols adding even more colour. Two teams of 15 elephants and their mahouts meet outside the temple to create an unmissable 'pass the parasol' ritual. You'll also get the opportunity to watch traditional folk dancing, and listen to a cacophony of percussion, with the rhythmic beating of the drum (panchavadyam). Be sure to stay up late as the ultimate fireworks display begins at three in the morning, continuing on for three hours - a visual spectacle amidst a wonderful, culturally immersive experience.
Another Indian festival held in April is the holy festival of Kumbh Mela, where millions commemorate a divine battle that broke the holy pitcher containing the nectar of immortality by making the pilgrimage to bathe in the Ganges. Its origins lie in a battle between Hindu gods and demons over a kumbh (pitcher) filled with the nectar of immortality, but it broke in the fight, scattering drops of nectar in the four riverside cities of Nashik, Ujjain, Haridwar, and Allahabad. Roughly every three years, the planets align in the same position as the original battle, and pilgrims flock to these four places - in 2016, they will head to Ujjain for the Simhastha Kumbh Mela. Every twelve years, the larger Maha Kumbh Mela is held in Allahabad, the most recent was in January-March 2013. During the day, there will be devotional lectures from gurus, naked ascetics performing miracles, Brahmins providing blessing, marching bands, and Indian textiles, jewellery and other gifts available on sale. At night, theatrical performances portray the great Hindu epics. You'll be able to recognise sadhus (Hindu holy en who see their sect as an extension or replacement of their family) by the sacred ash smeared on their foreheads, garlands of marigolds draped around their necks and their bright orange robes, while nagas don more ash, and wear less cloth. The nagas are the first ones to start bathing during the most auspicious bathing day, Mauni Amavasya Snan, the highlight of the festivities. Bathing starts from 4am, and bathers wash away not only their own sins, but those of their family's 88 previous generations, ensuring liberation from the eternal cycle of rebirth for oneself and one's ancestors. With an estimated 50 to 110 million devotees, this is in fact the world's largest carnival - on its main days it can even be seen from space satellites!
Over in America, New Orleans hosts the original Jazz Fest, which began from humble Creole origins to a significant festival which regularly attracts over 150,000 attendants on a single day. Held during the last weekend in April and the first in May, the Big Easy fills 12 stages with everything from jazz and blues to rock and folk, showcasing its rich musical history filled with harmonic church hymns, tribal African beats, and American pop music. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival does what it says on the tin, offering music lovers and culture vultures a relax vibe and the perfect way to experience the culture of New Orleans without quite the same chaos as seen during the city's celebrated Mardi Gras! The festival's origins lie in George Wein's New Orleans Jazz Festival in 1970, and the founding of the nonprofit organised, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, whose purpose it was to manage the festival. In its first year, legends such as Duke Ellington, Clifton Chenier, Fats Domino, and Mahalia Jackson formed part of the lineup, although only 350 people showed up. Today, you'll get to sample a wide range of musical genres as well as jazz, including gospel, Cajun, zydeco, blus, rock, folk, funk, African, Latin and Caribbean, with big names and lineups performing at the fairgrounds, to intimate, late-night shows held at clubs downtown. Be sure to head to the back alleys to soak up some of the best vibes and eclectic performances, and make sure you sample the local creole cuisine, from a po' boy sandwich, stuffed with soft-shell crab, or a steaming bowl of jambalaya.
In central and northern Europe, the ancient festival of Walpurgisnacht (Witches' night) drives away evil spirits and welcomes in the spring, commonly celebrated with folk dancing and bonfires on 30 April or 1 May. Although its name derives from the 8th century missionary Saint Walburga, who made a name for herself speaking out against witchcraft and sorcery, and for founding the Catholic convent of Heidenheim in Germany, her namesake festival nonetheless borrows many traditions from pagan rituals! In Germany, legend has it that Walpurgisnacht is the night when witches gather to at the Hexentanzplatz (witches' dances) before flying as one up to Mount Brocken to convene with the devil, meeting with evil ghosts represented by the cold weather, snow and darkness in the Harz mountains. To this day, people all over Germany head to the famous mountain known as Blocksberg to celebrate the arrival of spring, lighting fires and dancing wildly to deter the witches from coming too close to them and their homes. In the Rhineland, young men sometimes continue the tradition of putting a branch wrapped with colourful ribbons in the garden of a girl he would like to marry - as 2016 is a Leap Year, young women will place these branches in the gardens of young men. Young people in rural southern Germany also like to play pranks, tampering with neighbours' gardens, hiding possessions or spraying graffiti, so you'll find German police patrolling the neighbourhoods during the festivities. Over in Sweden, Walpurgisnacht coincides with celebration of King Carl XVI Gustaf's birthday, so the Swedes bring out lots of flags, as well as (in more modern celebrations), enjoying a breakfast of champagne and strawberries, gathering in parks, drinking and enjoying the convivial atmosphere, and listening to choirs singing traditional songs of spring. A carnival parade, the Cortège, has been held in Gothenburg since 1909 by students at Chalmers University of Technology, with 250,000 watching marching bands and people in costume accompany a bizarre collection of vehicles, from sofas with motors to cars that are upside down. You'll also see the ceremonial donning of the student cap, evoking the time when students wore their caps daily, switching from a black winter cap to a white summer cap. Meanwhile the Czech Republic version of the festival - known locally as Pálení čarodějnic (Burning of the Witches) sees hand-made witches made from rags and straw - and sometimes even broomsticks - thrown into a bonfire, and in Estonia, where the festival is known as Volbriöö, people still dress up as witches, wandering the streets in a carnival-like mood. In the Estonian university town of Tartu, fraternities march with an orchestra, singing along, heading to the statue of Karl Ernst von Baer to wash his head with champagne.
In Scotland, the Beltane Fire Festival also celebrates the coming of summer with bonfires, harking back to the days of the pastoral Celts, for whom the date meant looking forward to the start of more light and growth, and was celebrated with baking Beltane bannocks, ceremonial handfasting and displaying fresh greenery. The most important part of Beltane, however, is the lighting of the Beltane fires, representing the sun's growing power through to midsummer - traditionally cattle and farm animals were driven around the fires, but this is no longer the case. What you will see instead, though, is a procession beginning at Edinburgh's National Monument and winding counter-clockwise along a path, led by the May Queen and the Green Man who light a huge fire at the end, followed by drinking, eating, more drinking, music, and dancing (sometimes naked). During the procession, the May Queen and the Green Man are accompanied by the May Queen's White Women and processional drummers, urging the group towards summer, but interrupted by different groups who help or hinder their progress - the procession is complete once the chaotic Reds have joined up and the Green Man has been killed and reborn, but not yet finished as they all retire to the Bower to eat, dance, and commemorate the changing of the seasons as invited couples are handfasted by the May Queen.
Head to Pueblo, the culinary capital of Mexico for the very best Cinco de Mayo celebrations. It may be a state holiday honouring the triumph of a scrappy group of Mexican locals over a well-armed French army in the Battle of Puebla in 1862, but Puebla is the place to be to make the most of it. Not to be confused with Mexico's Independence Day (16 September), Cinco de Mayo celebrates what was effectively a David and Goliath story, and a full-blown military parade winds through the city to commemorate this. Puebla has extended the celebrations to nearly 20 days of cultural arts, packing each day full with dance exhibitions, theatrical performances and concerts leading up to the Cinco de Mayo finale, and the Puebla State Fair conveniently runs at the same time of year, bursting with family fun from arcade games and carnival food to live entertainment and rides. You'll also find thousands of food stands selling festival treats - so make the most of Mexico's culinary capital, and tuck right into the goodies!
Starting in mid-May (and lasting until mid-July), St Petersburg is packed full with a giddying cultural extravaganza - music, opera, ballet, film, and outdoor spectacles like the Scarlet Sails, the oldest and most popular event, which dates back to the days after World War II, as a tribute to the popular 1922 Russian children's tale 'Scarlet Sails', an update of revolutionary propaganda of old Leningrad by sailing a crimson-sailed tall ship towards the tzar's Winter Palace. Today, it's a whole fleet of redsailed, tall ships with a gunpower-packed fireworks show, Russian style, drawing in more than 3.5 million people, who watch the ships, fireworks and performances by the likes of the St Petersburg Orchestra. There's so much going on during this time: Russia's premier arts and classical music festival, The Stars of the White Nights, where you'll not only find performances of Tchaikovsky's masterpiece Swan Lake, but classical masterpieces from all over the world, including some rare treasures not often performed live, in both the historic Mariinsky Theatre and other equally impressive venues, whilst there's also a Jazz Festival, a Brass Music Festival, a Film Festival, a Romantic Music Festival, a Dance Festival and even a Sand Sculpture Festival! There's an amazing atmosphere as you walk along the River Neva, coming across gypsy bands, sword swallowers, fire eaters, jugglers and stoic Russian mimes, all crammed in to make the most of the short summer celebrations before winter approaches.
In 2016, Qoyllur Rit'i, or the 'Snow Star Festival' will be held in May in Peru, with over 10,000 pilgrims embarking upon the 5,000ft ascent up 20,000ft Mount Ausangate, braving crisp, thin air and freezing temperatures for a three-day spiritual celebration full of music, dance, and costumes. The festival's roots date back to ancient beliefs held by the indigenous Andean people, mixed with a later fusion with Catholicism - and today it celebrates both Jesus and the mountain gods (apus), including the earth mother Pachamama, which the South Americans have believed in since ancient times. Long before the arrival of European settlers and the introduction of Christianity, the locals regarded the mountains as sacred, believing that the gods that lived in the Andes controlled the weather and, consequently, how well their farms would do. The Catholic element of today's festival dates back to 1780, when an image of Jesus Christ appeared on a boulder, leaving its holy imprint on the rock. Qoyllur Rit'i begins in a town, Mahuayani, east of Cusco, from where the Christian pilgrims - dressed in elaborate woven costumes, headdresses and masks - begin their starlit trail, carrying images of Jesus (and often, other icons), chanting and drumming as they ascend higher on the glacier bowl. On their five-mile upwards journey, there'll be numerous stops for the faithful to pause at elaborately decorated crosses to kneel down and pray - there's also plenty of stands dotted along the root for food and supplies. You'll find different Peruvian tribes are each distinguished from the others with their costumes, headdresses and masks, and dance troupes from the various nations which are remarkable to watch, as are the faux battles carried out between the tribes. You'll also find each tribe has ukukos, dressed as the half-man, half-bear of Peruvian myth, acting as priests, leading many of the religious rituals, but also acting as pranksters, providing merry entertainment as everybody makes their way up, dancing on glaciers to invite blessings upon their respective nations. Upon reaching the top, you'll find a wide, grassy plain, hundreds of tents and tarps providing shelter for the pilgrims, and all around there's a stunning backdrop of snowy peaks, and glacial water streams and springs. A big church is at its centre, where you'll find a crowd of devout Catholics lining up to pray, leave offerings and light candles - a queue of up to five hours is typical. Nearby, you'll find tiny restaurants serving traditional dishes, such as lamb strew and lomo saltado (fried steak with rice and potatoes), while the Albacitas Market sells trinkets to worshippers to symbolise what they want to manifest in the coming year. After the solemn religious ceremonies on the mountaintop, there's a rushed exodus back down the mountain.
The month of May closes with a touch of English quirkiness, with participants chasing cheese down a hill - it can only be Coopers' Hill Cheese-Rolling in the local village of Brockworth, which dates back to the early 1800s (although there are some claims that it dates back to pagan rituals celebrating the start of spring during the times of the Romans). Typically held on the last Saturday in May and presided over by a Master of Ceremonies, this increasingly popular event pretty much does what it says on the tin: an 8-pound wheel of cheese is rolled down a very steep hill - reaching speeds of upto 70mph - chased by about 20-40 contestants and watched by several thousand people. The winner not only gets bragging rights, but gets to keep the cheese. However the event has been plagued in recent years with controversy, with accounts of injuries (broken bones, bruised organs, dislocated shoulders and concussions have been known to happen) and was 'officially' cancelled in 2010 due to 'health and safety' concerns, but still continues unofficially, run by a handful of locals. Perhaps most controversial of all was the introduction of fake plastic wheels of cheese in 2013 (although the winner does receive a real wheel of cheese as their prize).
If you're interested in immersing yourself in the fun and festivities of any international carnivals, why not contact one of our dedicated travel specialists today?
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