In this illuminating age of information, the customs and cultures of different peoples are increasingly discoverable to us all. When taken at face value (and even when not), they can seem odd at least, and more regularly, full-blown bonkers. You’re probably familiar with the Hindu festival Holi, celebrated most notably by crowds of people covering each other in a kaleidoscope of colored powder, or the Mexican Day of the Dead, with its highly decorated skulls and a parade in Mexico City that now exists because of the James Bond film, Spectre. *See “pizza effect”. Here are some more obscure faves.
We would never, never insinuate that Spaniards were the strangest of the human species, siestas and mañanas aside. That said, of all the countries in the world, it seems Spain is home to the largest number of flummoxing festivities. A cursory search unearths wine-throwing in Haro, bull-running in Pamplona, mud-chucking in Laza, goat- tossing in Manganeses de la Polvorosa, baby-jumping (yes, baby-jumping) in Castrillo de Murcia, and the Near-Death Experiences festival in Las Nieves, where Spaniards parade through the streets with occupied coffins. Perhaps the best of them, though, is La Tomatina in Bunol. A tradition since 1946, when an argument at a vegetable market got out of hand, this nightshade fight now draws 20,000 people each August. Participants are advised to squash the tomatoes before they pelt them, which softens the blow. Makes sense. And due to the citric acid content of tomatoes, when the passata aftermath is hosed down by the local fire brigade, buildings and streets are left pristinely clean. #bonus.
THE BATTLE OF THE ORANGES
If you’ve never heard of droit du seigneur, you’re forgiven – it was supposedly a medieval custom, and historians argue fiercely about if it even was or wasn’t a thing. Translated as “lord’s right”, the idea is that on a woman’s wedding night, her feudal lord would be legally sanctioned to demand sexual relations with her. As Ivrean legend would have it, one such tyrannical lord of Ivrea demanded as much of a poor miller’s daughter, who decapitated him in short shrift, spurring the villagers to revolt and ultimately to liberate themselves from his family’s iron-fisted rule. To commemorate this dubitable brouhaha, the people of Ivrea have been assaulting each other annually with fruits or legumes. The origin of the orange tradition is unclear, and particularly odd as oranges do not grow in the foothills of the Italian Alps. And unlike La Tomatina, at which participants are instructed to squash the tomatoes a little before throwing them, The Battle of the Oranges is noted for its violence – imagine a big Sicilian orange smack in the eyeball: ouch.
GUINEA PIG FESTIVAL
While the Yulin dog-meat festival in China is abhorrent to many because most other countries in the world think fondly of dogs as companion animals, guinea pigs are not ‘man’s best friend’. Yes, they may be kept as pets by pre-pubescent boys and girls, and although we wouldn’t ever think of them as a foodstuff, we wouldn’t cry if a grilled one were offered to us while exploring rural Peru. Called cuy, the meat of the guinea pig is something of a delicacy in the western South American country, and is celebrated in October each year. Native to the high Andes and an important source of protein for Peruvians for thousands of years, the people of Huacho dedicate one day of the year to the dressing-up of this Andean rodent in little miniature traditional dress – so cute. Following competitions, for ‘best dressed’ and more, the adorable, dolled-up little pocket-pets are deep fried on skewers and served with side dishes of other Peruvian staples like potatoes and corn. What a buzzkill. Literally.
Although this festival follows on from the Guinea Pig ‘bate and switch’, the Monkey Buffet is not the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom monkey moment you might think. In fact, this annual chow-down has what is probably the highest feel-good factor on this list, and no monkeys are harmed – quite the opposite, in fact. While the large macaque population in Lopburi is an interminable nuisance, they are also venerated because of their association with monkey-god Hanuman, and every November since 1989 – when a local hotel owner organized the first event – they are invited to a monkey banquet. In the days preceding the auspicious feast, invitations with cashews attached are given to the monkeys, and among the ancient Khmer architecture (remember Angkor Wat?) fruit and vegetables are assembled into towers and pyramids on which the 3,000 local monkeys will feast.
KANAMARA MATSURI FESTIVAL
As if we men didn’t spend enough time ‘worshipping’ our own, Shintoists in Kawasaki have dedicated the first Sunday of every April to that more generally private appendage. Translated as ‘Festival of the Steel Phallus’, the event takes place at the Kanamara Shrine, which houses an iron ‘love muscle’. As the story goes, there once was a sharp-toothed demon who fell in love with a young woman. So jealous was the demon that he (It? They?) hid inside her vagina, and bit off two suitors’ penises. To foil the demon, a ‘one-eyed trouser snake’ was fashioned from iron, upon which the demon broke its teeth. And since 1969, bell- ends aplenty fashioned from papier-mâché, carved vegetables, and candy are paraded around the shrine in high pink praise. Unsurprisingly, given people’s insatiable thirst for such things, the festival has become something of a tourist attraction. Go figure.
HAIR FREEZING CONTEST
Canada – home of such globally celebrated exports as poutine and clam-juice cocktails – joins this list as home of the little-known (can’t think why) International Hair Freezing Contest. While the precursive word, ‘International’ steeps the noble tournament in esteem, a simple Google search should help disabuse anyone of such reverence. Here’s the concept: winter in Canada is cold – very cold – but the hot springs in Takhini, Yukon are warm. In February each year, members of the public (that’s you) bathe in the hot springs, and, after dipping their heads into the water, have approximately one minute to shape their hair before it freezes. The fantastical form of each person’s frozen hair is are judged to the most rigorous (international) standards, and the winner takes all ($700).
WIFE CARRYING WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS
Somewhere in this world there is a man, with his head held high, his hands on his hips, and his eyes on horizons like he eats them for breakfast. He holds the title of Wife Carrying Champion of the World. His name is Vytautas Kirkliauskas. (His wife’s name is Mrs. Kirkliauskas.) To win this title, Mr. Kirkliauskas carried his wife on his back in the ‘Estonian style’ – her legs around his neck with her body hanging down his back and her face bouncing against his butt – and ran 253.5 meters through two dry obstacles and one wet one, crossing the finish line in just 66.7 seconds. And the prize for this Herculean feat? His wife’s weight in gold! Wait? Did I say gold? I mean beer. So (if you do the math) this suggests that the lighter your wife is, the more likely are to win, but the more meagre your bounty will be. Pub, anyone?
Look, we love animals. And this is the Weird and the Wonderful issue, so as weird as festivals like the Lychee and Dog Meat festival are, we would not include it here – not wonderful, you see. But try not to smile as you picture this: a small Italian village, and a bird-brained goose with its crazy eyes, hung upside down, with its head and neck lubed with Vaseline, and young, virile men launching themselves towards it, all in a flurry of feathers, attempting to literally pull its greased-up head off – it’s a corker! Or should I say squawker? For all PETA and vegan readers, you will be pleased to know that while this weird ritual was commonly practiced in the Netherlands, Belgium, England, and North America from the 17th to the 19th centuries (it originates in the 12th century in…can you guess? Try and guess. Spain.) it has since been modified for modern audiences with either a goose humanely murdered earlier à la Blue Peter, or even just ribbons and sticks – what fun that must be.
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