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Mark Your Calendars for 12 of the World's Weird Rites of Spring


Winter's over and spring is here, are you ready for the fire, snakes, and elephant processions? Here's your calendar for how to have the strangest and most wonderful April and May with 12 festivals and celebrations from around the world. 

Bishkeke, Krygyzstan: Spring

article-imageNote the Soviet tank helmets (photograph by Peretz Partensky)

The Central Asian sport of Buzkashi has been compared to polo — except instead of a ball there is a decapitated goat carcass and victors get prizes like motorcycles. The brutal sport is part of spring festivities in Bishkek, Krygyzstan. 

article-imageThe dead goat is dragged (photograph by Peretz Partensky) 

Pentecost Island: April-May

article-imageStarting the descent (photograph by Paul Stein)

A tower of wood between 80 and 98 feet tall is built each year on Pentecost Island in the South Pacific, and then the people jump. During the Nagol festival men from the Sa tribe climb up the tower and, with vines linked to their ankles, soar into the air. Injuries and even death are common, and the treacherous tradition influenced the bungee jump, a more subdued pastime in comparison. 

article-imagePreparing to jump from the tower (photograph by Paul Stein)

Kawasaki, Japan: April 6

article-imageThe 2012 festival (photograph by TAKA@P.P.R.S/Flickr user)

On the first Sunday of each April, Kanamara Matsuri absolutely overflows Kawasaki, Japan, with everything phallic. There are penis processions, candy, souvenirs, sculptures, and costumes. The festival dates back to the Edo period with the Kanayama Shrine that has long been a place of veneration for sex workers seeking protection from disease, but the festival has morphed into a playful celebration of fertility and prosperity.  

article-imageThe 2007 festival (photograph by elmimmo

Thailand: April 13-15

An elephant at Songkran (photograph by JJ Harrison)

With water guns, buckets, and even elephants dousing people with their trunks, pretty much everyone gets soaked during this Thai New Year festival. Songkran is basically the world's biggest water fight, but it's also a tradition to symbolically wash away the woes of the previous year and start clean. Plus it's a welcome respite from the hottest month of the year. 

The water festival in Burma (photograph by Theis Kofoed Hjorth)

Seville, Spain: April 13-20

article-imageThe penitents in the cathedral (photograph by Jesús León)

During Easter Holy Week in Seville, Spain, there are some 60 processions with ominous hooded figures and large-scale effigies. The nazarenos — who have an uncanny resemblance to the KKK — wear pointed hoods to mask the identities of these penitents. Some say it's meant to symbolize a reach to the heavens. Others might say it looks like the end days. 

article-imageNazarenos in 2003 (photograph by Albert Besselse)

Central and Northern Europe: April 30

Walpurgisnacht in Heidelberg (photograph by Andreas Fink)

Walpurgis Night — or Walpurgisnacht — takes its name from St. Walpurga whose Saint Day is in close calendar proximity, but it's far from a Catholic affair. Instead its pagan origins, which started as rituals against witches and have now turned into rituals celebrating sorcery, flame through with bonfires and burned effigies. People gather in hordes in Central and Northern Europe, dressing as witches and engaging in crazed dancing around the pyres. 

article-imagephotograph by Aske Holst

Edinburgh, Scotland: April 30

article-imageThe 2006 festival (photograph by SixSigma/Wikimedia)

Alongside Walpurgis Night is the debaucherous Beltane Fire Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. Like the continental Europe celebrations there is plenty of fire in the marking of the end of winter and beginning of spring. The Celtic festival was revived in the 1980s into a celebration of the area's pagan roots, with thousands of people participating in wild dancing around the flames. 

article-image The 2012 festival at the National Monument of Scotland on Calton Hill (photograph by Stefan Schäfer)

Cocullo, Italy: May 1

St. Domenico and the snakes (photograph by trebbyeah/Flickr user)

St. Domenico Abate is said to have cleared the area around Cocullo, Italy, of snakes, but since then his story has fused with pagan traditions into an annual festival that brings the serpents back. The Processione dei Serpari — Festival of the Snakes — starts with a mass and then the statue of Domenico is paraded through the town. Along the way snake charmers wrap the statue with the reptiles. You can even buy a local special bread shaped like an ouroboros — a snake eating its own tail. Afterwards the snakes are let loose into the area around Cocullo, seemingly undoing Domenic's good work.  

article-imageA festival participant (photograph by Cristian Roberti)

Thrissur, India: May 9

article-imageThe 2013 festival (photograph by Ramesh NG/Flickr user)

Thrissur Pooram is sort of the Super Bowl of elephant processions. Centered around the Vadakkunnathan Temple in Thrissur, India, 30 elephants are decked out in finery with the mahouts on their backs participating in carefully choreographed rhythmic performances with parasols. And if that isn't enough, there's an abundance of fireworks. 

Parasol performance (via Wikimedia)

Laos and Thailand: May 10-11

Rockets in Yasothon in 2013 (via Wikimedia)

Each year before the rainy season, Bun Bang Fai is held around Laos and Thailand with the biggest festivities in Yasothon. These "Rocket Festivals" culminate in their revelry with a homemade rocket launching competition. The rockets are traditionally built from bamboo, or more recently PVC pipe, and the contest is for the highest, furthest rocket. Those whose rockets don't take off are thrown in the mud. 

Rocket parade float (via Wikimedia) 

Pulilan, Philippines: May 14

article-imageA water buffalo race (photograph by Roger Alcantara)

Carabao — or water buffaloes — are vital animals to farmers in the Philippines, and in May in Pulilan the creatures are carefully brushed, rubbed with oil, and draped with garlands of flower and ribbons and brought to the church square. There the large animals kneel for a blessing. It's the culmination of the Carabao Festival around the saint day of San Isidro Labrador, the patron saint of farmers. Alongside are water buffalo races and pomp-filled parades. 

article-imageThe Carabao parade (photograph by Keith Bacongco)

Cooper's Hill, England: May 26

article-imageThe 2013 race down the hill (photograph by Dave Farrance)

In this annual questionable sport, competitors bound down an especially steep and uneven hill in Gloucestershire after a nine pound wheel of Double Gloucester cheese. The Cooper's Hill Cheese-Rolling competition regularly results in injuries, although that hasn't stopped the enthusiasm for the English festival from going international: an American won the race last year

article-imageThe Master of Ceremonies holding a Double-Gloucester cheese (via Warwick University Real Ale Society) 

Fill your year with more curious and potentially hazardous festivals with Atlas Obscura >


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