The World’s Most Incredible Festivals

By Phil Clarke, Editor of The Handbook website Phil Clarke |
4th March 2019

When you live in a country where Pancake Day counts as an ‘extreme’ festival, you know you’ve got to get out a bit more. In India an extreme festival involves being covered head-to-toe in multi-coloured dyes, in other parts of the world it involves being kettled by a thousand naked Japanese men or dressing as a yeti, while Burning Man makes Glastonbury look like a slightly grubby karaoke club. So you’re going to have to get out a bit more. Here are some festivals to add to your list alongside V-Festival and your local village fête.

Holi, India

Holi, India

The Hindu spring festival of Holi is one of the most colourful events on the planet. Also known as the “festival of colour” or “festival of love”, the key aspect seems to be throwing coloured dye at all-and-sundry, a sort of Punk’d meets religion. According to legend, Holi comes from the childhood hijinks of Lord Krishna, the reincarnation of Lord Vishnu, who would drench the village girls in water and colour as a prank. Today it’s not travelled too far from the original, smearing and throwing colour like it’s a Samsung advert.

The best place to experience Holi is Mathura or Vrindavan, which are a longish drive out of Delhi, though the celebrations can get pretty full-on and Pushkar and Jaipur may be less aggressive and enjoyable.

Takes place on: 20th March
La Tomatino, Spain

La Tomatino, Spain

You’ve enjoyed them in ketchup, you love them on pizza, but what about 150 tons of them being thrown by 50,000 people in the world’s biggest food fight? Welcome to La Tomatino. Since 1944 Bunol, near Valencia, has celebrated, well they’re not sure what, each summer by indulging in one of the craziest traditions we’ve seen. Some say the tradition goes back to disgruntled townsfolk pelting senior council men, but the festival became an immediate institution. Banned under Franco, La Tomatina has thrived to the point where over 20,000 revellers join in each summer.

Takes place on: 28th August

Website: www.latomatinatours.com

Up-Helly Aa, St Ninian’s Isle, Scotland

Up-Helly Aa, St Ninian’s Isle, Scotland

Vikings have set aside the rape and pillage and are instead alive and well in Scotland. At least for one day a year. Up Helly Aa day involves a torch-lit procession marching to a viking galley and burning it. The day after is a public holiday, such is the excitement caused by the celebration. Despite the appearance of an ancient festival, Up Helly Aa is actually pretty modern, starting back in the 1880s and being held every year since with a few notable exceptions (like the deaths of Queen Victoria, George V and Winston Churchill). Join over a thousand ‘guizers’ as they march through the town (all the lights are turned off, with the only light, eerily coming from the thousand lit torches).

Takes place on: The Tuesday in January

Website: www.uphellyaa.org

Day Of The Dead, Mexico

Day Of The Dead, Mexico

If you think that Halloween is spooky, head to Mexico for dia de los muertos, day of the dead. Celebrating all hallows day (the 1st November), the celebration is actually far more wholesome than its creepy American (and European) cousin, representing more of a celebration of life and those who have died than a straight-up celebration of evil as North America. Ancestor worship has been prevalent in South and Central America for over 3,000 years, and the day of the dead is simply a continuation, albeit with a thin veil of Catholicism. Traditionally the streets are filled with parades, calaveras (skulls) and lots and lots of tequila is consumed. The opening scene of Bond movie Spectre shows sweeping shots of the Mexico City day of the dead celebration. Although fabricated for the film, the city adopted the tradition off the back of it!

Takes place on: 1st November

Burning Man, California

Burning Man, California

Burning Man symbolises either everything that’s cool or everything that’s wrong about the music, scene, festivals and the modern world. The festival takes place 100 miles into the Nevada desert (you thought getting to Somerset was a faff?) in a temporary make-shift city, created for the event, and it’s properly wild. Famed for its creative, Mad Max style vibe, each year there’s another theme (in 2019 it’s Metamorphoses) and the party is nearly as hot as the Nevadan weather. The event ends with the burning of a giant wooden effigy, the eponymous burning man.

Takes place on: The last Sunday in August to the first Monday in September

Website: www.burningman.org

Hadaka Matsuri

Hadaka Matsuri

Thousands of men in nappies may not sound like your cup of tea, but what if it’s in the name of religion? The naked festival, Hadaka Matsuri, is a religious ritual celebrating prosperity and fertility. Celebrated across Japan, the festivities involve getting very naked, en masse. And the biggest is the Saidai-ji Eyo Hadaka Matsuri, which is held at the Saidaiji Temple in Okayama, where the whole tradition started. Cue 9,000 men, naked or near naked, attempting to win good luck for the year. Well, after that surely anything would be lucky?

Takes place on: The third Saturday in February

The Busójárás, Mohács, Hungary

The Busójárás, Mohács, Hungary

Hungary sees your pancake day, and raises you demonic abominable snowmen. While we’re at home tossing batter at the kitchen ceiling, the inhabitants of Mohács in Hungary are dressing as demons to ward away the Turks. The legend goes that during the Ottoman occupation of Hungary, in the sixteenth century, the townsfolk took to living in the nearby swamps. One night a mysterious old man turned up and told them to fashion masks and demonic outfits and await a masked knight. Cleary with little else to do in the swamps, they took to the old papermaché and created costumes. The knight turned up and led the towns-people to Mohács where the Turks were so terrified they fled! Other, less complimentary, versions of the story tell that the yokels were simply trying to scare away winter.

Celebrated on the seventh Sunday before Easter and ending on Shrove (Pancake) Tuesday, the modern festival sees hundreds of ‘demons’ take the the streets, accompanied by folk music and plenty of alcohol.

Takes place on:  March or February

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