In the U.S., summer is festival season – a time of big bands, food stalls and flowery dresses. But in the rest of the world, festivals are usually tied to culture, religion or historical events (or in some cases, the weather), and often the result is a visual spectacle.
From giant ice cities to massive food fights to a giant half-naked battle over wooden sticks, here are some of the most wild, beautiful and bizarre winter festivals around the world.
Harbin Ice Festival | January 5-February 25, 2017
Harbin is the largest and most renowned ice festival in the world, and for good reason. It’s not so much a festival as it is a temporary frozen city carved out of ice. The towering, ornate skyscrapers, temples and monuments reach up to 150 feet high and more than 800 feet long.
The scale and intricacy of the structures, and the accuracy of the replicas are jaw-dropping, but the frozen city is at its most impressive at night when LED lights illuminate the translucent sculptures, turning Harbin into a candy-colored fantasyland. The festival has an official end date, but the city of Harbin is so cold that structures often stay up well after the event is over, as long as weather permits.
Sapporo Snow Festival | February 6-12, 2017
Outside of Asia, Sapporo might be best known for its beer. But in Japan, Sapporo – the capital of Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido – is celebrated as one of the country’s top ski destinations and home of the Sapporo Snow Festival.
For six days, Odori Park is home to hundreds of snow sculptures ranging from massive renderings of Star Wars and manga characters (that make your snowman look pathetic) to life-size versions of buildings and monuments. By day, guests can watch sculptors work, and by night, some of the larger buildings are brilliantly lit up.
Jaisalmer Desert Festival | February 8-10, 2017
Known as the Golden City, Jaisalmer is a land of sandstone architecture, medieval forts and a whole lot of tradition. Every winter the Golden City is splashed with vibrant color as it plays host to one of the most bizarre, interesting and spectacular events in the country.
The festival – actually held about 24 miles outside the city – is quite unlike any other festival on earth. Mustache competitions, camel races and turban-tying contests make you feel like you’re wandered back in time to when Jaisalmer was still a medieval trading hub. Then there’s the locals (and camels) adorned in traditional colorful dress, musicians playing Rajasthani folk songs, and performers of all kinds from puppeteers to jugglers to dancers entertaining the crowds.
Thaipusam | February 9, 2017
Kuala Lumpur’s largest Hindu festival is not for those with a weak stomach. Malaysians celebrate Thaipusam to pay respect to Murugan, the Hindu god of war, by making a roughly 10-mile pilgrimage to the iconic Batu Caves.
The walk – often done barefoot – is already painful enough in the brutal heat and humidity, but the devout who want to repent for their sins and give thanks for answered prayers carry small pots of milk connected to their skin by hooks. The most extreme piercings spear through their tongues and cheeks and hook to the rest of their faces, in addition to massive silver-and-gold cages pierced through their skin with spikes.
All the while, these people in a trance-like state – dressed in bold colors, and body and face paint – burst into feverish dance. It’s a sight to behold for the non-squeamish.
Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival | February 11, 2017
There’s something about watching a Chinese paper lantern disappear into the night that can make a person get all pensive and sentimental. But what about watching 200,000? Well that’s a whole other story, and to see that phenomenon, you’ll have to head to Taiwan.
Every winter on the lunar New Year, hordes of Taiwanese people head to the remote mountain town of Pingxi to set the sky ablaze with a universe of paper lanterns ever drifting toward the full moon. Visitors can also buy a lantern, scrawl a wish for the new year on it, light the fire below and watch it drift into a galaxy of floating flames.
Okayama Naked Festival (Hadaka Matsuri) | February 18, 2017
If going into a crowded room half naked and doing battle with 10,000 other men in loincloths sounds like your cup of tea, then Hadaka Matsuri is for you. “Naked festivals” are held in cities all over Japan, but the biggest and most famous by far takes place at the Kannon-In Temple in Okayama, where the festival originated.
After getting freezing water dumped over them during the heart of winter, thousands of nearly naked men fight over two sacred wooden sticks in an attempt to gain good luck, wealth and bragging rights for the next year. The ancient festival (dating back more than 1,000 years) is not for the faint of heart, as participants regularly get knocked down into the crowd and tumble down the temple stairs. But you can sit on the sidelines and enjoy the spectacle from a safe distance.
You’ve gotta love Japan.
Pasola | TBD – late February/Early March, 2017
For centuries, all around the world, harvest festivals have been a time to celebrate with feasting and general merriment for an abundance of food and a lack of needing to work. In Sumba, Indonesia, the harvest festival is a violent bloodbath.
On Pasola, men riding on colorfully decorated horses throw wooden spears at each other in an attempt to spill blood onto the field to create a good harvest. Because the festival coincides around the full moon, at the time of year when multicolored sea worms called nyale appear on the shore of the island, the official date is announced about two weeks prior.
A priest examines the worms, then the battle begins. It’s an extravagant celebration and wild affair, but sometimes people get injured and have even died, so it’s not for the squeamish.
Battaglia delle Arance | February 26, 2017
During the Battaglia delle Arance (battle of the oranges), thousands of participants pelt each other with nearly a million pounds of oranges in the town square of Ivrea, Italy. The celebration pays homage to an event in the 1100s when a woman led a revolt against a count who decided he had the right to sleep with any woman about to get married.
The town’s peasants hit the streets armed with stones and waged a battle against the count and his army. The uprising left the streets splattered red with blood; centuries later, the streets are splattered orange with pulp and peels.
Noche de Brujas | Night of Witches – March 3, 2017
Catemaco, Mexico is a sleepy little lake town known for its beautiful lagoon, rivers, waterfalls and dark magic. Arguably the spiritual home of the country’s witchcraft and shamanic community, Catemaco hosts hundreds of witches and shamans from all over the country who come to take part in a spiritual cleansing around the lunar new year.
Don’t worry; it’s not all burning pentagrams, animal slaughter and pagan costumes (though there’s plenty of that). There are also music stages, dance performances and food stalls – not to mention plenty of tourists looking to get in touch with their mystical side via tarot readings, ritual cleansings and perhaps a bit of voodoo.
Frozen Dead Guy Days | March 10-12, 2017
The quirky and beautiful little mountain town of Nederland is home to what is quite possibly the wackiest festival on this list. Everything about it is off-the-wall, from the rocky mountain oyster-eating contest, to the coffin races, to the polar plunges, to the frozen turkey bowling, which is exactly what it sounds like. But the strangest part of the festival is the reason it exists in the first place.
The event was created to celebrate a “resident” named Grandpa Bredo Morstoel, who died in 1989 at the age of 89, and whose family had him cryogenically frozen. Several years later, after a whole lot of bizarre twists and turns, the media picked up the story and Nederland – a town that, like its neighboring city Boulder, likes to keep things weird – started the festival in 2000 in honor of its oddball dead guy.