Observing or getting involved with cultural rituals and celebrations is one of the best ways to learn about a new place. Immersive traditions might pay tribute to a deity or honour an historical figure. They might call for over-indulgence or abstinence. Some involve intricate costumes that invoke beauty or fear; others call for participants to bare all for the occasion. Whatever form they take, festivals are often visual spectacles that need to be seen to be believed.
For this new post series, I’ve teamed up with more than 60 travel writers who share their favourite festivals, rituals and ceremonial experiences in their home countries or when travelling abroad.
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Incredible Cultural Rituals Around the World
Part Three in the series looks at 15 fun and fascinating cultural rituals and ceremonies around the world—from Portugal to the USA, India to Bulgaria.
Thaipusam in Malaysia
One of the biggest Hindu festivals on the calendar, Thaipusam is all about faith, endurance, and penance. It’s celebrated in Malaysia and elsewhere each year on the full moon in the Tamil month of Thai (January or February). The title Thaipusam is actually a combination of the name of the month, Thai, and the name of a star, Pusam.
The celebration is dedicated to Lord Murugan, the youngest son of Shiva and Parvati. Devotees shower the deity with gratitude and gifts of devotion for prayers answered. Some festival participants carry kavadis (burdens) on their shoulders. Others carry pots of milk called paal kudam on their heads. Self-mutilation is common, as is piercing the face and tongue using ceremonial vels or spears.
Chanting and drumming fill the air, with some of the devotees entering into a trance. In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, pilgrims start a 15km walk from Sri Mahamariaman temple at around midnight and the festival reaches a climax at Batu Cave when they climb the 272 steps.
Each year, over a million pilgrims converge on Kuala Lumpur’s Thaipusam celebration. It’s difficult to describe the experience as a tourist. Some of the rituals are shocking; but as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it’s something worth seeing. Tourists can attend free of charge, take photos, and follow the procession. Just be respectful and careful not to get in the way of worshipers who are there for religious reasons.
By Sandrina, The Wise Travellers
King’s Day in The Netherlands
King’s Day is a national holiday in The Netherlands to celebrate the birthday of our King. The celebration takes place every year on the 27th of April and is marked throughout the entire country, from big cities such as Amsterdam to smaller villages.
As a tourist, the best way to fit in with the local crowd is to wear our national colour of orange. The crazier the better. Wear an orange wig, a hat, bracelets, shoes, trousers, etc. This is one of the only times of the year when Dutch people don’t judge anyone else’s outfit. The Dutch royal family bears the title House of Oranje, which explains the colour choice. The entire country turns into one big orange wave of people who are partying and having fun.
We used to celebrate Queen’s Day in The Netherlands up until the moment our queen abdicated on the 30th of April in 2013. But please don’t let old information fool you: King’s Day is celebrated on the 27th of April, unless it falls on a Sunday. In that case, it’s the 26th of April. On King’s Day, Amsterdam’s canals are filled with people in boats. On the streets, you will find some of the biggest street parties you’ve ever seen, and there are flea markets everywhere.
All of that for the birthday of someone most of us have never met! Have fun and as we say in Dutch, fijne Koningsdag (Happy King’s Day).
Lisbon Sardine Festival in Portugal
One of Lisbon’s biggest annual festivals is the Feast of St. Anthony, commonly known as the Lisbon Sardine Festival. Each year on June 12th, Lisbon honours St. Anthony of Padua, the city’s patron saint.
Although St. Anthony wasn’t Portuguese, he is credited with spreading Christianity to Portugal. At first, his sermons weren’t widely accepted by the people, but legend says that the ocean’s sardines came to the shore to listen to him. This earned him great respect with the local population. Ironically, today, the festival focuses on consuming those very sardines.
As has become the case with many religious festivals, the St. Anthony Feast is less about Catholicism these days. There are still certain Lisbon Sardine Festival traditions to follow, such as a huge parade and mass wedding. Rub a majerico or pot of basil for good luck—St. Anthony is also a patron of marriage here in Portugal!
Anywhere you go along Lisbon’s cobblestone roads and alleys you can smell the lingering scent of grilled sardines in the air. Music plays popular Portuguese and Brazilian songs, and people party in the street while eating grilled sardines and drinking sangria.
Don’t forget to bring small bills for your purchases, as most places don’t accept cards or large bills. Our recommendation is to stay in the city centre, as it is almost impossible to drive around during and after the festival.
By Halef & Michael, The Round The World Guys
Thinking of visiting Lisbon for the Sardine Festival? Use this 2-day Lisbon itinerary to start planning your trip.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans, USA
Mardi Gras in New Orleans is truly a spectacle to behold—it’s basically the USA’s version of Carnival, a Lenten celebration with a heaping dash of Bacchanalian excess.
Though the celebration is held every year on the day before Ash Wednesday, festivities last for months. It begins with social events in November, private balls held on Thanksgiving Day and New Year’s Eve, with parades and more private Mardi Gras Balls throughout January and early February.
Getting invites to these private events isn’t easy. But if you know someone (or have the money to grease palms), MOM’s Ball and Orpheuscapade Ball are frequently ranked among the best. And if you love music, check out the annual Galactic concert at the world-famous Tipitina’s on Lundi Gras (the day before Mardi Gras). The guys in Galactic—all longtime NOLA residents—recently purchased Tipitina’s, so this year’s concert should be particularly celebratory.
When the big day arrives, it’s best to plan what you want to see and do before the parade of beads, boobs, and booze begins. Longtime locals love the Krewe of Muses Parade, the Rex & Zulu Parade, and the Krewe of St. Anne and Krewe of Julu Parades. But, for our money, it doesn’t get any better than watching the Mardi Gras Indians Parade through the neighborhoods in and around the historically African-American area of Treme.
By Bret & Mary, Green Global Travel
Holi in San Jose, USA
Holi, the Indian festival of colors, is now famous worldwide. People associate Holi with the explosion of coloured powders, but it has deeper significance as the Indian spring festival, celebrated in February/March according to the Indian lunar calendar. After winter is over, we splash every one and every thing with exuberance and colours. After the festival, every person (traditionally) goes through a deep spring cleaning. Thus, spring and sunshine is welcomed into the community.
Like most festivals, there are many stories surrounding the origin and spread of Holi. It’s no longer just a festival in India: Holi is played worldwide. The best Holi events celebrated in the US are in the San Francisco Bay Area. The most popular and longest-running are Stanford Asha Holi and the Holi organised by RANA (The Rajasthan Association of North America).
People travel from different parts of the USA and from around the world to join in RANA Holi celebrations, which are organised by the Rajasthani families in the Bay Area. Admission typically includes a bag of colour, scrumptious traditional Rajasthani food, homemade thandai to die for, music, dance and great company. Additional bags of colour are sold at the venue.
A fully immersive experience, the energy can only be felt at the event. People who experience it once typically can’t wait to return and bring more friends along.
By Jyoti, Story At Every Corner
Saraswati Puja in Varanasi, India
It was my third visit to Varanasi, a crazy city where there is always something going on. In a sense, it is a continuation of families performing personal rituals for those just born and those that have passed away.
When I visited Varanasi during Saraswati Puja, the city was an explosion of dance, songs and colours. Saraswati is the goddess of wisdom and knowledge and on Saraswati Puja, people pay their respects by creating beautiful handmade images of the goddess that they bring to the Ganges river.
On the day, it’s mostly schools that walk in a procession with their Saraswati doll through town until they reach the Ganges. Each school tries to make the biggest and most beautiful Saraswati. It’s sad to see such incredible creations being thrown in the river, but in Hindu religion, the Ganges is the home of the gods and goddesses.
For tourists, daytime is the best time to see the festival. Just watch the processions through town, or watch doll after doll being released into the Ganges at the river side. Later, during the evening, the party gets more crowded and wild with mostly young men throwing coloured powder on each other. This is better observed from a safe distance, and there are some rooftop restaurants that offer a good view. Varanasi will never get crazier than this.
By Ellis, Backpack Adventures
Semana Santa in Seville, Spain
Holy Week, or Semana Santa in Spanish, is one of the biggest celebrations of the year in Spain. While processions take place in towns all over the country, none are as famous or extravagant as the Semana Santa processions in Seville.
This somber religious affair happens in the week leading up to Easter. Carved wooden statues are carried on huge floats through the city. Each church in Seville has its own brotherhood, and the members carry their church’s statue from their home church to the Cathedral and back. The amazing part is that the floats are not mechanised: They are carried by 20 to 40 people hidden underneath the float. The processions can last for up to 12 hours!
The brotherhood members do this as an act of penance. You’ll also see Nazarenos, people wearing pointed, conical hoods, marching next to the floats. But don’t worry, this tradition pre-dates the KKK by several hundred years and has no connection to it.
Tickets for seats in the grandstands sell out months in advance, but you can watch the processions from street level from several vantage points. From the river bank, for example, you can see the processions pass over the bridge from Triana.
Surva in Pernik, Bulgaria
Surva is a unique festival that takes place in Pernik, Bulgaria on the final weekend of January each year. It’s an old ritual with roots in Pagan tradition, one that has been performed for centuries in small villages around Bulgaria. Today it culminates officially in a festival called Surva and includes delegations from other Balkan countries as well.
You can find smaller-scale celebrations of the festival elsewhere in the Balkans, but Surva is definitely the largest and best-known. Parade participants dress in a variety of costumes, each specific to a region or village. Some costumes resemble monsters with grotesque faces. Others are made of a variety of fabric strips in red colours. Others still are made of long goat’s hair that shakes wildly as the participants dance.
Many of the revelers wear belts of giant bells and jump around to make a riot of noise, meant to scare off evil spirits. In addition to these people in monster costumes, some women dress up in traditional embroidered folk clothing to do circle dances, representing fertility and harvest, while other dancers called kukeri ward off evil spirits.
For tourists, there is no admission cost and it is easy to get to Pernik from Sofia by train or bus, which costs less than $2 each way and takes about an hour. Bring your camera and enjoy this unique festival!
By Allison, Sofia Adventures
Krampus in the Alps
Every year on the 5th of December, Krampus come to the villages in the Alps to terrorise all those who have been doing bad. Village men dress up with realistic-looking, horrifying wooden masks and animal fur, and hang a spine-freezingly loud bell around their waist. The masks are handmade and each one looks different.
One of the largest Krampus festivals is held in St. Johann in Tirol, Austria. Various larger festivals are organised across the Alps in different locations. This is when you can see various tribes from all over the Alps, including other parts of Austria, Switzerland, Bavaria in Germany and South Tyrol in Italy, all in the one place.
The legend of the Krampus might go back to the Celts and stories of demons coming down the mountains when the days get shorter, darker and colder. A similar custom is Perchten, which is less frightful. Part of carnival time in the Alps, Perchten marks the end of the dark season. While on the 5th December, the Krampus takes the bad kids and grown ups, on the 6th, St. Nicholas surprises the good humans among us with gifts of oranges, peanuts and chocolate.
Both Krampus and Perchten are definitely worth experiencing as a traveller and will bring you closer to an age-old traditions in the Alps. Anyone can attend a Krampus parade: It’s free, and you will notice most of the locals in attendance as well. Try to mix up with other people: The Krampus like to target certain people more then others.
By Helene, Masala Herb
Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rio de Janeiro Carnival is one of the most famous festivals in the world. Part pageantry and part chaos, this festival is very much Brazilian. What initially began as competitions between different Blocos and Samba schools has morphed into one of South America’s largest cultural events.
While the main competition arc of the festival remains, there is also much happening in the city during the five days of celebration. This includes themed parties, intimate Bloco events and a lot of dancing. When I attend Rio Carnival, I was surprised at how improvised and unorganised some of the events seemed to be. There is not much in the way of crowd and traffic control and for the most part, the city seemed to descend into organised chaos.
Carnival is held annually from the Friday preceding Ash Wednesday all the way up to Ash Wednesday itself. It’s a celebration of the cultural mix that is Rio, but most importantly, the music and dancing produced in the city. Street parties take place 24/7 during the five primary days of carnival, but many begin well before and continue long after.
Due to the lack of obvious organisation and visible security, it is important to be wary of your surroundings if you’re participating in Carnival. Excessive consumption of all manner of things can lead to precarious situations.
By Eoin, Dollys Quest
Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany
There is something about festivals that almost always make for an incredible time—loads of people, riddled with tradition, and an incredible experience. Of course, Oktoberfest is no exception. Held every year in Munich for just over two weeks between September and October, the event brings an influx of over six million people into the city every year.
Since its origin in 1810, a large component of Oktoberfest has involved the unique culture of Bavaria, the state in southern Germany where the event is held. Although known for its beer-drinking, Oktoberfest also offers an incredible environment with huge fairgrounds filled with tents, games, rides, attractions and delicious food.
I was slightly concerned that due to all the hype, Oktoberfest wasn’t going to be as good as I expected. I am thrilled to say that the festival did not disappoint! I would strongly encourage you to get immersed and purchase a dirndl or lederhosen (traditional Oktoberfest dress). As all of Munich gets very busy at this time of year, I would suggest booking accommodation well in advance. Lastly, arrive early each morning in order to secure a table in your tent of choice. There are numerous entrances into the fairgrounds so if the main entrance is packed, keep walking to one of the side entrances.
By Roxanne, The Coastal Campaign
St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin, Ireland
St. Patrick’s Day is an Irish national holiday celebrating St. Patrick, the patron Saint of Ireland. St. Patrick was a missionary and then a bishop of Ireland during the 5th century. St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated on March 17th, the estimated date of his death.
When I think about St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin, the first thing that comes to mind is having a few pints at the Temple Bar. However, St. Patrick’s Day is about much more than green beer and hanging out with friends. St. Patrick’s Day weekend in Dublin is a celebration of Irish culture, heritage, and the arts. Over the course of the festival, there is a daily assortment of cultural, musical, religious, culinary, athletic, and story-telling events.
The celebration in Dublin typically spans four to five days, with the central event being the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The parade is televised and is an exercise in pomp and circumstance. There are floats, scores of bagpipes, marching bands, street theatre, and lots of gusto.
If you find yourself in Dublin in mid-march, I would encourage you to stick around for St. Patrick’s Day weekend. If you do, I recommend staying in the city centre and booking your hotel in advance. Accommodations can sell out quickly and prices sky-rocket the closer you get to the weekend. Although there are a plethora of events over St. Patrick’s Day weekend there is copious amounts of drinking, so keep your wits about you. I also recommend staying away from Temple Bar if drunk and debaucherous is not your thing.
By Catherine, Traveling With The Littles
Holy Week in the Philippines
If you happen to travel to the Philippines during the months of March and April, you will get to witness unique Filipino traditions observed during Holy Week or Semana Santa. Being a predominantly Catholic country, many Filipino devotees go the extra mile to express their faith.
Some people reenact the final weeks of Jesus Christ’s life, including his walk to Calvary and crucifixion. Some of these traditions go further than mere acting and have been discouraged by the Church. Self-flagellation involves people harming themselves by wearing a crown of thorns, beating themselves with a whip or carrying a cross in public as atonement for their sins. You can easily observe this on the streets. Keep your distance from the parade, as it could get bloody and messy.
Another festival that you could partake in is the Moriones Festival, when people dress in costumes and masks similar to the Moor soldiers. Their get-up includes colorful Roman costumes, painted masks and helmets, and brightly coloured tunics. During the parade, the Moors engage in antics to scare and surprise bystanders and children. This festival aims to depict the persecution of Longinus, the blind soldier who pierced Jesus and eventually became Christian.
By Yamy, Go Fam Go
Christmas in Puerto Rico
For locals, Christmas time in Puerto Rico is an endless festival of family celebrations, parties, and traditions. As a tourist, if you plan ahead, you can experience some of these rich traditions for yourself.
Christmas in Puerto Rico doesn’t end after Christmas day. In fact, for most Puerto Ricans, Christmas celebrations last well into the middle of January. They celebrate Christmas eve and Christmas day with traditional Puerto Rican foods and presents. Many also engage in parrandas, which are very loud and lively versions of Christmas caroling. During Christmas season, it’s not uncommon to hear parties and singing from these parrandas well into the early hours of the morning.
When many places shut down in the states on Christmas day, you’ll find Lechoneras (places that sell roasted pork) come to life with parrandas and food and more partying. These celebrations continue well past New Year’s Eve to a day called Three Kings Day on January 6th, where many families celebrate the three kings who visited Jesus after his birth. Children cut grass from the lawn and put it in shoe boxes for the king’s camels to eat. When they wake, their boxes will be filled with presents from the kings. Final celebrations, music and parades can continue into the middle of January, concluding a Christmas that is a non-stop, fun-filled experience.
As a tourist, if you don’t know anyone in Puerto Rico, just keep an eye and ear out for the celebrations and don’t be afraid to ask the locals where you can go participate in some of the fun. Also, during Christmas time, be sure to eat some of the seasonal Puerto Rican dishes such as pasteles, arroz con gandules, lechon, pitorro (like a Puerto Rican moonshine), morcilla, and coquito.
By Allison, She Dreams Of Alpine
Songkran in Thailand
Songkran is the Buddhist new year celebrated across Southeast Asia over three days.
Songkran originally started as a Buddhist ritual to mark the new year with purification. Monks would attend temples, sprinkling Buddha statues with sacred water—an act that was believed to wash away the bad from the previous year and welcome the good. Over the years, the holiday has turned into a huge water fight. The throwing of the water is said to get rid of the bad.
Songkran starts on April 13 and goes for three full days. If you are visiting Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand, be ready to get wet. You can’t walk around during Songkran and expet not to get soaked. Someone will surely throw a bucket of water on you. Get yourself a squirt gun and join in on the fun. Make sure to protect your electronics if you have them out: Bring a waterproof bag, or carry a waterproof camera.
By Tarah & Tip, Fit Two Travel