No matter which country you live in, festivals are unavoidable. For as long as people have lived together in communities, it seems we have had a longing to celebrate together as a group. Festival celebrations take place in all cultures, all over the globe and for lots of different reasons. Religion, music, food – all these and more have inspired festivals new and old.
Whether you love culture, you’re learning English, or you’re just looking to party, there’s a festival out there for you. Here’s a guide to some of the most common types of festival out there. You’ll get to know the reasons behind these celebrations, as well as examples of some of the most popular festivals on the planet.
Many of the world’s biggest festivals have their basis in religion. A special occasion of feasting and celebration, feasts have long been used by religious followers to honour gods. Some of the most famous religious festivals include Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, Passover, Easter, Holi and Eid al-Adha, which all serve to mark out the year.
Among these, the Holi Festival in India is definitely the most colourful. Also known as the Colour Throwing Festival, it takes place in March every year. It is observed by Hindus and Sikhs, with bonfires being lit and coloured powder and water being thrown at one another for a truly unforgettable sight.
This type of festival may have its roots in religion, but today it’s less about celebrating religious figures and more about partying hard. Traditionally, the carnival season is celebrated around the world just before Lent, with the main events usually taking place during February. Lent is a period where religious followers have to fast or give up luxuries for 40 days, so carnival is a last chance to indulge in all of the food, drink and partying that they are about to give up.
Carnival celebrations take place in the streets, with parades full of people, typically with lots of colourful floats on display, carried down city streets. There are costumes, masks, confetti, balloons and, above all, music.
If you want to check out some of the biggest and best street carnivals in the world, head to the world famous Rio Carnival in Brazil, the Mardi Gras celebrations in Mexico or New Orleans in Louisiana, and the Notting Hill Carnival in London, which celebrates Caribbean culture in particular.
Besides religious festivals, you’ll also find major celebrations of culture around the world. Every aspect of the arts now has its own important festival somewhere. Film has the Cannes Film Festival and Sundance Film Festival. For comedy, there’s the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in Australia, and the Just for Laughs International Comedy Festival in Montreal, Canada. If you love music, then you’re spoiled for choice, with the renowned Glastonbury in the UK, to Burning Man in the Nevada Desert and Primavera in beautiful Barcelona.
And if you’re looking to sample the best in film, comedy, music, theatre, dance and more, then you can’t miss the most famous arts celebration on the planet – the Edinburgh International Festival in Scotland, which has been attracting visitors from all over the globe for almost 70 years.
It’s no coincidence that some of the oldest festivals on earth coincide with certain seasons. Countries worldwide have lots of festivals that spring into life in the winter – and who can blame our ancestors for wanting to celebrate during the coldest, darkest days of the year. We all need something to cheer ourselves up and get us through the bleak winter days.
Winter – Saturnalia
The ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia in honour of the deity Saturn – and they sure knew how to party, with festivities kicking off on 17th December, lasting right through to the 23rd of December. The celebrations started with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn – thankfully festivals these days tend to steer clear of anything this gruesome. Afterwards it was a delicious public banquet, and then mayhem. A real carnival atmosphere gave way, gifts were given, strict Roman social norms were overturned. That meant that gambling was permitted, and masters provided table service for their slaves. In fact, the poet Catullus called it “the best of days.”
Other festivals that help to liven up the cold winter months include New Year, or Hogmanay as it’s called in Scotland, as well as Halloween and the Day of the Dead in Mexico.
Spring – traditionally we also love to celebrate the start of this season. Spring festivals like the Gaelic Beltane festival and May Day celebrations date back centuries. When new flowers come into bloom, lambs are being born in the fields, days grow longer and the temperature grows warmer, we want to celebrate. Festivals around this time typically focus on new life and hope for the future, with dancing, singing and fruits and vegetables that have just come into season.
Food and agriculture
A party really isn’t much of a party without food and drink and people have been celebrating with delicious grub for centuries. Closely tied to the seasons, many food-based festivals traditionally take place at harvest time, when farmers reap their crops and there is plenty of food to share. Here are some famous food and drink festivals for you to try:
Oktoberfest – Germany’s most famous festival – and one that’s now been exported all over the world, is a celebration of one of mankind’s best-loved drinks – beer. Every September for 16 days you’ll find the streets of Munich lined with beer tents and tables, serving up endless glasses of beer, and traditional German foods like sausages, potato pancakes and roast pork. You might need to queue for the beer though, as around 6 million people visit this festival each year.
La Tomatina of Bunol – if you love tomatoes, then this is the festival for you. A celebration with a difference, La Tomatina is the world’s biggest food fight. Every year since 1944, people have been gathering in the streets of Bunol in Valencia, Spain, to throw ripe tomatoes at each other – just don’t wear white!