Ah February, what a fabulous month! The chaos of the holiday season is thankfully behind us, the New Year is officially one month in gear, and everyone is settling into whatever routine their resolutions have afforded them. Those of us in the area around New Orleans, Louisiana, however, are preparing for a special time of year: Mardi Gras season. Already I was scrambling to leave work early to avoid eager parade crowds that had packed their cars along the road, the music from floats thumping in the distance as our first local Mardi Gras parade lined up for the two-week celebration leading up to Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday. My jester’s mask has officially replaced my Christmas wreath this weekend as I prepare myself for streets overflowing in plastic beads and moon pies, and it all had me thinking: what better time than this to ponder upon the festivities that lurk in the background of our own crafted worlds?
It can’t be all doom and gloom and dark dealings and dangerous forays, can it? How can you bring your characters to the brink of despair without first providing a little light and mirth with which to lower their guards? Celebrations, holidays, and special occasions are a great way to add a little cultural detail to the fantasy landscape and to provide a bit of pause, however uneasy it may be, for both your characters and your readers. Celebrations can literally occur for any reason—a historical event, the birth of an important political figure, the coming of a season, a religious occasion, a pivotal discovery, a local tradition, a coming of age ceremony, a personal achievement, and so on. There is likely some key theme or element or history within your world’s setting that can contribute to a holiday or celebration unique to that world, maybe even to certain regions of the world. Especially if your plot is following a band traveling characters, they are bound to run into some celebratory traditions different from there own that might provide a source of fascination.
I myself grew up in a little town in a middle Mississippi farming community about three hours north of where I currently live. Even at such a seemingly short distance, I had never really even heard of Mardi Gras let alone celebrated it. We instead had the annual Broiler Festival every summer, a festival dedicated to broilers (aka young adult chickens used for cooking), because the chicken industry was the largest and most profitable industry within our small community. My husband’s community an hour or so southwest of mine, in contrast, celebrated the Strawberry Festival. Likewise, I would expect different local traditions to abound within a fantasy world, especially one that is far less connected information-wise than our own.
Communities may celebrate large national (or imperial) holidays, but often they have concepts that are culturally, economically, or socially important to them that is often distinct from whatever larger grouping they’re apart of. So here are some unique seasonal celebrations from around the world to inspire your festive fantasy spirit:
The Bear Dance — Moldova, Romania
A procession of dancing bears—nowadays a procession of dancers dressed in bearskins—parades down the streets of small Moldovan towns in blood-red tassels, growling and snarling and chattering to the beat of drums. Some stop at houses to dance and sing and thus ward off evil in exchange for good luck in the coming New Year. At the end, a performance! The Bear collapses, infected with a demon, and the Bear Tamer bleeds the Bear with his knife to release the demon and revive the Bear from the demon’s evil grasp.
In ancient Romania, the bear was considered a sacred animal. Just prior to the New Year, the Roma, or Gypsies, would bring real bears from the woods in which they lived and make them dance in order to chase away bad spirits from the past year. The townsfolk would even pay the Roma to let bear cubs walk up and down their backs as a cure for backaches. Both the Catholic Church during medieval times and the Communist dictatorship during more modern times tried to outlaw this Bear Dance because of its pagan roots, but the Bear Dance continues to persist in Moldova as a celebration of the power, the death (aka, hiberation), and subsequent resurrection of the mighty Bear. Not to mention earning a little luck for the New Year.
Frozen Dead Guy Days — Nederland, Colorado
The year is 1989, and Trygv Bauge has hauled the corpse of his recently deceased grandfather Bredo Morstøl on dry ice from his homeland of Norway to a cryonics facility in California to be preserved in liquid nitrogen. Four years later, Tryge Bauge and his mother Aud decide to transport the cryopreserved Morstøl to the town of Nederland, Colorado, where they intend to operate their own cryonics facility out of their own home.
This goes disastrously.
Tryge Bauge is deported for overstaying his visa. The house they were building remains unfinished. The cryopreserved Morstøl is moved into a shack to maintain his frozen state due to a lack of electricity. Aud is eventually evicted because of the inadequate electricity and plumbing requirements and found guilty of building-use and zoning regulations as you can’t just keep a cryonics facility in your backyard, it turns out. A new law is made in Nederland to specifically ban the keeping of a body or body parts or carcass upon one’s home property.
Fortunately for poor Aud, the scandal became an absolute town sensation, as locals were enthralled with her predicament as she appealed to the judge of her fears that the eviction would leave poor cryopreserved Morstøl to thaw out. They decided to be lenient, thanks to the public’s interest, and “grandfathered” in Morstøl (ha), allowing a local environmental company to maintain the cryonics facility and thus continue preserving Morstøl on Aud’s property. Thus in early March, to commemorate the strange piece of town history, Nerderland celebrates Frozen Dead Guy Days with coffin races, a dance called Grandpa’s Blue Ball, a blue ice cream called Frozen Dead Guy, polar plunges, and tours of the original Tuff Shed where Grandpa Bredo remains frozen to this day.
Kissing Festival — Denpasar, Bali
Once upon a time in a small kingdom of Bali, there was a sick king. As he was resting, he was disturbed by a noise outside, the noise of a group of girls and a group of boys playing a pulling game in his yard. Angry, the king came out to shoo them away, but just as he stepped outside, he felt miraculously healthy. He thereafter recovered from his illness and bade the tradition of omed-omedan be held every year after Nyepi on Ngambek Geni Day.
Thus are the origins of the Kissing Festival, in which men and women between 17 and 30 years of age are divided into opposite groups. They first attend a praying ceremony at the temple, where they are sprinkled with holy water, before they line up and face each other. Both groups are divided into smaller groups and made to play a pulling game similar to tug-of-war. Whichever man and woman are at the forefront of their group must kiss each other and can’t stop until the senior elders pour a bucket of water over them. Despite the Balinese government at one point trying to suppress this tradition, citing it as pornographic, it is still celebrated today on the first day of the New Year as an expression of joy and a hope for prosperity—and perhaps some wedding bells?
Battle of the Oranges — Ivrea, Italy
On a much darker note, there was a practice in the Middle Ages called droit du seigneur, which allowed feudal lords to legally rape subordinate women on their wedding nights. In 12th century Ivrea, Italy, a tyrannical lord (a duke or a count depending on the version of the story and usually presumed to be Guido III by historians) known for regularly invoking droit du seigneur made a claim on a local miller’s daughter shortly after her wedding ceremony. He forced the girl, dubbed Violetta, into his castle. She promptly decapitated him in his bedroom, initiating a revolution that brought about the storming and destruction of his castle.
Now every February leading up to Shrove Tuesday, the people of Ivrea hold the largest food fight in all of Italy, in which groups of aranceri (aka, orange handlers) gathered on foot pelt other aranceri being pulled in carriages. The carriages represent the tyrant’s army; the people on foot represent the revolutionaries; and the oranges represent the stones and weaponry they had thrown at the tyrant’s men in their storming of the castle. Originally, it was beans that were thrown, later apples. To this day, no one really knows why oranges have become the preferred edible weapon of choice considering oranges don’t even grow in the area. One year, around 600,000 lbs. of oranges from southern Italy were imported into the city just for this celebration.
Spring Equinox — Teotihuacán, Mexico
At the end of March on the spring equinox, it’s popular tradition in Mexico to visit the ruins at Teotihuacán as well at other sites such as Chichén Itzá. The ancient peoples of Mesoamerica had a fervent interest in astrology, creating numerous observatories to document the movements of the planets and the shifting of the seasons and even create their own calendars. It’s no surprise that thousands of people, dressed in white and often wearing red scarves, gather at these sites to celebrate the coming of spring with dancing, incense-burning, chanting, and spiritual cleansing.
At Teotihuacán, the tradition is to stand atop the Pyramid of the Sun (which was built in 200 AD and is one of the largest pyramids in Mesoamerica) with arms outstretched towards the east and watch the sun rise over the Apan Mountains. Descendants of the Teotihuacán peoples believe that climbing these 360 steps and paying homage will grant energy and health from the gods. Teotihuacán itself is a bit of a mystery. The first advanced civilization on the North American continent, it boasted the sixth largest population at its height but was long abandoned when the Aztecs arrived in the 12th and 13th centuries, its people dispersed possibly due to internal uprising and nearby volcanic events.
Festival of Scrambled Eggs — Zenica, Bosnia
The city of Zenica in central Bosnia celebrates spring in an unusual way—by scrambling eggs. Thousands of eggs actually. Every year on the first day of spring, the people of Zenica gather on the banks of the Bosnia River as local restaurant owners compete to scramble the most eggs for the festival attendees. One year’s record was 1,500 eggs scrambled in one giant pan.
No one really knows the origins of Cimburijada, or the Festival of Scrambled Eggs, but it’s believed to date back at least a century. The egg is considered a symbol of birth, or new life. Therefore, the festival is seen as a celebration of spring and rejuvenation of nature, and why not express that by eating scrambled eggs?
Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake — Brockworth, England
This 600-year-old tradition out of Brockworth, England involves a race down the steep, 200-yard long Cooper’s Hill after (yes, you guessed it) a round of Double Gloucester cheese. The first person over the finish line wins the round of cheese. While competitors may try to catch the cheese, it’s very unlikely given the approximately 8-lb. cheese round can reach speeds up to 70 mph, becoming quite dangerous to unwary spectators.
There are two possible origins for this cheese-chasing tradition. Some claim it came about as a means to maintain grazing rights on the hill’s common. Others say it developed out of a pagan tradition of rolling burning brushwood down the hill to represent the birth of the New Year after winter, perhaps combined with the local tradition of scattering buns, biscuits, and sweets at the top of the hill to promote a bountiful harvest in the coming year. Regardless, the event has garnered international attention, boasting winners from all over the world, as well as some criticism for its peril. Because the hill is very steep and uneven, there are numerous injuries every year, reportedly fifteen in 1993. No worries though! Ambulances are dutifully waiting at the bottom of the hill to cart any injured competitors away to the local hospital if the need should arise.
There’s actually a short film called Let’s Roll made about the custom.
Pot Throwing Ceremony — Corfu, Greece
On the island of Corfu in Greece, locals celebrate the Holy Saturday before Easter with a local tradition called “bótides.” At 11 AM, “The God Resurrected, Judging the Earth” is sung, followed by a chorus church bells and a thunderous shattering of water-filled clay pots as they are thrown from red-ribboned balconies and windows. Once the clay pots have been smashed on sidewalks below, the island’s three Philharmonic Orchestras walk the streets playing Corfu’s anthem Graikoí as bystanders collect pieces of broken clay in hopes it will bring them luck and prosperity.
The bótides ceremony is believed to date back to the Venetian occupation of Corfu when it was tradition to break old pitchers on New Year’s Day as a sort of tribute to the new year, a casting out of the old in favor (or in hopes) of the new. The residents of Corfu adopted the custom but celebrated it on Easter instead as Easter was one of the most important holidays in Greek Orthodox religion. From there, it was associated with Psalm 2:9—”Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel”—and became symbolic with removing misfortune. Some, however, believe it dates back to the ancient Greek tradition of throwing out their old clay planters in order to plant seeds in new planters for the coming spring. Either way, it sounds like a great way to redecorate and feel good about it.
The Three Games of Men — Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Nadaam, or the Three Games of Men, is a festival which has been practiced in Mongolia since at least the 12th century. It was a well established tradition by the time it was recorded in The Secret History of the Mongols, one of the oldest Mongolian literary works, which was written in the 13th century. The festival celebrates those three attributes most prized by the ancient Mongols: strength, horsemanship, and marksmanship. These skills are tested through competitions held in wrestling, horseracing, and archery.
Wrestling is believed to have originated some 7,000 years ago in Mongolia, the techniques and rituals used in its style of wrestling being distinct to the country. Wrestlers wear unique outfits: leather boots, a loincloth, a pointed velvet cap, and a pair of sleeves that stretch to cover the back. There’s no weight categories or age limit in Mongolian wrestling, and every wrestlers has an attendant who sings to encourage them during certain rounds. The goal is to off-balance your opponent, forcing him to touch the ground with a body part other than his hands or feet. The title of Lion is given to the wrestlers who wins all nine rounds, and the title of Giant is awarded to a wrestler who wins two years in a row.
The horse race involves a 10- to 17-mile cross-country race and is performed by children between five and thirteen years of age. The young jockeys wear brightly colored clothes often stitched with figures of butterflies as a hope for lightness or birds for swiftness among other symbols of good luck. The goal of the horse race is less about the jockey’s ability and more a means of testing the horse, evidenced by the awarded titles. The winning jockey receives the title of tumny ekh, or “leader of ten thousand,” while the last-place horse is sadly given the title bayan khodood, or “full stomach.”
There is a joke of which came first in Central Asia—the wheel or the bow? For centuries, archery has played a huge part in the life and history of the Mongols and other steppeland people of Central Asia. The archery competition at Nadaam has taken different forms over these centuries, from shooting balls of animal skin hung from posts while on horseback to the more modern-day practice of shooting at stacked targets or rows of targets from foot. Both men and women compete in archery, and they fire from 75 meters and 65 meters away, respectively.
Wife-Carrying World Championship — Sonkajärvi, Finland
The strange but increasingly popular sport of eukonkanto, or wife-carrying, involves a man carrying a female partner through an obstacle course with the goal of completing the course with the fastest time. Various types of “holds” are permitted for carrying the female partner, but the three most common holds are the classic piggyback, the fireman’s carry of over one shoulder, or the Estonian-style, where the wife is upside down on his back with legs hooked over his neck and shoulders.
Eukonkanto first began in Finland, and it is thought to have evolved sometime in the 1800s from the shenanigans of a thief named Herkko Rosvo-Ronkainen, or just Ronkainen the Robber for short. Ronkainen and his band of thieves supposedly trained to be fast by exercising with large, heavy sacks on their backs. They were also accused both of stealing food from local villages as well as abducting women, carrying the women off on their backs as they fled. Around the same time, it was purported that there was a practice of “wife-stealing” in the area where young men from one village would abduct women from neighboring villages and force them into marriage, regardless of their current marital status. The wife-carrying competition likely developed out of some amalgamation of these stories.
But don’t be too quick to crack a joke. Competitors take the sport very seriously.
Baby-Jumping Festival — Castrillo de Murcia, Spain
Venture a little southwest on the European continent, and you can find a festival famed for its baby-jumping in the small Spanish village of Castrillo de Murcia. The festival involves a week long celebration that ends with a Colacho—a man dressed in a yellow-garbed devil costume—terrorizing the locals with his horsetail whip and, yes, ultimately jumping over babies. As the final hurrah of the festival, all the babies born within the last twelve months are lain on a mattress in the street outside their houses, and the Colacho jumps over the babies while crowds hurl insults at him. Rose petals are sprinkled over the bewildered babies, a priest blesses them, and their parents collect them.
So why the baby-jumping? It’s locally believed that this ritual absolves the infants of their original sin, bestowed upon them by Adam and Eve’s disobedience of God. The sin is absorbed by the devil as he leaps over the babies, bestowing protections from disease and misfortune. Spectators also may gain a measure of good luck for the coming year if they berate the Colacho during the event. As you might expect, the Catholic Church is very critical of the the practice of el salto del Colacho as it supports baptism as a means of removing original sins and not baby-jumping. However, the Church’s opinion is unlikely to deter the residents of Castrillo de Murcia, who have practiced the custom since the 1600’s and continue to practice it today.
MudFest — Boryeong, South Korea
If there’s one thing the city of Boryeong, South Korea is famous for, it would be their mud! That’s right. According to officials, the mud from its mud flats are rich in minerals, such as germanium and bentonite, and emits far-infrared radiation—both of which are said to have healing properties beneficial to the skin. The mud is used as a base in many of their cosmetic products, so in 1998 the first Boryeong Mud Festival, or MudFest, was launched to promote these cosmetics.
Now, every year organizers haul loads of mud from the Boryeong mud flats to Daecheon Beach in order to entertain a swath of mud-lovers both nationally and internationally. There are a variety of mud-themed attractions such as mud baths, mud pools, and mud slides as well as mucky competitions such as mud wrestling and mud skiing. There’s even a mud prison, where one can hurl (yes, indeed) mud at the unfortunate prisoners. There are of course some other cleanlier activities such as massages, concerts, and fireworks, but it’s no fun if you don’t get a little dirty.
Cure Salée — In-Gall, Niger
In September, at the end of the rainy season, the semi-nomadic Tuareg and Wodaabe peoples travel to the gathering point of In-Gall in northwest Niger to trade, water theis herds, socialize, and participate in the Cure Salée, or “Festival of the Nomads.” Since the clans will afterward disperse south for the dry season, the festival traditionally involves courtship rituals, the most famous being the Wodaabe ritual of Guérewol.
The Guérewol is essentially a beauty pageant performed by Wodaabe men, who often rise early and spend hours painting their faces with red makeup, white dots, and black or blue lipstick. They adorn themselves in jewelry, plumes, and colorful and elaborate costumes and dance for hours on end beneath the desert sun, eyes held wide and lips parted to display the whiteness of their eyes and teeth. Interlinking arms, the men lift and fall on their toes in an imitation of the white cattle egret and a means of displaying their height, all while chanting “va va va va.” The performance can last for days, aided by drinks made of fermented tree bark (which may or may not cause some mild hallucination), until finally three winners are chosen by three marriageable women. The women practice the Wodaabe code of behavior called pulaku, which among other things prevents them showing emotion, as they walk the lines of dancers and finally tap their chosen partner on the shoulder. If the three chosen men like their respective women, they’ll follow them back to camp in the hopes of marriage—or at the very least a night of fun.
Dziady — Poland
Dziady, or Forefather’s Eve, is the more serious Polish equivalent to Halloween or All Hallow’s Eve, occurring on the last day of October when ancestral spirits return to their old houses to visit their families. Dating back to the ancient Slavs, the customs of Dziady involved holding feasts near the grave sites of one’s ancestors in order to offer them food and gain their favor before helping them to return peacefully to the afterlife. Bread, honey, groats, eggs, and even vodka were dropped or spilled on the floor or over the graves as gifts for the spirits to eat and drink. Dziady is also the word for beggar, and this itself was not coincidental in that many believed beggars to be mediums to the spirit world. People would offer food and money to beggars in exchange for their prayers for their ancestors.
The most important tradition of Dziady is the karaboszka mask. These masks made of clay or wood were used to impersonate the deceased. Wearing their karaboszka masks and hoisting torches to light the way, the descendants would lead their ancestors back to the underworld after their communion.
Mothman Festival — Point Pleasant, West Virginia
On November 15, 1966, a strange report was made to the police of Point Pleasant, West Virginia—a report of a seven-foot-tall humanoid creature with glowing red eyes and white wings standing alongside a road. The creature supposedly pursued two young couples in their car, shrieking and using its hypnotic gaze to obscure its facial features. Over the next few days, more sightings of the creature were reported by the local media. One man blamed the creature for buzzing noises around his property and the disappearance of his German Shepherd. Although it is widely suspected the creature was a large sandhill crane that had wandered out of its normal habitat, locals began to refer to the creature as the “Mothman,” possibly after the Batman comic book villain Killer Moth. A bridge collapse the next year causing the death of 46 people only fueled the legend further and gave rise to more sightings of the Mothman as well as many hoaxes.
Now every year on the third weekend of September, Point Pleasant hosts the Mothman Festival boasting thousands of visitors to celebrate their local legend with costumes, music, tours, and a trip to their Mothman Museum.
Hungry Ghost Festival — Hong Kong
In the month of August, a ghostly month for Hong Kong, there is a day when the deceased come to visit their descendants and undergo their judgement by Lord Qinqxu, the official of earth, according to Taoist belief. With the full moon alight and the seasons shifting, the gates of both heaven and hell open and allow the spirits free roam in our mortal world. Because many are lost souls treated poorly in life or forgotten after death, it’s important to observe certain practices such as offering food, keeping your clothes in the house, leaving lights on, and keeping doors and windows closed. You should also avoid swimming lest a drowned spirit try to pull you under or riding the last bus for the evening lest it be full of ethereal passengers. Any sort of photography is also known to attract spirits as well as the colors of black and red. Many a spooky tale abounds during the Hungry Ghost Festival including that of a drowned bride, a suicide pact between seven sisters, and a haunted World War II prison.
In addition to food offerings, people also burn hell bank notes, which is a special currency used by the dead, as well as joss paper made in the effigy of houses, cars, and other objects in order to appease the ghosts and pay off their debts. Lotus shaped lanterns are often lit and set afloat in rivers or at sea to lead wandering or lost spirits to the afterlife. Operas are commonly performed during the Hungry Ghost Festival, but the front row is always left empty for the stars of the festival—the ghosts, of course!
Art mimics life, they say, and life is always abundantly flowing with inspiration. Whether you desire hungry ghost or frozen dead guys, whether you are jazzed about throwing pots off balconies or chasing a round of cheese down a hill, there are always creative and crazy traditions worthy celebrating, both across our world and in our fictional ones. Don’t forget to let your characters have a little fun every now and then or celebrate something serious and meaningful through dance and music, art and storytelling, mock battles and competitions, and of course feasting! It can shed light both on their personality and on the world you have created for them, on what is significant to the story you wish to share. There is meaning—and some entertainment—in the details after all.
Happy writing! And Happy Mardi Gras to all my merry revelers!
And Happy Mardi Gras to all my merry revelers!
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