There’s nothing to me as wonderfully revitalizing as travel, and the experience of participating in the events, festivals and traditions of a different culture. It teaches and enriches us more through active engagement in a short span of time than we can glean through reading a travel guide cover-to-cover. The holidays in particular, both religious and secular in nature, are seasonal celebrations that bring people together in joy and fellowship. Add these international occasions to your holiday bucket list and the only problem you’ll have will be choosing where to start!
GUATAMALA Fiesta de Santo Tomás
If you enjoy death-defying feats and flairs for the dramatic, then Chichicastenango is the place for you. In the highlands of Guatamala you begin the week with a casual stroll in the market where you may purchase hand-carved masks and brightly embroidered cloth. There are parades, authentic Guatemalan folk dancers and food that will rev your taste-buds as only Latin cuisine can. As the festival comes to a close on the Fiesta de Santo Tomás (Feast of St. Thomas) the real spectacle commences. The dance of the palo volador (flying pole) begins with the ascent of the pairs of dancers to a height that averages thirty feet. The ropes attached to the tops of the poles are tied securely around the dancers’ waists or ankles, and the length wound around their bodies until only a short leash is left. Then they leap gracefully from the top of the pole, and as the rope unwinds rapidly from their bodies, the dancers are lowered to the ground. In some cases the participants may play instruments or sing as they gravitate to the earth again.
SPAIN Winter Solstice
Celebrate the Longest Night in Spain by jumping over the Hogueras (bonfire), and assure your health until the Summer Solstice! Traditionally it is what is considered to be the young and foolhardy who take the first leaps of faith, while the more experienced participants gather their strength and plan their timing to complete a successful arc across the flames. Dance and dine until the wee hours of the morning as the fiery embers cool.
The reign of the Roman deity Saturn and his brethren was an age of heroes in the chronicles of ancient mythology. While the original celebrations paying homage to the God and this era included rituals and sacrifices relevant to that time, modern day festivities mirror the more international celebration of Christmas. Participants first drape fragrant, green garlands around their doors and windows then decorations of bright, golden suns and stars are hung from these bows and trees or shrubbery in the yard.
Loved ones gather together for a meal and small gifts such as candles and sweets, or toys for children are exchanged. An excess of music, dancing and merriment are a fitting way to pay tribute to the bygone days from which this holiday originates. If you’re feeling particularly festive and plan on gadding about town during this time, keep some miniature presents on your person for those unexpected meetings with friends. An exclamation of “lo Saturnalia”! is a customary salutation and should be flowing from your lips as liberally as the libations.
TUNISIA Festival of the Sahara
The arrival of the nomads of the Saharan desert to Douz announce the beginning of the Festival of the Sahara, a celebration of the preservation of the lush and dynamic Bedouin culture.
Riders of the coveted Arabian horses execute military rifle displays with startling precision. There are camel races and hare chases, exotic dances by companies from a wide array of North African cultures and recitations of elegant poetry that depict the rugged and often romanticized life of the Bedouin tribes. During the festival, the market is often a place for public weddings, while stalls offer wares of local quality, such as Berber rugs, colorful home goods and decorations. You may even stumble upon a snake charmer or two.
ENGLAND Burning of the Clocks
The city of Brighton has created their own version of the Winter Solstice and dubbed it the Burning of the Clocks.
This is a singularly secular event that commemorates the passage of time when the days lengthen as the sun regains its reign over the sky with every turn of the clock. Delicate lanterns of white tissue paper and willow are crafted in all shapes and sizes to be carry in the procession that moves through the town, collecting the crowd as it flows, until reaching the seaside. There is a carnival-like air with lively musicians, street performers and fantastic costumes, many of which depict time pieces which reflect the festivals theme. The culmination of this fire festival is a pyrotechnic display over the English Channel, as Brighton’s effigy of time is lit and the lanterns, imbued with the hopes and dreams of their makers for the next year are consigned to the flames.
CHINA The Dōngzhì Festival
The Dōngzhì Festival is carried on by many Asian cultures, and like Saturnalia, places a stronger emphasis on family. The common dish served is tangyuan, a sticky rice ball that may be colored, spiced or stuffed for extra flavor. Once the balls are formed, they’re placed in a warm broth and paired with rice wine to be shared amongst the family members. The meal symbolizes reunion, while the day signifies that they are another year older and ideally another year wiser. Community members gather in their ancestral temples with those of the same surname to worship and perform the sacrificial ceremony followed by a reunion dinner.
As we explore the world, our interactions define us. Who we meet and what we see, always leaving a trace behind while taking away remembrances that are equally precious. Look beyond the artfully wrapped presents, ugly sweater parties and candy canes that are a part of the commercialized holidays to the true vehicles that drive us in creating the lasting memories that bring a smile to our faces and a twinkle to our eye for years to come. Friends, family, connections—that’s what the holidays are about!
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