Old, young, seasoned globetrotter or timid newbie, there's one thing all us travellers have in common: our love of celebrations. Huge nation- or city-wide celebrations that present us with new experiences and challenge our understanding of community and devotion are no exception, particularly as vibrant colours, decadent food, traditional entertainment, rich costumes, intriguing myths, and a plethora of diverse beliefs and practices typically abound.
Although the list of these widely varying celebratory events is likely infinite, there are, for better or worse, a small number that have become particularly famous and that are now sought out by eager travellers from every corner of the globe. As travel becomes more accessible and people become more interested in immersive, cross-cultural experiences, these events are likely to see an increase in participants. With this in mind, we thought we'd collect some of the world's best known celebrations to share a snapshot of their richness and vibrancy with anyone considering attending in the future. Enjoy!
Rio Carnival, Brazil
Everyone’s heard of this one, and when you consider that roughly 500,000 tourists show up to view the flamboyant colours, raucous music, and near gravity-defying dance moves that characterise the event, it’s little wonder! Taking place over five days and ending just before Ash Wednesday, Carnival symbolises a purging of the excesses and extravagances that are traditionally avoided during Lent. In addition to boundless entertainment, Rio Carnival celebrates Brazilian culture, largely through Samba. This uniquely Brazilian form of music and dance was inspired by African (particularly Angolan and Congolese) traditions conferred during the slave trade, and plays an integral role during Carnival through the Samba Schools that represent particular neighbourhoods. Although the tradition of Carnival takes place in many other locations, Rio Carnival is the biggest and arguably most lavish of the celebrations. These two factors seem to have imbued it with a greater degree of fame, as evidenced by the fact that it is often simply known as ‘Carnival’ around the world.
Although you’ve likely heard of this vibrantly coloured event in India, you might not be as familiar with the meaning behind it. Holi is celebrated, according to the Bikram Sambat Hindu calendar, on Purnima, the full moon, in the month of Falgun, for two days. On these days, participants celebrate the victory of good over evil and the onset of spring, while giving thanks for the harvest. In addition to playfully smearing each other with coloured powder (gulal), people spend time with their families, dance to traditional music, and indulge in sweets to mark the occasion. Don't forget to pack a Scrubba stealth pack to keep your gear safe and wash your soiled clothes at the end of it all!
If you want to celebrate the beginning of the solar calendar in Thailand, you should be prepared to get a little (or a lot) wet, especially between April 13 and 15. Appropriately for a New Year celebration, Songkran translates to ‘the passing of’. The traditional concurrence of this celebration with the beginning stages of the rice harvest, marked by farmers waiting for the rains prior to planting, explains the modern water celebrations that take place across the country. Indeed, it’s not uncommon to see large swathes of people, equipped with buckets and water guns, engaging in open combat in the streets by playfully showering each other with ice cold water. Phuket is the site where the largest revelries take place and no one is exempt from the fun, so tourists are recommended to leave any items susceptible to water damage behind before setting out for a day of watery adventure. Don't panic though - our super absorbent microfibre towel will help dry you off in no time.
Day of the Dead, Mexico
Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead to us English-speaking plebs, is celebrated annually in Mexico on the first two days of November. Ingrained in Mesoamerican culture, the day celebrates both life and death and enables the living to commemorate and remember their deceased loved ones. During the celebrations, vibrantly coloured alters are constructed and then adorned with offerings in the form of sweets, toys, clothes and candles designed to tempt the deceased to return to the world of the living to hear their family’s prayers. The Mexican marigolds (cempasúchiles) that typically bloom just before the Day of the Dead are believed to guide the loved ones soul back to the world of the living, and thus unsurprisingly play a vital role in this tradition. Further offerings occur in the form of the famous sugar skulls, which often bear the name of the deceased across the head in icing. Finally, many also celebrate by holding graveside vigils, by indulging in the orange-flavoured sweet bread pan de muerto, by displaying clothed, decorated, and colourful skeleton figurines (calacas), and by participating in the Catrina Parade in Mexico City, complete with Catrins or Catrinas costume and face paint.
La Tomatina, Spain
The expression paint the town red has likely never been used more literally than when referring to the La Tomatina festival, held annually on the last Wednesday in August in the town of Bunol, near Valencia, Spain. Touted as the ‘world’s biggest food fight,’ the event draws eager culinary soldiers, armed with over one hundred metric tons of over-ripe tomatoes ready to be launched into the street, from every corner of the globe. The festival honours the town’s patron saints, Luis Bertran and the Mare de Deu dels Desemparats, and although theories on its origins range from stories of a cheeky food fight among friends to rumours of discontented townspeople attacking city councilmen, one thing is certain: the outcome was so fun that the tradition has continued. Due to popularity in recent years, the festival is now strictly ticketed, so those wishing to take part and put their tomato-grenade skills to the test should get in early. Our advice: pack your Scrubba wash bag to help you clean up afterwards!
From solar New Year celebrated with slippery water pistol action to raucous food fighting in streets made slick with tomato guts, these celebrations all seem to encapsulate the human spirit through shared values of community, with a common focus on colour, vibrancy, and fun. Join the celebration next time you travel or simply take a little time out to research the culture and community behind your chosen destination to see how the timeless traditions manifest themselves there. You’re bound to learn something wild that will resonate forever!