Far-Flung Festivals

Winter doesn’t have to be all mince pies and tinsel… have a look at these alternative winter festivals…

The Festival of Santo Tomás, Chichicastenango, Guatemala


On the week leading up to the 21st of December the Guatemalan town of Chichicastenango becomes captivated with an electric mix of Catholic and Native Mayan traditions in honour of the town’s patron saint. Festivities include religious processions, cultural dances, music and fireworks. Performers and locals dress in masks and costumes that represent the Spanish conquistadors who colonised Guatemala in the 16th century. Traditional dances re-enact the subjugation of the local people.  The highlight of the final day of celebrations is the “palo valador” – dancers who ascend a 30 metre wooden pole in order to leap off. The dancers rapidly swirl around the pole while their rope unravels in time to prevent them hitting the ground.

Mevlâna Festival, Konya, Turkey


Between the 10th and 17th of December the city of Konya in Turkey commemorates the anniversary of Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi’s (Mevlâna) ‘wedding night’ with Allah. Rumi’s quotable poetry and religious writings are held in high regard around the world. Over a million people flock to Konya to celebrate Rumi’s life, work and death (his union with God). The Sema ceremony represents a mystical journey of spiritual ascent through love and mind to perfection.

Rumi believed that union with Allah was achievable through dance; after his death his followers formed a brotherhood of whirling dervishes with dance as their main means of worship. Dancers called ‘dervishes’ wear white headdresses representing the ego’s tomb and a white skirt symbolic of the ego’s shroud. The dervishes move as a group in a circle simultaneously spinning individually – creating an entrancing kaleidoscope of wide spinning skirts.

International Festival of the Sahara, Douz, Tunisia


Between December and January every year in a small oasis in the desert people come from all over North Africa (and the world) to watch the festivities of the International Festival of the Sahara. Since 1910 people have come together here to celebrate traditional desert culture, particularly Bedouin life. The festival has its roots in an annual Bedouin bridal fair – nomadic families would meet to trade and inspect each other’s sons and daughters for future weddings. Now attracting over 50,000 visitors, the festival has expanded to celebrate many traditions. Different kinds of races (dog, camel and horse), rabbit chasing, a poetry contest, wrestling, music, traditional marriage re-enactments and belly dancing are all on the programme this year.

Festival of the Goddess of the Sea, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

4New Year’s Eve is celebrated on the beach in Rio. The festival of the Goddess of the Sea begins (in true Rio style) with fireworks over the lagoon with samba music as a backing track – festive! After the fireworks the celebration moves onto the sand where rafts are made in honour of Lemanja. Filled with offerings of flowers, perfumes and jewellery the rafts are set afloat. Luck is said to be bestowed upon anyone that follows their raft, jumps over 7 consecutive waves and then returns ashore without turning their back on the sea – so as not to offend the goddess. Lemanja who is often depicted as a mermaid, is a central deity in the Candomblé religion. Powerful, she watches over sailors and fishermen and controls their catches. She is also concerned with every aspect of womanhood, fertility, and family; plus, she is the protector of children.

-Alison McIntyre











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