Every month of every year, all across the globe, cities and towns and even tiny villages are celebrating one festival or another for countless reasons. Some are religious, some are to celebrate the harvest, the passing of seasons, local heroes, historic events, you name it. You can’t keep a good festival down. But for all the easy to understand festivals that offer up good times and good food for those in attendance, there are a handful of festivals that seem to exist mostly to sow discord, havoc and danger for anyone who gets too close.
10. Epiphany in Vale de Salgueiro
Christians celebrate a feast day called the Epiphany. In the US, this is what kicks off Carnival in New Orleans, and elsewhere things like King Cakes and fruit cakes are commonplace. In the UK, Twelfth Night is the night before and there is traditionally a yule log, wassailing and, once again, fruit cake. In the town of Vale de Salgueiro in Portugal, the celebration includes a weird twist.
If you head to this very small village, with its population of about 200, you’ll discover locals encouraging their children to smoke cigarettes on this day. And by children we mean as young as five years old. Why would people celebrate the Epiphany by making kids smoke? The locals say it’s a centuries old tradition but they also have no further explanation. It’s entirely unclear what it’s supposed to represent or symbolize, especially since traditionally the Epiphany celebrates the Magi visiting Christ as a baby and the revelation that he was God incarnate. Not much of that deals with Marlboros.
Kids in the village smoke for two days and parents defend the practice since it’s just two days and the kids are exhaling quickly. At least one resident, who is 101, claimed they were doing it when she was a kid, so they’re really committed to it, even if no one knows why.
9. Mexico’s Festival of Exploding Hammers
You can’t argue that people don’t like explosions, it’s what drives Fourth of July celebrations as well as a large portion of Hollywood action movies. The Mexican town of San Juan de la Vega takes the love of an exploding festival to new heights with sledgehammers laced with explosives that are busted out around Fat Tuesday every year.
As the story goes, the founder of the town was a sort of Robin Hood figure. He got into a skirmish with some local landowners that resulted in him stealing gold back from them. Or maybe they were bandits. Whatever the case, locals celebrated his victory over whoever the thieves were by making exploding hammers, because why not?
In the past, the hammers were strapped with homemade explosives, like fireworks, and then the hammers and slammed against I-beams or sheet metal. Past hammers, unable to handle the force, would commonly explode as well and send metal flying. Modern hammers are reinforced with rebar to handle the explosions but that doesn’t stop chunks of metal from flying free and embedding into spectators and hammer wielders. In 2008, 50 bystanders were injured by shrapnel but the celebrations have been going on for about 400 years so it’s unlikely a few explosion scars are going to stop anyone.
8. Spain’s Las Luminarias
The Spanish festival called Las Luminarias is meant to be in honor of St. Anthony the Abbot, patron saint of domestic animals. And what better way to honor a domestic animal lover than by making horses run through fire? According to tradition, which dates back centuries, by running horses through raging bonfires the animals are being purified by the fire.
Riders are said to take precautions such as cutting the horses’ hair so they can’t get burned, but animal rights groups are still not big fans of the tradition. All told, around 100 horses will undergo the ritual over the course of the festival, which is later followed by drinking and dancing as befits any good, fire-filled festival.
Despite assurances that the horses don’t get burned, others have pointed out that, because they are animals, they’re not likely to understand what’s going on and forcing animals that traditionally run to escape danger to leap through fire is pretty stressful for them.
7. The Turkey Trot Festival in Arkansas
The Turkey Trot Festival sounds about as innocent as a festival can get, doesn’t it? Trotting turkeys makes you think of chubby birds strutting down a street without a care in the world. That’s not technically the case with this real life Arkansas festival, or at least it wasn’t until a few years back when they decided to make it less terrifying.
For 70 years, the small town of Yellville, Arkansas had been having this festival around Thanksgiving that celebrates all things turkey. They even have a Miss Drumsticks to help celebrate. But for most of those 70 years, literally up to 2017, part of the tradition also included loading airplanes with live turkeys and then throwing the birds, which you’ll remember can’t fly, out of the moving planes. Many died on impact while others survived for a short time with broken bones.
There was no gimmick or trick involved in what was happening, they were just hurling birds to their death. It was animal cruelty despite not tecnically being a violation of FAA regulations. It wasn’t until the media broke the story open after that 2017 year that it finally came to an end as a result of the bad press and not any particular compassion for turkey mayhem.
6. Japanese Wasp Festival
Amidst the chaotic news of the early 2020s was the tale of giant Asian hornets making their way to North America. The internet has always enjoyed these creatures as a giant, stinging insect is a nice sort of sci fi monster come to life, plus videos of them raiding bee’s nests are pretty interesting.
In Japan, where the hornets come from, there are also wasps that gain some attention around Nagano and Gifu in a festival called Hebo Matsuri. In the village of Kushihara, people come to eat wasp-based snacks made from wasp larvae and compete in wasp nest contests to see whose is the heaviest. If you have the money, you can even eat the larvae alive right from the nest.
Attendees can expect to get stung a couple of times while they’re there because, unsurprisingly, wasps don’t want you raiding their nests. You can eat the giant hornets there as well, though live ones are not the sort of things you want to see since their sting is very painful and, in some cases, even deadly.
5. The Naked Man Festival
Not every festival involves 9,000 nearly naked men, but Konomiya Hadaka Matsuri does. The 1,250-year-old tradition requires men in loin-cloths to pray for luck. So far so slightly odd, but not dangerous. Things get more violent later when they men compete to gain good luck talismans, of which there are two, through pretty much any means necessary. The scene is described as a “mosh pit” and involves jumping, tripping, climbing and so on to try to reach them as they dangle from above.
One man at the festival will be deemed the Lucky Man or Man of God. Touching him is meant to protect you from disease and bad luck. But when 9,000 men, being sprayed with cold water, all scramble to do it at the same time the scene can get chaotic. The man is completely shaven beforehand and then chased totally naked, as people pass their bad luck to him. Then he’s run out of town. Tourists are allowed to come and participate and you can neither have tattoos nor be drunk, though some locations seem to encourage drinking sake so you may want to check local rules if you want to join in.
4. Switzerland’s Spring Festival
Festivals that predict the weather are not necessarily a unique idea, in the US and Canada a groundhog is used to determine when winter will end every year. In Switzerland they have a similar tradition at a festival called Sechseläuten. The festival announces the beginning of Spring and translates to “the six-o’clock ringing of the bells” to commemorate the extra hour of daylight that comes as winter gives way to spring.
At some point, the festival came to include something called Böögg, which is a giant 11-foot tall snowman that the locals light on fire. The snowman is atop a bonfire and his head is jammed full of 140 sticks of dynamite, because how else do you celebrate the passing of winter into spring?
Once the bonfire is lit, people place bets on how long until the fire gets high enough to make Böögg’s head explode. The sooner it happens, the sooner it will become Spring, is the thinking. If it takes a long time, then summer may be cold and beset with snowfall.
There’s an episode of Seinfeld in which we learn George’s father invented his own Christmas-adjacent holiday called Festivus that involves feats of strengths and the airing of grievances. The people of the Peruvian Andes did Mr. Costanza one better with a Christmas day festival called Takanakuy.
Men and women participate in the festival, some wear costumes and masks but some don’t, and the gist of it is all pretty simple – if someone wronged you during the year you can settle the score here by beating the crap out of each other.
The goal of the battle is to start the new year fresh and put old grievances to rest. You start the fight with a hug and you end it with one. But in the middle you genuinely pound your opponent into the dirt. Thousands of people attend, cheering the combatants who can be children all they way through grandparents on as they punch their way to a happy new year.
2. Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival
Despite its name, the Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival in Taiwan has nothing to do with bees. The name is a metaphor for the chaos and, arguably, the intense and painful danger you’re flirting with by being here.
A religious festival, its main claim to fame is the fact that millions of fireworks are set off, like a swarm of bees, over the course of the events. But they aren’t shot at the sky, they’re shot at you and everyone else in attendance.
Experiencing the chaos is supposed to bring good fortune for the new year and cleans any bad influences away. All you need to do is wear a helmet and some protective clothing to try to avoid the inevitable burns as millions of little firecrackers explode around you and rain sparks everywhere. Bruises from spent cardboard tubes are not unheard of along with the threat of igniting or going deaf and/or blind from explosions near your ears and eyes.
Back to Japan once more for a log riding festival that has claimed more than one life in the past. Known as Onbashira, the concept is simple if baffling and terrifying. Participants have to ride a giant 10-ton log, essentially a felled tree, down the side of a mountain.
The festival is actually a religious one and the massive logs are destined to be pillars outside of a Shinto shrine. People have been crushed under the logs, they have drowned under them as they were transported through water, and when they are erected, some people have fallen from the tops. The most recent death was in 2016. The deaths don’t put a damper on the festival however, as dying this way is considered to be honorable.