Festival Ati-Atihan, Philippines (Shutterstock)

Dreading Christmas? 10 alternative winter festivals

5th November 2015

Winter doesn't have to mean mulled wine and mistletoe. Give Christmas a miss this year at one of these far-flung festivals

Christine Fleitz

1. Fiesta de Santo Tomas, Guatemala

For one week every December the charismatic town of Chichicastenango pulls out all the stops and throws one of the biggest, most colourful saint festivals in Guatemala. An eclectic mix of Catholic and native Mayan traditions make up this week of energised festivities that honour the town's patron saint Santo Tomas. Highlights of the festival include religious processions, colourful costumes, cultural dances, jiving music and firework displays.

Festa of San Tomas (Shutterstock)
Festa of San Tomas (Shutterstock)

But what really gets the crowd going is the daring display of Palo Volador – a death-defying native Mayan custom. Dancers twist rope around their bodies before leaping off a 30 metre pole that has been raised in the plaza, next to the Church of Santo Tomas. Their free falling bodies whirl around the pole, with surprising elegance, while the rope rapidly unravels lowering them to the ground.

Don't miss it: Fiesta de Santo Tomas runs for a week from 13-21 December in Chichicastenango, Guatemala.

2. Mevlâna Festival, Konya, Turkey

This week long festival honours the 13th century mystic poet Celaleddin Rumi, whose writing and poetry are among some of the most beloved and respected in Islam. 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.

Whirling dervishes, Istanbul (Shutterstock)
Whirling dervishes, Istanbul (Shutterstock)

The dance, known as semu, is not just a body movement, but a journey combining spiritual and intellectual elements, emphasising personal enlightenment with the ultimate goal of union with God. The dervishes dress in long, white, flowing robes with full skirts, creating a smooth, entrancing display.

Don't miss it: The Mevlâna Festival runs from 10-17 December in Konya, Turkey.

3. Thaipusam Festival, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Devotees go to different lengths to demonstrate their faith, endurance and penance to Lord Murugan, a Hindu God, in this dynamic and colourful event. Most join the procession to the Batu Caves, where they will climb the 272 steps to Murugan's shrine, and others carry pots of milk on their heads as a sign of loyalty and love.

Extreme devotees pierce their skin with two skewers, one through the cheek and one through the tongue, while others carry elaborate frameworks on their shoulders called Kavadis, which have long chains with hooks pushed into their backs.

Hindu devotee (Shutterstock)
Hindu devotee (Shutterstock)

The devotees are said not  to feel pain or lose blood as they are in a spiritual trance. If you have the stomach for it, the Thaipusam festival can be an enlightening cultural experience.

Don't miss it: The Thaipusam Festival in Malaysia falls on 23 January. The festivities culminate at the Batu Caves, a stunning limestone network of temples just ten miles north of Kuala Lumpur.

4. Up Helly-Aa, Lerwick, Scotland

Every year in January 1,000 wannabe Vikings take to the streets wielding flaming torches for a procession celebrating Shetland's history. The procession culminates with the ceremonial burning of a life size replica of a Viking longship built especially for the occasion. Following the burning of the galley the Vikings (or guizers), reunite and embark on 11 straight hours of drinking, dancing, performing and general frivolity.

Viking, Lerwick (Flickr C/C: Martin Deutsch)
Viking, Up-Helly-Aa (Flickr C/C: Martin Deutsch)

Visitors are warmly welcomed to view the event, but it is very much a local celebration, and participation in the procession is reserved for residents only. Tickets are available for those who want to join in the post-procession festivities, but be quick, they're popular and get snapped up quick.

Don't miss it: Up Helly-Aa takes place on 26 January in Shetland, Scotland.

5. Ice and Snow Festival, Harbin, China

Wrap up warm and head over to Harbin in north-east China for one of the largest international ice festivals in the world. Crowds from around the world are drawn to this annual event to take part in various artistic, cultural and athletic activities.

Harbin Ice and Snow World (Shutterstock)
Harbin Ice and Snow World (Shutterstock)

Marvel at winter creations at the Snow Sculpture Expo or Ice Lantern Garden Party, where artists use a range of modern and traditional carving techniques. Or put your skills to the test in a skiing contest or figure-skating competition.

Don't miss it: The Harbin Ice and Snow Festival runs from 5 January to 26 February in Harbin, China.

6. Fiesta Grande, Andacollo, Chile

Once a year the quiet mining town of Andacollo in Chile transforms into a thriving festival as traditional dancers take to the streets to celebrate the patron saint of miners Virgen del Rosario. Thousands of people swell the town in the days leading up to festival, literally setting up camp where limited space is available.

Andacollo (Flickr C/C: Francisco Peralta Torrejon)
Andacollo (Flickr C/C: Francisco Peralta Torrejon)

Every detail, from the colours in their costumes to the beats of the music and steps of the dances, has a special meaning. The festival intertwines religious ceremonial dances with secular activities, such as horse-racing, cock-fighting, feasts, and of course, drinking.

Don't miss it: The Fiesta Grande Andacollo runs from 24-26 December in Andacollo, Chile.

7. Bikaner Camel Festival, Rajasthan, India

Every January Rajasthan throws together a kaleidoscopic display of rural culture and tradition dedicated to camels. The festival begins in Bikaner, the Desert City, with a procession of magnificently decorated camels, endowed in colourful bridles and jingling ankles. But the real fun is out in the desert, an hour's drive from the city. Here competitions are held, marked with typical Rajasthani colour, lifting music and beating rhythms – visitors are invited to join in tug of war with the locals.

Bikaner Camel Festival (Shutterstock)
Bikaner Camel Festival (Shutterstock)

One of the highlights of the festival is a camel race where the skills of both animal and trainer are put to the test in front of a cheering crowd. Camels are rarely thought of as graceful, but watch these creatures display amazing footwork as they move elegantly with the slightest direction of their riders.

Don't miss it: The Bikaner Camel Festival runs from 22-24 January in Bikaner, Rajasthan.

8. Ati-Atihan Festival, Panay Island, Philippines

This is the wildest party in the Philippines. Locally-brewed rum fuels this energised Asian Mardi Gras, which culminates in a three-day, three-night delirium of festivities, carousing and dancing. The festival boasts street dancing contests by tribal groups dressed in flamboyant costumes and wearing extravagant headdresses, to the beats of marching bands.

Festival Ati-Atihan (Shutterstock)
Festival Ati-Atihan (Shutterstock)

Origins of the event date back to 1210, when Malay refugees were granted settlement on Panay Island by the Filipino natives; they showed their gratitude by smearing their faces and bodies with soot in affectionate imitation of their dark-skin. There is no cost to watch or participate in the festival, and thoughtfully no set dance routine to throw off first-timers. But prepare for the long-haul, the motto of the festival is “Hala Bira, Puera Pasma”, meaning “keep on going, no tiring”.

Don't miss it: Ati-Atihan Festival runs from 19-25 January (with the last three days being the highlight!) in Kalibo on the Panay Islands, Philippines.

9. La Tamborrada, San Sebastian, Spain

Every January the streets of San Sebastian in northern Spain come alive with the rhythm of drumbeats for 24 hours. The drums are rolled out on midnight on the evening of the 19 January in Plaza de la Constitution, followed by companies of uniformed marchers parading through the barrios of this seaside town beating thousands of drums in a deafening homage to their patron saint Donostia de San Sebastian.

La Tamborrada (Shutterstock)
La Tamborrada (Shutterstock)

The origins of La Tamborrada are a bit vague, but rumour has that it was the outcome of an impromptu street jam session with water barrels in the 1720s. Join in the high-decibel madness by beating on tambourines, bass drums, bongos, or anything that you can use to create a rhythm.

Don't miss it: La Tamborrada takes place on from 19-26 January.

10. Bohdi Day, various countries

Not all festivities require thumping tunes, free-flowing booze and crowded spaces. On Bohdi Day, Buddhists around the world indulge in quiet celebration of Buddha’s awakening. Ceremonies vary between sects, but all commemorate Buddha's achievement of Nirvana, and the deliberation of what this means for the religion today.

Buddhist prayer, Thailand (Shutterstock)
Buddhist prayer, Thailand (Shutterstock)

Coloured lights are strung in the home to symbolise the many paths or enlightenment, and a fiscus tree is mounted decorated with three ornaments representing the Three Jewels: the Bhudda, the Dharma and the Sangha. A meal of rice and milk is significant, as according to legend this was offered to Buddha after his awakening to help him regain strength.

Celebrate Bohdi Day on 8 December.

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Main image: Festival Ati-Atihan, Philippines (Shutterstock)

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