Celebrate Ati Atihan, or other festivals around the world (Teddy Casino)

10 alternative winter festivals

6th December 2011

Winter doesn't have to mean mulled wine and mistletoe, steer away from the same-old festivities this year and explore a world of possibilities

Christine Fleitz

Photo credit: Wright Reading1. Fiesta de Santo Tomas,
    Chichicastenango, Guatemala

For one week every December the charismatic town of Chichicastenango pulls out all the stops and throws one of the biggest, most colourful and daring 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 spectacular firework displays.

But what really gets the crowd going is the daring display of Palo Volador – a death-defying native Mayan custom. On the 21 December brave 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 the 13-21 December 2011 in Chichicastenango, Guatemala.

Photo credit: Peter Morgan2. Mevlâna Festival, Konya, Turkey

This week long festival honours the 13th century mystic poet Celaleddin Rumi, or Mevlâna, 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.

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. Over one million people flock from all over the world every winter to witness this captivating religious festival, and it's no wonder why.

Don't miss it: The Mevlâna Festival runs for a week from the 10-17 December 2011 in Konya, Turkey.

3. Thaipusam Festival, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Over one million people come from around the world every year to witness or participate in this dynamic and colourful, yet devotional event. Devotees go to different lengths to demonstrate their faith, endurance and penance to Lord Murugan, a Hindu God. 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.

Rest assured, 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, and unlike anything you've ever seen.

Don't miss it: The Thaipusam Festival in Malaysia falls on the 7 February in 2012.  The festivities culminate at the Batu Caves, a stunning limestone network of temples just ten miles north of Kuala Lumpur. 

Photo credit: colemic20064. Up Helly-Aa, Lerwick, Scotland

Every year in January the townspeople of Lerwick, Shetland go more than a little mad. Up to a thousand wannabe Vikings take to the streets wielding flaming torches for a procession celebrating Shetland 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.

Visitors are warmly welcomed to view the event, but must keep in mind that 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 the 31 January 2012 in Shetland, Scotland.

Photo credit: EmmaJG5. 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.

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. Alternatively, enjoy a cultural theatrical performance; the Harbin Ice and Snow festival really does have something for everyone.

Don't miss it: The Harbin Ice and Snow Festival runs from 5 January to 31 February in Harbin, China.

Photo credit: Pablo Necochea6. Fiesta Grande, Andacollo, Chile

 Once a year the quiet mining town of Andacollo in Chile transforms into a thriving festival of colour as groups of traditional dancers take to the streets to commemorate the miracles of 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.

Every detail, from the colours in their costumes to the beats of the music and steps of the dances have a special meaning, and are passed down from generation to generation. All the senses come alive at this thriving festival, which 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 the 24-26 December 2011 in Andacollo, Chile.

Photo credit: Chuck Stensrud7. Bikaner Camel Festival,
    Rajasthan, India

 Every January Rajasthan throws together a kaleidoscopic display of local culture and rural tradition dedicated to the indispensable ship of the desert, aka the camel. 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 hours 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.

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. As the sun sets swirling skirts, jiving music, bright fire dances and explosive fireworks light up the sky and create a magical atmosphere. Camels are rarely thought of as graceful, but then when have you seen a camel dance? 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 the 18-19 January 2012 in Bikaner, Rajasthan.

Photo credit: Teddy Casino8. Ati-Atihan Festival, Panay Island, Philippines

This annual festival has garnered itself the rather impressive reputation of being 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 never-ending beats of massed drums.

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 the 15-21 January 2012 (with the last three days being the highlight!) in Kalibo on the Panay Islands, Philippines.

Photo credit: AlejrAa-Dulantzi9. 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 straight. 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.

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 the 19 January 2012.

Photo credit: The Rayj10. 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.

To the layman, a good way of observing this holy day is to dwell on its meaning, to find calm in our hearts and minds, and to reflect upon our actions and their consequences. Often 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 the 8 December 2011.

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Key Facts

  • Malaysia

    Malaysia travel guide, including map of Malaysia, travel tips, accommodation, food and drink, attractions, culture, and weather in Malaysia

  • Philippines

    Philippines travel guide, including map of the Philippines, top Philippines travel experiences, tips for travel in the Philippines, plus where to see rice terra

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