Most people have attended a county or state fair -- walked through the livestock barns, snacked on tasty fried treats, had fun on carnival rides, viewed the blue ribbon apple pie. You know -- the par-for-the-course activities you'd expect at a festival. But some small towns take their community festivals a bit outside those lines -- actually, far outside those lines.
Take the National Hollerin' Contest hosted by the eastern North Carolina town of Spivey's Corner -- population 49. This fair was established to revive the lost art of hollerin', so instead of rooster crows, you'll hear the crows of contest competitors as you roam the festival grounds.
Or, take Fruita, Colorado's Mike the Headless Chicken Days, a festival founded in honor of a bizarre historical event: In 1945, a Fruita resident's chicken survived without a head for a full 18 months. What better reason to host a festival?
You'll find these quirky events around the world, as small towns celebrate the unique traditions and occurrences that make their communities special. We'll take you from the hamlets of rural North Carolina to the villages of Spain to the beaches of South Korea -- 10 festivals sure to leave you puzzled and delighted by small town life.
Frozen Dead Guy Days
When Grandpa Bredo passed away in 1989, he was a parks-and-recreation director in Norway who suffered from heart problems. Four years later, he was the "frozen dead guy" living in a backyard shed in Nederland, Colo.
Bredo's family was into cryonics, and from the time of his death he was stored in a cryonics facility in California. In 1993, though, his daughter and grandson decided to care for him themselves, at their home in Nederland. Word soon got out that a local family was keeping a frozen Grandpa in the yard, and the artsy, off-beat mountain town loved it.
A couple of decades later, Grandpa Bredo is still there -- but his family isn't. They ended up heading back to Norway but left Grandpa in the shed, under the care of the Ice Man, a hired hand who refreshes the dry-ice supply once a month to keep him safely frozen. It's a good thing he stayed, since he's the center of a funny little tradition that has grown into a huge, annual celebration that marks the final days of harsh winter.
The party known as "Frozen Dead Guy Days" takes place over a weekend in March, and it's quite the wacky destination. People come from near and far to take part in the death-and-winter-themed festivities, including coffin races, frozen-T-shirt contests, ice-turkey bowling, brain-freeze contests and the frozen-salmon toss. There's live music, lots of beer and, of course, tours of Grandpa Bredo's shed, where the old man rests in suspended animation, waiting to rise again and greet his fans.
The Chicago Tribune ranked Frozen Dead Guy Days among the best 100 festivals in the United States.
Next, food fight!
Tomato Fight Festival
If, by some chance, you left junior high without experiencing the adolescent cafeteria tradition called the "food fight," take heart, and head to Spain.
To a town called Buñol, to be exact. This village near Valencia has been hosting a yearly tomato fight since the mid-1940s, taking a short break only when Francisco Franco outlawed it during his regime. It resumed in the 1970s as a full-fledged festival known as La Tomatina, when villagers, Spaniards and tourists flock to the streets to throw tomatoes at one another.
There are many stories about how the tradition began. Some say a bad musical performance spurred the first flying tomatoes. Others claim villagers threw the fruit at city council members during a town party to voice their dissatisfaction with the politicians. Or it may simply have been a random food fight that turned out to be so much fun they made it a yearly thing.
However it began, it has lasted more than 60 years to become one of the most beloved festivals in Spain. Each August, Buñol swells to accommodate locals, tourists and journalists. People take their tomatoes to the street and just let loose in a frenzy of joyous splatting and being splatted.
It's not all about the fight: A paella-cooking contest takes place the night before the tomato extravaganza, and the festival includes live music, fireworks and Tomatina parades.
But it's mostly about the fight. If you go, don't wear your favorite shirt.
And now, to Thailand, for more food. And monkeys ...
Monkey Buffet Festival
The town of Lopburi in Thailand is famous for one particular corner of its population: the monkeys.
Just about 90 miles (150 kilometers) from Bankok, Lopburi is something of an urban haven for long-tailed macaques. Thousands of the primates live in the town, and not in any zoo -- they simply live there, walking around the oldest part of the city as high-status residents, occasionally stealing a camera, going for a swim in the downtown fountains, and, every November, drawing onlookers for the offering known as the Monkey Buffet.
One Hindu legend has it that Lopburi was founded not only by the revered King Rama but also by his primate friend, the warrior monkey king. The macaque, they say, are descendants of that co-founder, and the villagers lay out a feast each year to honor them.
Well, that, and to draw lots of foreigners with money to burn. The first buffet was hosted by a local entrepreneur in the tourism business.
It's no wonder thousands of people come to watch. Nearly 9,000 pounds (4,000 kilograms) of food lines the streets of the old city, set out in a careful buffet that is immediately annihilated by packs of screeching monkeys who rush to consume the fruits, vegetables, soda, candy and baked goods that serve as a religious offering to ancient ancestors. The monkeys eat, dance and occasionally fornicate on the tables as they celebrate their annual windfall.
Religiously derived or merely a brilliant tourist draw, the spectacle is deservingly one of the most popular in Thailand. A monkey buffet is, for most, a once-in-a-lifetime thing.
Next, babies and wrestlers ...
Crying Baby Festival
For four centuries, sumo wrestlers in Japan have been making babies cry. On purpose.
It's called the Nakizumo festival, literally translated as "crying sumo," but it's the babies who are supposed to cry. Some call it cruel, but Japanese tradition holds otherwise: Crying wards off evil spirits, and the babies who win the contest will be healthy, safe and strong throughout their lives.
Each year, at Tokyo's Sensoji Temple, babies born in the preceding year compete to cry first or, if there's a tie, cry loudest. Two pairs of competitors, one sumo wrestler and one baby on each side, enter a sumo ring and go for victory. The wrestler's job is to scare the baby by making faces and noises, and the baby's job is to cry. Whichever team gets there first takes the prize.
If the sumo wrestlers aren't cutting it, frightening masks are thrown in the mix.
All the while, tourists and grandparents take pictures, mothers pray for their children's future, and a judge watches closely to determine which competing baby bawls first, yelling "naki, naki, naki!" ("cry, cry, cry!") to speed the process along.
About 100 babies take part in the competition, which happens in April, and thousands come to watch. If the sound of a crying baby makes you cringe, you'll want to skip this one.
Next, more babies (but no wrestlers) ...
If you think making babies cry is an odd pastime, try lining them up on a mattress and attempting to clear them in one jump.
Welcome to Castrillo de Murcia, Spain, where babies are the subject of yet another festival, this one is also about warding off evil spirits from new life. But here, the babies simply lie in groups on mattresses on the street while people dressed as devils jump over them.
The baby-jumping event, called El Colacho (that's the name of the festival's baby-threatening devil), is part of the Christian town's Corpus Christi celebration at the end of May or the start of June.
It's a celebration focused on a general purging of evil from the town. In the days leading up to the baby-jumping event, men in devil costumes wander the city, harassing its inhabitants, symbolizing trouble. The central component of the celebration is actually a parade that winds through the city, in which any child who has taken first communion in the preceding year marches alongside the clergy. It's following this parade that the babies take their positions on the ceremonial mattresses that stretch down the main street.
As El Colacho jumps each infant-laden mattress and runs away, any evil follows him, leaving the babies cleansed and ready for a good, pure life. Some babies cry. A few roll off a mattress. Many laugh. There have been no reports of bad landings.
Next, a little hollerin' ...
National Hollerin' Contest
Do you have a set of windpipes that can call folks from far and wide? If so, you might want to attend the National Hollerin' Contest held in Spivey's Corner, N.C. On the third Sunday of June each year, this otherwise sleepy town -- population 49 -- located in Sampson County in southeastern North Carolina welcomes 5,000 to 10,000 people to witness the best holler.
Hollerin' is much more than mere screaming or calling. Contestants use their voices like musical instruments, and the type of holler celebrated in Spivey's Corner consists of quick shifts between a natural and falsetto voice. Many people believe hollerin' is an important cultural artifact, and in fact, the contest began in 1969 when Ermon H. Godwin and John Thomas, co-founders and participants in the festival, wanted to stage a revival to preserve and celebrate the lost art of hollerin'.
Hollerin' has existed worldwide for centuries in one form or another, and each culture uses hollers for different reasons. For example, yodelers on the mountainsides of Europe used their unique form of hollerin' to communicate from peak to peak. In the Southeast United States, particularly in the area around Spivey's Corner, anthropologists have traced hollerin' to people living in colonial slave communities who worked on rafts and would holler to signal each other.
Although for the most part hollerin' no longer serves such practical purposes, it's still celebrated. The Spivey's Corner contest features the following types of hollers:
- The distress holler, which uses a falsetto tone to indicate a sense of urgency
- The functional holler, which primarily was used on farms -- its unique sound won't disturb the animals
- The expressive holler, which might turn a popular tune like "Amazing Grace" into a hollerin' duet
- The communicative holler, a form of greeting, such as a hollered version of "howdy, neighbor!"
Due to the differences in men's and women's voices, a separate callin' contest for women was introduced in 1976. So hollerin' is a men-only contest. Contestants are judged according to how well they can belt out the Spivey's Corner type of holler. So far, all winners have been from Sampson County with the exception of one from neighboring Wayne County. But the Hollerin' Contest is open to locals and visitors alike. Winners of the contest have been featured on "The Tonight Show" and "The Late Show with David Letterman."
In addition to hollerin', the festival features pageants and other feats-of-strength, including a watermelon roll, biggest bell pepper contest, whistlin' and lady callin' contests, and a square dancing jamboree.
Up next, mud ...
Boryeong Mud Festival
If the muddy scenes from Woodstock have always appealed to you, then you'll want to experience the Boryeong Mud Festival in South Korea, where you can willingly participate in all things mud-related. This festival, which began in 1998, attracts about 1.5 million visitors to Boryeong.
One of Boryeong's most prevalent natural resources is mud. In fact, about 9.9 million square meters of this grayish stuff can be found in the area. But this isn't your run-of-the-mill mud. This mud, certified by the Korea Institute of Geology for its high quality, is rich in minerals like germanium and bentonite, which can be used to prevent wrinkles. Making use of this resource, festival organizers haul mud from the Daecheon beach each July for visitors to languish in -- enjoying mud baths, mud massages and mud wrestling.
Other attractions include mudslides, mechanical rodeo rides, mud body-painting contests, mud sculpture contests and a huge communal mud bath. You can also battle it out on mud floats, inflatable rafts in the middle of huge mud ponds. Don't worry: If things get too dirty, you can rinse off in a public shower and retrieve your clothes in a nearby storage locker. Due to the popularity of the festival, many restaurants and hotels have cropped up in the area. There's even a free tour bus that you can take to nearby attractions where you can see everything from coal mines to a Buddhist shrine.
Next, in celebration of a hardy chicken ...
Mike the Headless Chicken Days
On a September day in 1945, Fruita, Colo., resident Lloyd Olsen set out to his barn to fetch dinner. His chicken, Mike, was on the menu that evening. Olsen's mother-in-law would be dining with the family, and her favorite part of the chicken was the neck. So Olsen attempted to slaughter the chicken while keeping its neck intact. He carefully positioned the Wayodette rooster to preserve its neck, swung his ax and took off Mike's head.
But Mike didn't die, and the next morning, Olsen found him pecking for food. Olsen discovered that he had accidentally left one ear and Mike's brain stem intact. He'd missed Mike's jugular vein, and a blood clot kept Mike from bleeding to death. Although Mike was entirely headless with no face or mouth -- in fact, Olsen kept Mike's head in a jar -- he was able to live because the brain stem controls a chicken's reflexes. Impressed by the creature's will to live, Olsen began feeding Mike with an eyedropper, and the chicken survived another 18 months.
To this day, the town of Fruita, Colo., celebrates Mike with the annual Mike the Headless Chicken Days festival. Every year during the third weekend of May, the town gathers to commemorate Mike's indomitable spirit with events like a "Chicken Dance" contest, chicken recipe competition and the 5K Run Like a Headless Chicken Race.
Next, speaking of not dying ...
Festival of Near Death Experiences
If watching reruns of "Six Feet Under" or "Dead Like Me" leaves you curious about crossing over to the other side, head to the small town of Las Nieves in Galicia, Spain, near the border of Portugal, for the annual Fiesta de Santa Marta de Ribarteme, or Festival of Near Death Experiences. This festival, which takes place each year on July 29, celebrates those who have come close to death and lived to tell all about it.
What's the dress code for this festival? B.Y.O.C. -- bring your own coffin. In this bizarre pilgrimage and celebration, those who have come near to death are carried into the church in coffins by members of their families. The group follows an effigy of Santa Marta, or Saint Martha, the sister of the biblical Lazarus who Jesus rose from the dead.
Thousands of people attend this festival, and participants often spill out of the church and into the street to listen to the service over loudspeakers. After the service, attendees process out to the cemetery following behind Santa Marta, the patron saint of the town and the "saint of death."
Most attendees tell similar stories about their brushes with death; you can expect the usual accounts of bright lights and echoed voices. And while you're not likely to find any wacky coffin races at this festival, you're bound to hear some interesting, if harrowing, tales.
Finally, waste not ...
What to do with the many testicles procured in the slaughter of bulls? Answer: Plan a festival in their honor and feed them to throngs of people who attend. The Testicle Festival takes place at Rock Creek Lodge in Clinton, Mont., located about 20 miles (32 kilometers) east of Missoula. Every summer, festival goers dine on bull testicles, also known as "Rocky Mountain oysters," and participate in a variety of ballsy events, including a hairy chest contest, wet T-shirt contest and bull chip throwing contest. Obviously, this one isn't for the kids.
At the festival, you can sample a variety of these rich-in-protein testicular delights. Start out with the $5 sampler plate and prepare your palate for all the testicles you can eat. And don't worry, the festival only serves U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved bull testicles, dubbed "Montana tendergroin."
This annual festival draws about 10,000 participants, and more than 4,000 pounds (1,814 kilograms) of bull testicles are consumed [source: Woodbury]. While attending the festival, if you can stand a rowdy, noisy, testicle-devouring crowd, you can stay at a nearby free campground. The Rocky Creek Lodge gift shop offers lots of testicle souvenirs. So, go nuts!
And remember, when in Rome -- taste a testicle, cheer when the babies cry, and take a tomato in the face. What's weird to you is an annual tradition for the locals.
For even more information on these and other wacky celebrations, trips, and activities, check out the links on the next page.
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More Great Links
- "Audio Postcard: National Hollerin' Contest." NPR. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4723224
- "Fiesta of Near Death Experiences (Santa Maria de Ribarteme), Las Nieves, Spain." World Events Guide. http://www.worldeventsguide.com/event/975/Las-Nieves-Spain/Fiesta-of-Near-Death-Experiences-Santa-Maria-de-Ribarteme.html
- The Fiesta of the Near Death Experience. http://www.whatsonwhen.com/sisp/index.htm?fx=event&event_id=30016
- Frozen Dead Guy Days (Jan. 2, 2012) http://frozendeadguydays.org/
- "Five Best Weird Festivals." The Guardian. June 28, 2008. http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2008/jun/28/fivebest.festivals
- "Gallery: Lopburi's annual monkey feast sparks a feeding frenzy." CNN GO. Nov. 29, 2010. (Jan. 2, 2012) http://www.cnngo.com/bangkok/visit/gallery-lopburis-annual-monkey-feast-sparks-feeding-frenzy-423899?page=0,0
- "Get Dirty at South Korea's Boryeong Mud Festival." ABC News. http://abcnews.go.com/Travel/BusinessTravel/popup?id=5370206
- Kovago, Simone. "You big cry baby: Japan's Nakizumo festival." CNN GO. May 6, 2010. (Jan. 2, 2012) http://www.cnngo.com/tokyo/play/nakizumo-766811
- Lethem, Jonathan. "Monstrous Acts and Little Murders." Salon. http://www.salon.com/jan97/jackson970106.html
- La Tomatina (Jan. 2, 2012) http://www.latomatina.org/
- La Tomatina Tours (Jan. 2, 2012) http://latomatinatours.com/
- "Leaping Lucifers: The Spanish Baby-Jumping Festival." Spiegel Online. Aug. 28, 2008. (Jan. 2, 2012) http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,575011,00.html
- Winn, Patrick. "Thailand: food orgy in monkey town." Global Post. Nov. 26, 2010. (Jan. 2, 2012) http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/thailand/101124/thanksgiving-monkey-buffet-festival-tourism
- Woodbury, Chuck. "Have a Ball at the Testicle Festival." OutWest Newspaper. http://www.outwestnewspaper.com/balls.html
- "Yes, it's the 'Crying Sumo' contest: Japanese wrestlers compete to see who can make a baby bawl first." Daily Mail UK. April 26, 2010. (Jan. 2, 2012) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1268867/The-crying-sumo-contest-Japanese-wrestlers-compete-make-baby-first.html