These festivals are a little more unusual, surreal, and occasionally downright dangerous
Festivals. Music, probably. Some sort of parade? Maybe. Eating and drinking? Almost certainly. These are the things you’d expect from a celebration in a town pretty much anywhere in the world. But we’ve discovered seven festivals that are a little more unusual, surreal, and occasionally more downright dangerous than you’d expect. Here we go…!
The Festival of Exploding Sledgehammers — San Juan de la Vega, Mexico
Right, let’s get one thing straight. This festival has, without doubt, the most badass name for any event, anywhere. And it’s not wrong: it does exactly what it says. Locals strap homemade bombs to the heads of sledgehammers and slam them into the ground. Explosions follow.
The festival is based on the patron saint of the town, cutely referred to locally as San Juantito. As in many cultures, he’s the basis of what’s commonly known now as a Robin Hood legend; namely that he took from the rich and gave to the poor. He got into a bit of a scrap with some local lawmakers at one point, and from here on the story just seems like an excuse to… well, strap some explosives to some sledgehammers. There’s no record of which side, if any, actually had exploding sledgehammers, but since when has realism ever got in the way of humans doing daft things?
Injuries do occur, of course. There’s the odd occasion where someone gets the amount of explosive wrong and is blown backwards in a cloud of dust and flailing limbs, but the main danger is shrapnel. In 2008, 50 people were injured by flying metal, but seeing as thousands show up to get involved, maybe you could just take your chances? It’s hammer time.
Rouketopolemos (Rocket War) — Vrontados, Greece
If you want a relaxing Easter, this Greek town of the island of Chios is the last place you want to find yourself. The town’s two churches, Angios Marcos and Panaghia Ereithiani are located on two hilltops around half a kilometre apart, and the object of Rouketopolemos, or Rocket War, is to aim fireworks at the bell tower of the opposing church. The church that scores the most direct hits on the opposite tower is declared the winner.
The tradition dates back to before the Ottoman Empire, when the “war” was fought with real cannon, until the Ottomans put an end to that nonsense. It’s controversial to this day though, as local houses and businesses have to be covered with protective metal sheets and mesh; fires have been started by wayward rockets in the past, leading, very occasionally, to fatalities.
The rockets number in their thousands, and the bombardment continues for hours, so when the morning comes the victor is supposed to be the one with the fewest burn marks on their bell tower, but of course no one can say exactly which marks are new or not.
This leads to both sides claiming victory, the result of this “disagreement” being that they agree to “settle this for good next year”, leading to a perpetual reason to keep doing it.
Many residents are very much against the practice for obvious reasons, but it is a source of a lot of tourism for the island, and it looks like this festival will continue for the foreseeable future.
Calcio Storico — Florence, Italy
“Too small to be a real war and too cruel to be a game” is how this sport was described by Henry III of France on a visit to Florence in 1574. Often cited as “the most violent sport in the world”, any game in which there is a specific ban on convicted criminals taking part is worthy of investigation.
Obviously, in Italy, football is basically a religion, but at the end of June each year, Florence’s Piazza Santa Croce is turned into a “football pitch” modelled on that of a 16th century sport known as the giuoco del calcio fiorentino, or the “Florentine kicking game”, which involves teams getting a ball into a goal.
That’s where its similarities to football end. The playing area is covered in sand, with a net running the width of the field at each end that acts as a goal. Four teams of 27 players each take part, each representing a different quartiere of the city, and the final is played on 24 June, San Giovanni’s Day, he being the patron saint of the city.
The major difference though is the sheer viciousness of the whole thing. The fifteen forwards on each team use a combination of punching, kicking, tackling, wrestling and general brutality to tire out the other team. There are a few things that aren’t allowed — head-butting and eye-gouging are two — and team-mates ganging up on an individual from the opposing team will lead to expulsion, but generally anything goes. Each match lasts 50 minutes with no stoppages or substitutions, even for players that need to be stretchered off.
In 2006, authorities cancelled the following year’s tournament after a 50-man brawl which ended with every participant being taken to court on charges of violence. That’s when you know it’s gotten out of hand, and this was also the event that brought about the ban on convicted criminals playing.
To avoid quartiere bringing in any old hothead to play for them, in 2014 the rules were altered again to state that all players must have been born in Florence, or have lived there for at least 10 years. The idea was that this would mean people would be playing for the pride of their area rather than just as an excuse to beat seven shades out of an opponent. Personally I’d have thought that fiercely blind local pride would add to the aggression, but what do I know?
Festival of the Steel Penis — Kawasaki, Japan
Of all the festivals on here, this has the most bizarre backstory / legend surrounding it. During the Edo period in Japan, so the story goes, a sharp-toothed demon fell in love with a human woman. The woman rejected him, saying she would marry the man she loved instead.
The furious demon crept up inside her vagina before their wedding night and, upon consummation of the marriage, bit off the groom’s penis. Undeterred, the woman remarried. Husband number two loses his penis in the same way.
Understandably annoyed by now (and presumably not attracting any more suitors), the woman went to a local blacksmith who carved a penis out of steel. The next night, the demon, assuming this was husband number three, attacked the steel penis, smashing out his teeth. Enraged, he crawled out of her body and disappeared forever.
And that, kids, is the story of the steel penis of Kawasaki.
Nowadays, the festival does good work educating people about safe sex, the dangers of infection, and that sex is something that can be — and in many cases should be — discussed freely. Money raised from the festival goes to fund HIV research. It also highlights the point that sex is, when you think about it, a faintly ridiculous activity, and — you know what? — it’s fun too.
There’s a parade of giant penis costumes, and both men and women alike pose for selfies with phallic lollipops, biscuits and vegetables. It’s all done in the spirit of fun and absurdity, and draws tourists from Japan and around the world.
Bottle-kicking — Hallaton, Leicestershire, England
There are any number of bizarre, archaic festivals and traditions from around the UK — cheese rolling, shin kicking, tar barrel racing, the Straw Bear Festival and Morris dancing, to name but a few — but here’s one that’s kind of similar to Florence’s Calcio Storico, mentioned above.
Supposedly a pre-Christian tradition, the (slightly) more modern version begins when two women from the village of Hallaton were saved from being attacked by a charging bull by a hare who ran across its path, distracting it.
The women believed the hare to be sent by God to save them, so donated money to the local church. In return, each year the church supplied the village with a hare pie, twelve loaves and two barrels of beer. One year, residents of the neighbouring village of Medbourne stole the beer, meaning the Hallatonians had to put together a group of volunteers to go and reclaim it. Thus was a tradition born.
The game itself is based on which side can get a small keg of beer (known as a bottle) from the top of Hare Pie Bank back to their respective village, a distance of about one mile. Sounds simple enough, but there is a stream each side that needs to be crossed, as well as hedges, ditches and other obstacles to negotiate. It resembles a giant rugby scrum in which pretty much anything goes.
No eye-gouging, no weapons, no horses, “and no murder!” laughs bottle-kicking chairman Phil Allan, but all other forms of violence and underhanded trickery are permitted.
The winning team is the first village to get two of the three bottles used in the game back to their own village. The whole thing usually takes around five hours and can involve up to 7,000 people. “It’s fabulous!” says one local participant. “Very English, very eccentric.”
Bolas de Fuego — Nejapa, El Salvador
In 1658, a volcano rained down destruction on the town of Nejapa, around 30 km north of the Salvadoran capital. The town was devastated, but out of this event was born an annual tradition. Local religious folklore says that fireballs thrown from the volcano were San Jeronimo fighting the Devil, and it is this that the citizens attempt to replicate each year.
Thousands of balls are prepared in advance — cotton rags, balled up and wrapped in wire to maintain their shape — and are then soaked in kerosene on the night of the festival, ready to be lit and thrown.
To add to the terrifying spectacle, the combatants paint their faces in grotesquely aggressive ways, and the only protection is fireproof gloves so participants can pick up the fireballs, otherwise it’s normal clothes all round. Spectators line Nejapa’s main street to watch the spectacle, but you watch at your own risk. There’s no protection whatsoever for those observing, and stray fireballs often find their way into the crowd.
Incredibly, despite the fact there are no rules, and that the festival is getting bigger each year, there have been no serious injuries reported… as yet.
Frozen Dead Guy Days — Nederland, Colorado
I have to admit, it was the name that first attracted me to this. Most festivals will normally dress themselves up in something slightly more formal, but I like the bluntness of this. Frozen Dead Guy.
It began with an elderly Norwegian, one Bredo Morstøl. When he died, he was transported to the US by his grandson, Trygve Bauge, on dry ice, before being stored in liquid nitrogen in California.
After scouting for a suitable location, Bauge moved the body to the town of Nederland, where the idea was that he’d build a cryogenics facility of his own. When Bauge was deported for overstaying his visa, the local community and businesses came together to make sure that Mr Morstøl would remain frozen, and he still is, housed in a cryogenic mausoleum donated by a local Tuff Shed supplier. A volunteer from the town acts as caretaker.
In March of every year, the residents of Nederland celebrate their most unusual neighbour with a series of events including a slow-motion parade, coffin races, a frozen dead guy lookalike contest, a polar plunge for people brave or daft enough to go swimming in the icy Colorado waters, and much more besides. A film (Grandpa’s in the Tuff Shed) tells the story of Morstøl, and the festival has attracted a cult following, with people from other places making their own fan films about the festival.
In recent years, the festival has expanded to include a ball — known as Grandpa’s Blue Ball — live music tents, a communal pancake breakfast, craft brewery tent and, curiously, a Best Beard contest. Oh, and there are other fun competitions to get involved in, such as who can throw a dead salmon the furthest, speed-fixing-a-flat-tyre-with-frozen-hands, and frozen turkey bowling.