Holidays are a funny thing. Every culture has them and sometimes they cross country boundaries (e.g. Easter, Christmas) and are celebrated in many countries. But sometimes they are unique to that particular country. It’s easy to think other countries’ holidays sound crazy when you did not grow up with them. For example, every December in the small town of Chichicastenango, Guatemala, locals celebrate St. Thomas’ Day by swinging around on ropes attached to giant wooden poles. Or in August in Bunol, Spain, thousands of people get into a giant foodfight and throw tomatoes at each other.
Pole swinging and tomato tossing aren’t something I’m used to, growing up in the United States. However, part of traveling is seeing how other people live and holidays are an important part of a culture. By learning about other countries’ holidays, we can catch a glimpse of what normal life is like in that culture. Below are three examples of holidays B and I have experienced.
Disclaimer: I am currently celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday, which is probably why holidays are on my mind. Sure most people in the United States are familiar with this particular holiday, but as I’ve been thinking about it, I’ve realized it is pretty bizarre. Not the origins; as any American school aged child will tell you, the first Thanksgiving was celebrated when the pilgrims shared their bounty with the natives of the land a year after the natives had shown them how to cultivate crops and survive in this new world. The idea of friendship and overeating is how present day Americans celebrate this holiday, but things have morphed a little since those early days in the 1600s.
Now, Thanksgiving means eating turkey and pumpkin pie, watching football or the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on T.V. and perhaps playing a pickup game of flag football in the morning. Even more strangely, Thanksgiving holiday has become the kickoff of the holiday Christmas season, and as such, has combined with a shopping experience called ‘Black Friday.’ My family tradition is for the interested shoppers to spend hours combing through the newspaper ads on Thanksgiving Day and plan a strategy for hitting the deals early the next morning. Very early most of the time–this morning I was in line at 5:30 a.m. after scoring a deal on a coveted item. This is a pretty big departure from the spartan beginnings of celebrating having enough food to not starve. Oh well, go ‘murica.
A few years ago, B and S unexpectedly found themselves celebrating Carnival in Venice. Venice had been part of the scheduled tour of Europe, but they were surprised when they arrived and got to experience the craziness. Carnival, like many holidays, is based on a religion. It is a celebration that happens right before Lent in Catholicism. Lent is a six week period that ends at Easter and during which people abstain from certain foods and drinks and actions in a period of reflection leading up to Easter Sunday. Carnival is like the last hurrah before settling into several weeks of austerity. Might as well go out with a bang, no?
Carnival–not the way we do it
Venice has the most famous Carnival out of them all and has become a holiday where everyone dresses up with intricate masks and eats and drinks and works to be very merry. The origins of the Carnival in Venice go back hundreds of years and were possibly an extension of pre-Christian celebrations. Festivities grew and reached a highpoint in the 1700s until the powers that be decided the Carnival was no good. During the next hundred and fifty years, people celebrated privately until it was reinstated about 50 years ago. It has certainly come back with a vengeance; as B and S could attest, several millions of people flock to Venice to take part in the holiday.
May Day (Vappu)
A few years ago when B, C, and I crossed the Baltic Sea from Estonia to Finland, we didn’t realize we were in for a first-hand look at a the way Finns celebrate a holiday. May Day is pretty common in lots of cultures and its origins go way, way back as ancient celebrants expressed appreciation that winter was finally over and good times were about to be had. We have it in the United States, but I’ve never paid much attention when May 1 rolls around. However, in Finland, May Day is a Big-capital D-Deal.
Who you gonna call?
We first noticed something fishy was going on when we saw young people walking around in colorful overall, kind of like the kind the Ghostbusters wore, only instead of gray they were all different colors and had patches all over them. We were then stopped in our tracks as several parades full of these young, overall clad hooligans. It really hit home, though, when we arrived in the main square and watched, along with several hundred thousand others, as a group of the overall kids were suspended in the air and dumped soap on a poor statue. We felt bad for the statue, but it seems this has been going on for some time so it is probably good for it–an annual bath. Oh, I forgot to mention another interesting fashion choice that was on every third person: sailor hats. Yep, Sailor Hats.
Get your hat!
Vappu has morphed in Finland to become a celebration of graduating students about to enter the workforce. The patches on their overalls are typically of different companies and schools they are looking at and the colors represent different fields of study. The sailor hats are kind of like the mortarboard graduation hats we wear here, only Finns keep them handy and bust them out every Vappu. We saw several hats on older folks that were turned a little dingy with age. (The hats were dingy, the older Finns all seemed very spry.) Vappu did end up closing down most of Helsinki so we weren’t able to see a few things (or I wasn’t able to buy the reindeer fur rug I wanted). However, I’ll probably remember the shenanigans in that center square more than I would remember any museum we could have gone to.
Holidays in different cultures can seem very strange to us. Heck, our own holidays are very strange when you sit down and think about them. It’s always a good practice to do a little research before you head out on a trip to see if there are any major holidays that could interfere with your plans. If you forget to do this, though, or are excited about the prospect of celebrating something new in a different country, our advice for you is to enjoy the bizarre-ness that is before you. At one point during Vappu, a nostalgic Finnish man wrapped me up in a warm embrace while I froze in surprise. C tried to extract me, B tried to take a picture. Now we laugh about it–holidays definitely make things interesting!