Is your calendar looking depressingly empty? When there's no getaway planned and the summer holidays are still month away, it's the perfect time to squeeze in a mini escape – and what better to reason than to experience a different culture in all its glory? Local festivals and events often present us a link with the traditions of the past, and by taking part in a unique local event we can begin to appreciate the culture of a place and its people more deeply. And, of course, you’ll normally have a great time too. These five quirky May festivals – some close to home, some a little harder to get to – all offer great reasons to pack a bag and get out there this month.
1. Cheung Chau bun festival, Hong Kong
Grown adults scrambling up a 60ft tower of steamed buns, stuffing their pockets – not something you see every day. It is, though, something you can witness if you’re on Cheung Chau island in Hong Kong during the annual Cheung Chau bun festival. The Taoist celebration started as a way of giving thanks after the end of a plague epidemic several hundred years ago, and takes place from the fifth to the ninth day of the fourth lunar month (usually somewhere in early May in the western calendar).
Highlights of the festival include a parade where children are perched high up on poles and carried through the streets by other children – and traditional Chinese lion dances. The main event, however, is the ‘bun-scrambling’ competition, held on the third day. During the competition hopeful locals try to grab the most lucky buns as possible while climbing to the top of an (artificial) bun tower. Three towers of edible buns – each one stamped in red with the Chinese symbol for peace – are also created for the event, and the sweet treats are given out to locals after the festival ends.
Steamed buns ready for the Cheung Chau bun festival © Kawing 921/Shutterstock
Cinco de Mayo in Puebla, Mexico
Although many people mistakenly believe that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s Independence Day, it’s actually a day of celebration for the Mexican victory over Napoleon III and the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. Nowadays, the celebration tends to have greater significance in the US than Mexico as a celebration of Mexican-American culture, which for many people means the chance to down margaritas and tuck into some tacos.
However, head to the town of Puebla in Mexico – 4 hours’ drive from Mexico City – you’ll find something quite different, with celebrations including a civic parade, battle reenactments, state fair, food festival and an international music and arts festival that lasts for almost a month.
On the day itself, local residents turn out in colourful costumes, and the streets of the UNESCO-protected old town fill with people and brightly decorated floats for the parade. Puebla hosts the international mole festival over the same weekend, with tastings of dishes produced with the sweet and spicy sauce mole poblano, which also originates here.
Puebla's main square, or Zocalo, is one of the main sites for Cinco de Mayo celebrations © The ZAStudio/Shutterstock
Snake Festival in Cocullo, Italy
If you’ve travelled across Italy or southern Spain before – especially during Holy Week – you may have seen one of the many religious processions with life-size figurines that are a key feature of the Easter celebrations. And Easter may be over for the year, but the slightly creepy religious processions continue, especially in the town of Cocullo in the mountains of Abruzzo, Italy. With around 250 full-time residents, Cocullo is hardly a major destination, but once a year it comes into the spotlight at the Festa dei Serpari, or Snake Festival.
Every first of May the town gathers together – along with several thousand spectators – to celebrate its patron saint, and former resident, San Domenico, who is believed to protect against toothaches and heal snakebites. The life-size statue of San Domenico is draped with non-venomous reptiles (especially caught by the town’s serpari or snake charmers) then paraded through town as a writhing mass surrounds the saint’s head – much to the delight of visitors. After the festival the snakes are released back into the wild, until next year.
Although nowadays the festival is immersed in Catholic tradition and iconography, the origins of the festival are shrouded in mystery. Some believe the celebration originated when San Domenico cleared the fields around the town from snakes, and the locals rejoiced. Others believe the celebration dates back much earlier to the days of the Marsi people of Central Italy who worshipped the pre-Roman snake goddess Angitia. Whatever the origins, the Festa dei Serpari promises an unusual spectacle, a reason to explore an underrated part of Italy, and a chance to feast on delicious porchetta sandwiches as you enjoy the spectacle.
San Domenico and his snake entourage © Alessandro Berrettoni/Flickr Creative Commons
Nanggol – Land-Diving in Vanuatu
If you like your festivals with a touch of heart-stopping anxiety then put nanggol, or the land-diving ritual, on your bucket list. At this celebration on Pentecost Island in Vanuatu – an island nation in the South Pacific between Australia and Fiji – the men of the island hurl themselves towards the ground from specially built wooden platforms, attached by nothing but vines tied around their ankles. A good jump is believed to help ensure a bountiful yam harvest for the year.
Often cited as a precursor to bungee jumping, the land-diving ritual dates back several centuries. The ritual has its originals in a local legend. The story goes that a woman was dissatisfied with her husband and ran away from him, climbing up a tree to escape. When he followed, she jumped from the tree and he jumped after her – only she had secured her ankles with vines and so survived the fall, while he had not, and did not.
The ritual was originally performed once a year, today it takes place on regular Saturdays in April, May and June to cater to visitors. While the event is becoming more popular with tourists, Vanuatu has formed a tourism council made up of the island’s chiefs who monitor the volume of visitors and work to make sure the important cultural aspects of the ritual are maintained. The island charges and entry fee which is used to support development on the island.
A land-diving tower ready for intrepid divers in Panngi on Pentecost Island © Rweisswald/Shutterstock
Maldon Mud Race, Essex, UK
For a unique – and messy – reason to explore closer to home, the Maldon Mud Race, has been a feature of life in Essex since the 1970s, well before Tough Mudder and the like got in on the act. Held every spring in Promenade Park, the event sees intrepid entrants try to run – or most likely, crawl – through the thick sediment of the River Blackwater riverbed. This year the event will be held on May 12th.
Like many a good story, the race has its origins in a pub challenge, when a local resident was tasked with crossing the riverbed at low tide, dressed in a dinner jacket, to drink from a waiting barrel of beer on the other side before returning. Competitors, many wearing fancy dress in homage to the original mud run, make their way back and forth across the 200m-wide mud patch as quickly as possible.
Each person entering the race must raise at least £50 for charity, and with 20,000 runners last year the mud race is growing into a sizeable charity event. Stalls selling local food and drink and live entertainment help to give the day a festival atmosphere.
Runners tackle the mud of the River Blackwater © Maldon Mud Race