Many of the very best fall celebrations have nothing to do with the harvest. Here are five of my favorites — some haunting, some plain wacky.
Dia de Los Muertos — the Day of the Dead, is a haunting tradition held throughout much of Central and South America. I remember my trip a few years ago to Riviera Maya in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo in the Yucatan Peninsula. of Mexico. Those three days and nights from October 31 through November 2, remembering those who have passed and celebrating life through the reality of death, were unforgettable. Decorations, foods, legends, fun are all there.
If you’re looking for a short trip to bond with family, and to talk about what matters all the while celebrating a beautiful festival, try it at least once in your life.
In the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, celebrations take place throughout the year. At the autumn dance festival at the Jambey Lhakhang Temple, drums beat, dancers swirl, and performers enact folk tales and allegories of Buddhist doctrine. My favorite enactment is women dressed as princesses fooling around with buffoons until their royal fiancés return from afar, and order the princesses’ noses cut off.
When their noses are magically restored, a huge wooden stick representing male genitalia is shaken over the women’s heads, boosting their fertility. A different kind of harvest celebration I guess, and one of forgiveness and bawdy fun.
In Lopburi, Thailand on the last Sunday of November, thousands of long-tailed macaques gather at a temple for The Monkey Buffet Festival. The locals honor the macaques with tons of fruits, vegetables, desserts, and beverages. A feast just for them.
Japan has some of the most eccentric fall festivals. The locals in Hidakagawa have held an annual laughing festival in October for 200 years, to cheer up a sad deity and to bring them good luck. The legend goes that a goddess overslept and was laughed at by other gods. She locked herself in the Nyu Shrine and only appeared when the villagers’ laughter turned her grief into joy.
To enact this legend, a clown holding a bell and a treasure box leads a parade including the mikoshi (a portable shrine), dancers, and other happy participants to the Nyu Shrine. Along the way they shout “warae, warae” (laugh, laugh). And when they arrive at the shrine, they all laugh in unison.
Japan is an aged society, and they have a fall festival called Shukatsu, meaning “preparing for one’s death.” (I call it Try-Before-You-Die.) During this Tokyo festival, participants can put on funeral garments, get into a coffin, and learn how to write goodbye notes and obituaries. This one may be practical, but I think I’d rather go to the Laughing Festival!
(For more fall festivals, check out Episode 31 of my travel podcast, Places I Remember with Lea Lane.)