What is a festival?
A festival can be defined as ‘an organized series of events such as musical concerts or drama productions’.
Attending a festival today might make you think of days spent drinking and dancing in the sunshine, watching your favourite bands play in a muddy field, whilst covered in glitter.
So it might surprise you to learn that the word actually comes from the Latin word ‘festa’, meaning a ‘religious holiday’.
In fact, for most of its history, the word was synonymous with religion and the holidays of the Christian calendar (Easter, Christmas, New Year) in particular.
Types of Festival
Today the word ‘festival’ can be used to describe a celebration of just about anything!
Some of the most unusual world festivals we’d love to see for ourselves include:
It doesn’t get much weirder than this traditional Spanish fest.
Every year since the early 1600's, the people of the village of Castrillo de Murcia have gathered all the babies born over the previous 12 months, placed them on mattresses in the middle of the street and had men dressed as the Devil, jump over them!
This is thought to cleanse the new-borns of their 'original sin'- which all humans supposedly carry as a result of Adam and Eve's disobedience in the Garden of Eden.
An annual colourful celebration of the male anatomy, where attendees line the streets wearing penis hats, licking penis shaped lollipops, all while trying to catch a glimpse of the giant penis Mikoshi.
Mikoshi is carried through the streets by dozens of locals in loincloth- style underwear.
Although this might seem totally bonkers to outsiders, it’s actually a pretty serious religious event, where locals pray for fertility, safe childbirth, a happy marriage and protection from venereal diseases.
All proceeds from the event are donated to HIV/Aids research too! Definitely one for the bucket list!
Every May Bank Holiday since 1984, the village of Blackawton in Devon, England has held the family friendly festival of ‘worm charming’.
Adults and children from all over the country compete to extract the greatest number of worms from their dedicated one metre square patch of grassland. They must do so without digging up any of the turf!
Each team has a "charmerer, pickerer and a "counterer".
The event begins in the village at Normandy Cross, where entrants must register at Worm HQ (the village bus shelter) by noon.
For Spain's second entry onto our list of the world's most unusual festivals is 'Dead Good Fun'.
During this festival in rural Galicia, devout Spaniards who have survived a near-death experience in the preceding year, whether illness or accident, are paraded in coffins through streets to give thanks to God and Santa Marta for being alive.
The coffins are followed by relatives and friends dressed in black, in a procession that replicates a Spanish funeral.......ok....
Although these represent some of the more unique, some of the more typical festivals include:
Bloop International Proactive Art Festival is an interactive art festival held annually in Ibiza, Spain. The festival combines street art, installations, video arts, interactive works, photography, avant garde music and more!
Pizzafest is the world’s largest celebration of Pizza and every foodies dream- it takes place in Naples, Italy each year.
Religious & Cultural
London Pride is an annual LGBT+ pride festival and parade held each summer in London. It is one of the longest-running pride events in the world and attracts 1.5 million visitors to the city. It is the only annual event to close London's iconic Oxford Street.
When was the first festival?
Festivals are definitely not a modern concept, with the first non-religious festival thought to have been the Pythian Games in ancient Greece in 582 BC!
Various athletic and musical competitions were held during the festival, in honour of Apollo.
Some think that modern-day Mardi Gras, may be linked with the ancient Roman pagan celebrations of spring and fertility, such as Saturnalia, which dates back to 133-31 BC
In more modern times, here is a quick timeline of some of the first events, which led to festivals becoming a staple in our calendars:
Carnival in Rio de Janeiro
Considered to be the biggest carnival in the world today, with almost two million people attending per day.
The world’s largest Volksfest held in Munich, Bavaria, Germany. It’s a 16-18 day folk festival running in September or October each year.
Music festival held annually conceived by Richard Wagner, where performances of operas by him are presented.
The Venice Biennial
A contemporary visual art exhibition held biennially (in odd-numbered years). It is the original biennale on which others around the world have been modeled.
An 8 week annual event during the summer season of daily orchestral classical music concerts and other events, held annually, predominantly in the Royal Albert Hall in London.
Venice Film Festival
One of the ‘Big Three’ film festivals, alongside the Cannes Film Festival and the Berlin International Film Festival.
Cannes Film Festival
21 countries presented their films at the 'First Cannes International Film Festival', which took place at the former Casino of Cannes. Only one year after the end of World War II, most of the films were about the war.
Edinburgh Fringe Festival
Started as an antidote to war-time austerity, the event was conceived as a chance for all people of all nationalities to come together in peace to celebrate the arts.
Newport Jazz Festival
In 1954, over 11,000 people gathered for this event in Rhode Island to watch live performances from Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and many more!
National Jazz & Blues Festival
A precursor to the Reading Rock Festival, it is widely considered to be the first British festival celebration of music. Inspiration for the event came from the Newport Jazz Festival in the US.
Monterey Pop Festival
Notable for the first major American appearances by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Who and Ravi Shankar and the first public performance of Janis Joplin and the introduction of Otis Redding.
An annual music festival held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It once held the title of ‘The World’s Largest Music Festival’, this has since been surpassed.
Isle of Wight
Originally a counterculture weekender event held from 1968-1970. The 1970 event had such unexpectedly high attendance levels, that it resulted in Parliament adding a section to the Isle of Wight County Council Act of 1971, preventing overnight open-air gatherings of more than 5,000 people on the island without a special licence from the council. As a result, the event was cancelled until it’s revival in 2002.
Held in New York in 1969, it was billed as ‘an Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace and Music’, the line-up included Jimi Hendris, Sly & the Family Stone and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
One of the most famous summer festivals, known for it’s huge headliners and for celebrating different genres of music including grime, hip hop, international music.
Sadly organisers Michael & Emily Eavis were forced to cancel the festival in 2020 & 2021 due to the Coronavirus pandemic & UK Lockdown.
How many people go to festivals?
A lot! Although it would be near impossible to quantify, here is a list of some of the largest known festivals in the world.
Largest Winter Festival
Harbin Ice Festival, China is an annual festival which takes place in January. The 2018 festival attracted over 18 million visitors and generated $4.4 billion in revenue.
Largest Comedy Fest
Just for Laughs in Montreal, Canada is the largest international comedy festival in the world.
Largest Food Festival
Taste Chicago is the largest food festival in the world, with more than 3 million visitors each year.
Largest Literary Festival
The Conrad Festival in Krakow, Poland is the largest in central Europe.
Largest Music Festival
Largest Film Festival
Berlin International Film Festival is considered the world’s largest film festival with more than 400,000 tickets sold each year.
Brazil’s carnival is widely considered ‘the greatest show on earth’. 5 million people attend each year.
Where do festivals take place? Which country has the best festivals?
Festivals take place all around the world on every continent, even Antarctica! Despite not having a permanent population and some of the most inhospitable conditions on earth!
There is some debate over which country has the most festivals, with some claiming India has the most cultural events and religious festivals and others noting that the Philippines has more than 42,000 major and minor festivals each year!
Join us on a quick whistle-stop tour around the world in 28 of our favourite festivals below:
Festivals in Antarctica
Antarctica is probably the last place you would imagine festivals to take place, but on a continent where the average highest temperature is still only slightly below freezing and where there are no hours of sunlight all winter, a few celebrations have been introduced to ensure the 5,000 scientists and researchers who reside here can let their hair down and have a little fun!
Antarctica celebrated its first Pride celebration in 2018 thanks to a group stationed at McMurdo Station, located about 850 miles from the South Pole.
The group raised a rainbow flag, hosted marathon screenings of Ru Paul's Drag Race, themed movie nights and a gay bar night in celebration.
To be eligible to enter the Winter International Film Festival of Antarctica (WIFFA), you’ll need to commit to spending your entire winter in the most hostile place on earth.
No mean feat in itself! But to win, you’ll need to create the best 5-minute film in one of two categories (48 hours or Open).
Held annually since 2006, the winner doesn’t receive any prizes- other than the recognition from the other scientists & researchers on the Antarctic bases!
The most southerly music festival in the whole world has been held in Antarctica on New Years Day every year since 1990.
Even though the festival falls in the Antarctic summertime, the conditions are still so cold that musicians have to wear extreme weather gear and guitars fall out of tune a lot quicker due to the freezing conditions.
The stage is constructed by pushing two flatbeds from the back of tractor trailers next to one another. Bands don't have to audition to perform, any locals are welcome to have a go!
Easily the biggest celebration in the Antarctic calendar, Midwinter Day falls in the middle of winter on the shortest day of the year.
It is the main celebration on most national bases, more so than Christmas or other more traditional holidays.
With the cold at it's most extreme and constant darkness over the continent, there is relatively little work that can be accomplished and those on the scientific stations are usually confined to their immediate area.
Although the nature of the exact celebrations vary from base to base, they usually involve an extravagant meal and greetings sent from the outside world including from national leaders!
Festivals in Africa
As the world's second-largest and second most populous continent with 54 separate countries, African culture is extremely rich and very diverse.
Each country has its own tribes, languages, culture and traditions, so it's no wonder it's home to some of the most spectacular festivals in the world (in some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes!).
Established by Swazi-born philanthropist and artist Jiggs Thorne in 2006, Bushfire has now grown into a global phenomenon, with some even describing it as eSwatini’s (formerly Swaziland) answer to Glastonbury.
With a significant portion of the profits from the event given to local organizations focused on health, education, sustainable livelihoods and environmental issues- Bushfire is much more than a festival, it’s a call to action for social change.
The Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF) is the largest multi-disciplinary art and cultural festival dedicated to the exhibition of films in Africa. It has also been described as the largest cultural event in East Africa.
The event has been held on the island of Zanzibar, an autonomous region of the country of Tanzania.
Each year, ZIFF exhibits more than 150 films made in Africa, Middle East, Europe, Latin America, USA and Asia.
First held in 1994, the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music is an annual 10-day celebration held in mid-summer, where internationally renowned artists from around the world flock to Morocco's spiritual capital.
Events are held throughout the city at heritage sites, including the majestic Bab Al Makina Square, where official ceremonies of the Royal Palace used to take place and in the Medina a busy city centre made up of mazes and alleyways. Meaning the festival is just as much a treat for the eyes as it is the ears!
An official Burning Man regional event held in South Africa since 2007.
Just like the original Burning Man concept- it is a celebration of the creative power of collaborating and community.
As an completely volunteer event, everything is brought in by the community. There are no outside vendors, nothing for sale and the music is not on any set schedule.
Festivals in Asia
Asia is a colourful continent rich in thousands of traditional holidays, festivals and celebrations throughout the year.
The largest continent on earth, Asia hosts 48 countries and territories, many with very strong cultures which is reflected in the diverse number of festivals across the continent!
Officially Asia’s largest festival at sea, ‘It’s the Ship’ is a 4 day EDM party aboard a super-swanky, luxury cruise ship complete with chandeliers, multiple swimming pools, an ice rink and a casino.
Previous festivals have chartered from China, Singapore, South Korea and Japan and have been headlined by world renowned DJs like Paul van Dyk, as well as notable appearances from David Hasselhoff and Andy from Fyre Festival!
One of the largest jazz festivals in the world, the event is held annually each March in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta.
It’s a 3 day celebration of jazz from all over the world, the 2020 concert was headlined by The Jacksons!
Dashain is a Nepalese celebration of the victory of good over evil and specifically the day the demon Mahishasura was defeated by Goddess Parvati or Durga.
Nepals biggest annual festival, it is usually celebrated in September or October and is the only national festival celebrated by all communities across the country.
It’s a time for family reunions, exchanging gifts and blessings and elaborate pujas (a Hindu worship ritual).
Thadingyut Festival of Light, Myanmar
Thadingyut Festival otherwise known as The Festival of Lights, takes place for three days during the full moon of the seventh month of the Burmese calendar (usually near the beginning of October) and marks the end of Buddhist lent (Vassa).
During the event, many people put out candles as offerings to Buddha, in order to celebrate the anniversary of Buddha’s return from the Trayastrimsa Heaven, where he preached from the Abhidhamma texts to Santusita for three months.
During Buddhist Lent, marriages and forbidden and many give up meat and alcohol- so the end of this period is very much cause for celebration!
Festivals in Europe
Despite being the second smallest continent (only Oceania is smaller in terms of both landmass and population), Europe is still home to 44 individual countries with a diverse range of languages, people and a long and rich history. Some might say, Europe is the cultural powerhouse of the Western World!
As such, it’s no wonder that Europe is home to some of the worlds biggest and best festivals, renowned the world over for their unique individualism and creativity.
Tomorrowland is a multi-award winning event, renowned for being the world’s largest dance festival.
Held over two weekends each July in Boom, Belgium, the festival now regularly welcomes more than 400,000 guests and sells out within minutes of tickets going on sale!
One of the most unique festivals in the UK. Camp Wildfire is a forest retreat packed full of wild adventures, wilder parties and the most amazing like-minded people!
A summer camp for adults where you can adventure by day and party by night!
100+ activities are on offer including : Flying Trapeze, Water Slide, Archery Battles, Raft Building, Firelighting, Shelter Building, Acro Yoga, Parkour, Sign Language and many, many more!
The annual Pictoplasma Berlin Festival is the world’s leading platform for contemporary character design and art.
The event takes over the streets, cinema venues and exhibition centres of the German capital for 5 days each September.
Gladmat (‘happy food’ in English), is Scandinavia’s largest food festival and an epic 4 day celebration of food, held in the main harbour in Stavanger, Norway.
The event attracts over 200,000 visitors each year and has been running for more than 20 years. The festival features tutored wine tastings, cooking classes and competitions. Sounds delicious!
Festivals in North America
When you think of North America, you might just think about the USA & Canada- but there are actually 23 individual countries which make up the continent.
This includes the tropical islands of the Carribean and central America as far as Panama.
A North American festival can range from carnivals to local heritage festivals, fine food fetes to cowboy poetry gatherings!
An annual film festival held in Michigan since 1963, the Ann Arbor Film Festival is the oldest and longest-running avant-garde experimental film festival in North America.
Founded by George Manupelli, it was created as an alternative to commercial cinema.
One of the most distinctive, individual festival concepts in the world, when tens of thousands of people gather in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to create a temporary metropolis dedicated to community, art and self-expression.
Attendees must be entirely self-reliant whilst visiting, as there are no vendors or shops. Many describe this as a completely life-changing, thought-provoking and soul-enriching experience!
The World’s Largest Jazz Festival, as awarded by the Guinness World Records of 2004. The festival attracts more than 2 million attendees annually across a multitude of individual events and concerts.
Every year it features more than 3000 artists from more than 30 different countries, with more than 650 concerts (including 450 free outdoor performances).
Dia de los Muertos, Mexico
Dia de los Muertos or ‘The Day of The Dead’ is an iconic Mexican celebration of life and death.
Held annually on All Saint’s Day and All Souls’ Day, the festival is not associated with the US holiday of Halloween.
During the two day celebration, it is believed that the border between the spirit world and the real world dissolves. During this brief period, the souls of the dead awaken and return to the living world. Families welcome back their dead relatives for brief reunions which include feasts, drinks and celebrations.
Festivals in South America
South America has a rich and diverse Latin American identity and history of indiginous cultures.
With 14 individual countries, South America is home to some of the worlds most spectacular festivals and fiestas. Nothing sums up Latin America’s spirit and colour quite like it’s colourful celebrations!
Envision Festival describes itself as ‘the utopian jungle experience’.
Often described as one of the most immersive festival experiences in the world- it has built a cult following over the past 10 years.
The festival embodies ‘8 pillars’- permaculture, spirituality, movement, art, music, community, health and radical acceptance.
Inti Raymi, Peru
Inti Raymi is Quechua (one of the three official languages of Peru) for ‘sun festival’.
An ancient Inca religious celebration of sun worship held each year on the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere.
Expect to see an astounding display of colourful costumes, vibrant music and delicious food, if you are lucky enough to attend one of the most spectacular attractions of modern day Peru.
Originating as an annual festival held in Chicago, USA since 1991. Lollapalooza first debuted in South America in 2010 with an event held in the Chilean capital Santiago.
Since, the event has also taken place in Brazil since 2011 and Argentina since 2013.
Lollapalooza is widely acknowledged as one of the largest and most iconic music festivals in the world.
In 2019, the Brazilian edition was the world's third highest grossing festival!
Ecuador is known to produce some of the best high-quality chocolate in the entire world.
This deliciousness is celebrated annually at the Salon de Chocolate, which promotes Ecuador’s cocoa and chocolate sectors.
More than 60 producers and thousands of guests gather in mid June in the Ecuadorian capital of Quito.
Guests can expect chocolate tastings, an award ceremony and a chocolate sculpture competition!
Festivals in Oceania
Officially the worlds smallest continent in both land mass and population, the geographical region of Oceania is home to 14 individual nations.
Aside from Australia & New Zealand, the remaining countries are mainly what are considered the ‘Pacific Islands’. Each of the Pacific Islands has a unique, rich and ancient history.
Sometimes referred to as the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, the event describes an annual LGBT pride parade in Sydney Australia.
The event represents the largest pride event in Oceania and one of the largest worldwide.
The colourful explosion of love takes over Sydney’s streets and is attended by hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world.
Christchurch’s biggest outdoor summer festival, Electric Avenue is New Zealand’s ultimate celebration of Music, Arts and Culture.
The genre leaping line-ups have included everything from rock to hip-hop, house to funk and even drum n bass.
Established in 1991, Samoa’s Teuila Festival has grown into one of the country’s most celebrated annual events.
A huge explosion of Samoan and Polynesian culture, the festival takes it’s name from Teuila- which is the national flower of Samoa. The flower can be seen around the island in it’s bright red glory.
Events usually include Siva dancing, fire knife dancing, tattooing and carving demonstrations, Umu demonstrations (underground Samoan oven cooking), the annual Flower Float Parade, the popular Fautasi race (iconic Samoan boat race) and the crowning of Miss Samoa.
A four day fun swirling adventure that combines music, art, performance, spiritual education, relaxation and healing.
It’s been held in the Victorian bush for more than 20 years and features some of the best electronic dance musicians in the world.
It has grown into an internationally recognised weekend of dance, colour and celebration which now regularly welcomes more than 20,000 people.
Should I go to a festival?
A festival is a celebration.
Celebrations are a universal human experience- we all have an inbuilt desire to create a sense of community, enjoy shared experiences, instill a sense of meaning and belonging and to create lasting memories.
Find a festival that celebrates something you love, whether it’s music, film, art, food or just about anything else under the sun and go celebrate it with others who share your passion!