Look, we don't want to come off as ignorant of other cultures here. Are the celebrations below involving fire and dicks and animal shit any stranger than, say, New Year's Eve, or Mardi Gras?
Actually, yes. We're pretty damned sure they are.
#5. Ottery St. Mary's Burning Tar Barrel Festival
It couldn't be simpler: Every year around Guy Fawkes Night, the townsfolk of Ottery St. Mary, England, soak barrels in tar, light them on fire and carry them through the streets of the town on their shoulders.
Then, just to drastically up the danger of some innocent bystander getting set ablaze, observers crowd around the barrel carrier like a horde of zombies trying to devour his flesh. Everyone in the crowd wants a chance to carry the barrel, you see. So we have a massive crowd of people fighting for control of a heavy flaming barrel that is suspended over their heads. What could possibly go wrong?
WE SEEK THE CLEANSING AGONY OF FIRE!
The reasons behind the festival are uncertain, but there are a few theories. Since it's on Guy Fawkes Night, it could be symbolic of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Or, it could have something to do with the traditional use of burning barrels to fumigate cottages. It's also possible that it originated from pagan rituals to avoid evil spirits (because everyone knows that spirits can't see you if you're carrying fire on your head).
Hey, has anyone seen Gary?
It's a moot point, because we're guessing that approximately none of the people involved know why they're doing it. Each pub in the village sponsors a flaming barrel, with 17 in all. The 17 portable bonfires make their way around the crowded town full of people, each barrel weighing up to 65 pounds. But don't worry, there are smaller barrels so children can get involved in the fun, too!
We can't tell if that's fire or hair on his head.
Sadly, the future of the festival is uncertain because of a recent incident in which a few spectators were injured. "Some punk kid" tossed an aerosol can into one of the barrels and it exploded in a giant fireball, giving people serious burns. Who could have predicted there would be shenanigans at the drunken burning-barrel carry?
#4. Kanamara Matsuri, the Boner Workshop Extravaganza
Huh. Turns out blurring a giant penis doesn't make it less obviously a giant penis.
We've been to college, and we know how funny it is for guys to draw dicks on other guys' foreheads, or to make snow dicks in winter, or to sculpt mashed potato dicks in the cafeteria. But that sort of thing eventually stops being amusing after a decade or so. But don't tell that to the people of Kawasaki, Japan, where the Kanamara Matsuri festival is basically a dicktacular penis celebration, featuring dongs, with a special guest appearance by Boner McWiener.
It's penis decorations and souvenirs as far as the eye can see. The entire city of Kawasaki gets into it -- yes, the kids, too.
Yep, that little girl is enjoying a penis-shaped Popsicle. This isn't the sort of thing you do halfway -- Kawasaki makes everything penis-themed for the weekend. Everything. You'll find not only those penis Popsicles for sale, but other dong-shaped delights, everywhere from peoples' faces ...
Have you ever seen something and instantly realized your life is incomplete without it?
... to improvised benches ...
That bin next to her had better be filled with lube.
... to the highlight of the festival: a giant parade featuring dance beats, whistles and (you guessed it) giant penises on floats:
For many people who are just visiting, this all may come as a bit of a shock, but it's actually very reasonable once you hear the back story. So, the legend goes that a long time ago, a sharp-toothed demon crawled inside a woman's vagina and castrated her husband. Understandably very pissed off, the couple sought out a blacksmith to make a large iron penis with which they would trick the demon and break his teeth. See? You people judge Japan for what they do, but when you hear their reasons, they always make perfect sense.
Anyway, the mythical iron penis is now paraded around every April alongside another giant pink dong, and the people of Kawasaki enjoy their festival of dicks. However, while it is still mostly a religious festival celebrating fertility and STD-free prostitutes, today the festival helps raise money for HIV research, and the tourists' fascination with this festival only helps to raise more.
Japan Photo Guide
And because those giant wooden dicks aren't going to ride themselves, kiddies.
#3. El Colacho Baby-Leaping Festival
El Colacho seems innocent at first. The town's children are taken and laid on a mattress in the street for what seems like a nice nap. Their parents gather on the sidewalks and take pictures of their baby's first street "sleepy time" when, out of nowhere, a man in a ridiculous yellow suit runs up and vaults over them.
"In retrospect, cleats were a poor choice today."
Whereas a good (read: "normal") parent would chase that guy down and spear-tackle him to the ground, the parents of these children just cheer him on. He proceeds to run farther down the road, and after a short distance, jumps over another mattress loaded with babies. And another. And another.
And yet, whenever we play games with the lives of children, it's somehow "wrong."
For, you see, El Colacho is how the Spanish village of Castrillo de Murcia celebrates the festival of Corpus Christi: a nationwide festival that normally has nothing to do with threatening to kick infants right in the face. We swear. The men in yellow represent the devil (which is what "Colacho" roughly translates to), and as they jump over the children, it is said that they cleanse them of their sin.
One of the fathers in the documentary above jokingly says, "I'm really glad my baby's on the front of the mattress, because if the devil wipes out, he'll just take out the last three kids," and this seems like an innocent jest at first ... until you realize how factually accurate it is. We're now curious about what the practice for this ceremony looks like. Do the yellow-suited "devils" do dry runs with dolls or something? So you fall a bunch of times and accidentally crush a fake baby with your elbow, then finally you get to where you can make the jump and say, "All right, I'm ready to try it with real infants now!" Seems like you'd have to be pretty goddamned confident in your leg muscles.
This might be the only situation where a charley horse could be fatal.
Anyway, the devils also spend the first half of the day terrorizing the townsfolk. You know, so that everyone is equally scarred by the festival.
And, in case you were wondering, in all the years this festival has been celebrated (since the 1620s), there haven't been any reported injuries to the babies.
Rites of Life