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9 weird and wonderful festivals through history

Armed with muddy wellies and braced for possible downpours, thousands of campers are descending upon Glastonbury for one of the most popular festivals in the British summer calendar. Here, we look back at some of the biggest – and strangest – festivals in history…

'Tomatina' festival in August 1999. (Photo by Müller-Stauffenberg/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Published: June 25, 2015 at 8:00 am
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1) La Tomatina, Buñol, Spain

First held in the mid-1940s, this festival today attracts thousands of people to Buñol in Valencia to engage in a mass tomato fight. At times as many as 50,000 people reportedly took part in the mass fight. However, since 2013 a ticketing service has been put in place in order to restrict to 20,000 the numbers of attendees.


There are a number of theories of how the festival began: these include rumours of a local food fight, someone throwing tomatoes during a carnival, and a fight between people of different classes. Whichever is correct, the festival grew popular among the local people very quickly, and became an annual event.

The festival begins at 11am when large trucks full of tomatoes arrive at the town centre of Plaza del Pueblo. Traditionally the fight does not begin until someone has climbed to the top of a tall wooden poll and grabbed a giant piece of ham skewered to the top of it. However, this is today quite a challenge, and rarely do festival-goers wait for the fight to begin. Instead, water cannons are shot across the town centre, and attendees have exactly one hour to throw as many tomatoes as possible at other participants.

Francisco Franco [Spanish general and the dictator of Spain from 1939 to 1975] attempted to ban the festival during his dictatorship, as he argued it had no religious connection. However, after his death in 1975, La Tomatina began once more to gain great popularity among the local people.


2) The battle of the Oranges, Ivrea, Italy

Legend has it that this bizarre festival originates from the 12th or 13th century in northwestern Italy. It is supposed that a tyrannical lord, possibly Marquis William VII of Montferrat (although some sources say it’s a conflation of him and Ranieri Biandrate), attempted to rape the daughter of a miller on the night before her wedding as a way of demonstrating his droit du seigneur, or ‘right of the lord’, over his serfs’ daughters.

During the struggle, the daughter is said to have found a weapon and decapitated the lord. As a result, the townspeople were supposedly freed from the lord’s autocracy, yet had to take up arms and defend the town from the lord’s guards, who attempted to enforce their influence over the people.

An annual festival was then organised to mark the lord’s death and the efforts of the townspeople who protected their town from further tyranny. The festival today begins with a group of people dressed in armour moving through the streets of the town in horse-drawn carts.

As representatives of the lord’s guards, these individuals are pelted with oranges from the onlooking crowds. After this, nine teams of around 4,000 people take part in a mass ‘battle’ on foot where they hurl as many as 500,000 kilograms of oranges at one another.

Beans were traditionally used in the battle, but during the 19th century oranges began to be used as symbols of the lord’s severed head.


3) Woodstock festival, New York, USA

Considered by many as the first modern music festival that we would recognise today, the Woodstock festival in Bethel, New York, was first held in August 1969. Plans were in place to transform a dairy farm into a three-day music event, and more than 100,000 tickets were sold.

The crowds assemble for the 1969 Woodstock festival (Credit: John Dominis/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

However, demand from the public was far greater than festival organisers had anticipated. As campers began to set up their tents and the artists started their sets on stage, the organisers were shocked to find that nearly half a million people descended upon the 600-acre farmland to watch the likes of The Who, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.

Despite the unexpectedly large number of people who travelled to the festival, the atmosphere remained relatively peaceful and the set list went ahead, much to the delight of the crowds. However, protesters to Woodstock displayed their opposition by holding up posters that read ‘Stop Max’s hippie music festival’ and ‘buy no milk’.

4) Baby jumping festival, near Burgos, Spain

Arguably the most unusual festival in this list is the Spanish baby jumping festival, which originates from the 1620s. Referred to as El Salto del Colacho, or ‘the devil’s leap’, the festival involves a small number of babies under the age of 12 months being laid on a mattress in the middle of the town centre. Once the babies are settled, men dressed as devils in yellow and red costumes are challenged to jump over all the children.

The festival is held every year to celebrate the Catholic feast of Corpus Christi, which occurs between the end of May and mid-June. The festival was traditionally seen to protect the children involved in the festival against illness, evil spirits and sin, and was thought to help encourage a long life.

Alongside the devil’s leap, numerous pageants and plays take place on the streets of Castrillo de Murcia during the festival period.

5) Newport Jazz Festival, Rhode Island, USA

Over the years, the Newport Jazz Festival has attracted headline acts including Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis. The annual festival was established in 1954 by wealthy socialite couple Elaine and Louis Livingston Lorillard, after Elaine complained that there was not enough to do in the summer months in Newport. Many people clearly agreed, as around 11,000 people attended the festival in the first year.

However, despite the successful ticket sales, many people opposed the festival during the 1950s. Jazz was not popular among much of the upper class in Newport, and some complained about the festival and the people attending it – especially those who were students and those who chose to sleep outdoors or in tents. Racism was prevalent during the initial years of the festival, and remained an issue of contention for the protesters, as many of the musicians were African-American.

Nonetheless, the popularity of the festival continued to grow despite complaints from residents. Today it draws in thousands of attendees every year.

6) Oktoberfest, Munich, Germany

Today one of the largest festivals in the world, Oktoberfest, attracts more than six million people to Munich to drink varieties of beer and eat local food. Yet few may know of the rich history behind the 16-day event.

The festival’s origins date to 1810, when Crown Prince Ludwig (later King Ludwig I) married Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. Feeling jubilant, Prince Ludwig invited all of the people of Munich to join in with the wedding festivities on the land in front of the city gates.

The 1953 Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany (Credit: Keystone-France / Gramma-Keystone/ Getty Images)

Following the celebrations, an idea was put forward by Andreas Micheal Dall’Armi, a major in the National Guard, to create an annual festival in which all the local people could take part. The original field in which the festivities took place was consequently named Theresienwiese, after the newly-married Crown Princess.

The festival was officially established in 1811, with a variety of large attractions and horse races catering for the greater number of people in attendance. The festival has since been held annually, but it was forced to cancel a number of times during the 19th century owing to the Napoleonic wars (1813), cholera outbreaks (1854 and 1873), Bavaria’s involvement in the Austro-Prussian War (1866), and the Franco-Prussian war in 1870.

The popularity of the festival grew during the 20th century, and in 1910 – the festival’s centenary year – a considerable beer celebration was hosted. This has remained a feature of the festival ever since.

Oktoberfest even continued under the Nazi Party, but Jewish people were forbidden to work at the festival.

7) Bayreuth Festival, Bayreuth, Germany

Since it began in the 19th century, the Bayreuth music festival has been considered one of the most exclusive opera festivals in Germany. Today, many opera enthusiasts book their tickets months in advance.

The festival was first held in 1876 to allow composer Richard Wagner to showcase his work to wider audiences. With the help and patronage of Ludwig II of Bavaria, it has been argued that Wagner was able to promote his compositions to music fans and make him the recognisable name he is today. And without the support of the king, it is quite possible that Wagner would not have been able to complete his famous cycle of four operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen, which helped to found his lasting legacy in operatic history.

From the outset, Bayreuth Festival was attended by the highest members of German society and became popular among the world’s elite, with Ludwig II, Kaiser Wilhelm I and Dom Pedro II of Brazil all attending early performances.

The festival became even more popular during the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler. Marking the 50th anniversary of Wagner’s death, Hitler ordered that the Bayreuth Festival follow a new theme of ‘Wagner and the new Germany’.


8) Glastonbury Festival, Somerset, UK

Arguably the biggest and most famous music festival in the UK, Glastonbury Festival first began in 1970 under the name of Pilton Festival. During the first year 1,500 people attended the two-day event for an entry fee of £1 – those in attendance also received free milk from the farm the festival was taking place in.

Glastonbury festival in 1971 (Credit: Ian Tyas/ Keystone Features/ Getty Images)

The festival changed its name to Glastonbury Festival in 1981. It was in this year that it promoted the ‘Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’. Alongside the music, environmental groups and charitable organisations such as Greenpeace, Water Aid and Oxfam have become a significant part of Glastonbury festival.

Over the years, Glastonbury has grown enormously in popularity. After the millennium, ticket sales became restricted in order to prevent overcrowding. The record time it takes for them to sell out has been broken each year since 2011 – tickets to the 2015 festival sold out in less than 30 minutes. Those who miss out on tickets can watch the televised footage of the set lists on the BBC, and hear more on the radio.

9) La Batalla de Vino de Haro (The Wine Fight), Haro, Spain

As part of the annual celebrations marking St Peter’s Day on 29 June, a giant wine fight festival is held for the locals in Haro in northern Spain.

Although the festival supposedly dates to the 12th century, the first recorded red wine fight occurred in 1710. It has been suggested that this annual festival first began when the St Peter’s Day celebrations got out of hand and a mass wine fight ensued. However, other sources suggest the festival originated from a land dispute between the people of Haro and the neighbouring village, Miranda del Ebro.

Today the annual festival begins on the evening of 28 June. The locals, dressed completely in white clothing, parade through the streets with large vassals of wine. They are led to the outskirts of town by the mayor on horseback. Those involved then take mass at Hermitage of San Felices de Bilibio, while the mayor places the city banner on the highest rock. The ‘battle’ then officially commences.


The festival has gained national and international interest in recent decades, attracting thousands of participants to the Spanish region.


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