15 Festive International Holidays the U.S. Should Adopt

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istock

Americans have a pretty terrific slate of national holidays, but if we could just add these special days, festivals, and events from abroad, the calendar would be even more delightful.

1. Bolludagur (Iceland)

Two days before Lent, they celebrate Bolludagur, or "Buns Day," by eating cream puffs or “buns” of all sizes, shapes, and fillings. Kids get an especially sweet deal. According to tradition, they're supposed to wake up before their parents and gently beat them awake with a homemade Bun Wand. They earn one cream puff for every blow they land.

2. Feast for Monkeys (Thailand)

In the Hindu epic the Ramayana, the hero Rama gives Thailand's province of Lopburi to the monkey king Hanuman. On the last Sunday of each November, all of Hanuman’s real-life monkey descendants get the royal treatment. Townspeople set up a feast of more than four tons of fruits, vegetables, and even sodas for the local macaques to enjoy.

3. Hadaka Matsuri (Japan)

Men demonstrate their masculinity in many ways, but no ritual makes it as tough as Japan's Hadaka Matsuri. The men aren't completely naked, but most strip down to loincloths on a cold February night to test their manhood and battle for future happiness. The night gets off to a freezing start when men purify themselves in fountains or the Yoshi River. Then they try to catch sacred batons thrown into the crowd by priests. Meanwhile, somewhere very cozy, we’re guessing the ladies are probably a little relieved that there's no Naked Woman Festival.

4. La Tomatina (Spain)

You don't have to fight for the right to food fight in Buñol, Spain. On the last Wednesday of every August, thousands of people gather for La Tomatina. The events starts out tame at 10 a.m. with a game of palo jabón, in which competitors climb slippery greased poles to get to ham at the top. Once the meat drops, the one-hour food fight is on. A shot is fired, and trucks from Extremadura bring in some 150,000 overripe tomatoes.

Don't think this is a red-splattered free-for-all—La Tomatina comes with rules. For starters, tomatoes are squashed to avoid injuries, and goggles and gloves are advised. No other projectiles, fruit or otherwise, are allowed. Participants must keep their shirts on. And once the second shot goes off, the food fight is over.

5. Ystävänpäivä (Finland)

Finland’s answer to V-Day is actually Y-day, and it's about celebrating friendship, not romance. Men and women give cards, gifts, and candy to their platonic life partners. No one feels left out or expresses curmudgeonly anti Y-Day sentiment. At least, we hope not.

6. Laskiainen (Finland)

Laskiainen is another Finnish tradition we're ready to start. Seven weeks before Easter, Finns fuel themselves with pea soup and buns filled with jams and cream. It's all downhill from there: men, women, and children spend the rest of the day sledding. Since the 1930s, Palo, Minnesota has celebrated Laskiainen with authentic music, food, crafts, and high-speed snow racing. What trailblazers!

7. Chinchilla Melon Festival

Many towns celebrate local crops, but they take it to another level Down Under. Every two years, Chinchilla—the Melon Capital of Australia—plans a giant four-day shindig with lots of juicy fun. Activities include archery that replaces the dart with a melon, a fruity slip and slide, and even melon skiing. Yes, skiing downhill wearing watermelons on your feet.

8. Keirō no Hi (Japan)

Japan’s Keirō no Hi, or Respect for the Aged Day, on every third Monday of September is devoted to honoring older folks... even if they're not your own grandparents. Volunteers prepare and deliver free meals, children perform songs and dances at special ceremonies, and the media spends the day highlighting elderly people doing amazing things in their twilight years.

9. Up-Helly-Aa (Scotland)

This Scottish holiday at the end of each December starts with themed costumes and hundreds of people bearing torches. They march and then set fire to a replica of a Viking ship to depict the rebirth of the sun. It's a cross between Halloween, a good old-fashioned bonfire, and an action movie.

10. The Anastenaria (Greece and Bulgaria)

Revelers in Northern Greece and Southern Bulgaria get fired up twice a year for the Anastenaria. The dancing celebrations, dedicated to Orthodox Christian figures Saint Constantine and Saint Helena, last for three days and culminate in fire walking. But don't worry—dancers say they don't feel a thing, thanks to the protection of the saints.

11. International Camel Derby & Festival (Kenya)

Horse races, trail rides, and rodeos are great and all, but camels make for a more wild ride. Since 1990, Maralal, Kenya has been the site of the International Camel Derby & Festival. The event attracts riders from all over the world and is surprisingly open to novices. Even without prior camel riding experience, you can hire a camel and a handler for the 10-kilometer (6.2 mile) Amateur race. More seasoned camel riders are eligible for the 42-kilometer (26.2 mile) Pro Elite race without a handler.

12. Nyepi Day (Indonesia)

People worldwide are encouraged to reflect on their past, present, and future at the dawn of a new year. On Bali's annual Nyepi Day, quiet contemplation is actually enforced. People are supposed to spend the Lunar New Year at home in silence—avoiding the distractions of electricity, food, TV, and radio. Security guards patrol the streets, ready to bust anyone they catch outside. Sounds relaxing ... for a little while, anyway. After Nyepi Day, Balinese people turn the volume way up with cleansing rituals, demon exorcism, effigy burning, carnivals, and even the Omed-Omedan kissing festival for teenagers.

13. Holi (India and Nepal)

Each spring, revelers in India, Nepal, and elsewhere start the celebration of the Hindu Festival of Colors the night before by lighting bonfires in honor of a boy named Prahlada from Hindu legend and his triumph over his evil aunt Holika, who tried to burn him in a fire. The next morning is a beautifully messy free-for-all with colored powder, water balloons, and live music. Holi is a time to make new friends, make amends with former ones, and believe in the power of good.

14. Race the Train (Wales)

Who needs a running buddy when you can just follow a train carrying all your supporters? In the annual Race the Train event in Tywyn, Wales, participants run alongside the tracks of the Talyllyn Railway to and from the village of Abergynolwyn. (Incidentally, these names are even harder to pronounce after you've run a few miles.) Runners cross all kinds of terrain, from country lanes to rough pastures, as the train's passengers cheer them on. And if things don't go so well, it can't be that hard to hop aboard on the second leg of the trip.

15. Takanakuy (Peru)

The holiday season can be stressful. Each Christmas, people from the Peruvian province of Chumbivilcas take their aggressions out on each other in a series of minute-long public brawls. Takanakuy, which translates to "when the blood is boiling" in Quechua, is open to men, women, children, and the elderly to address civil or private matters. Interestingly enough, most fighters use martial arts-style moves, instead of a good old knuckle sandwich. Once their altercation is over, they shake hands or hug it out and consider the issue resolved.

What is Wassailing, Anyway?

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iStock

It’s easy to think that wassailing is some cozy wintertime tradition that’s fun for the whole family. After all, there’s a jaunty, wholesome Christmas carol about it! But the truth is, if you ever see a minor out wassailing, you may want to call his or her parents.

The word wassail has many meanings. For centuries, it was a way to toast someone’s good health. Before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, English soldiers reportedly sang:

Rejoice and wassail!

(Pass the bottle) and drink health.

Drink backwards and drink to me

Drink half and drink empty.

But, in England, wassail also denoted the alcoholic beverage you imbibed during that toast—an elixir of steamy mulled mead or cider. Sometimes, wassail was a whipped dark beer flavored with roasted crab apples.

Wassail was usually slurped from a communal bowl before, during, and after big events and holidays. It was supposedly on the menu during Lammas Day, a pagan autumnal harvest holiday that involves transforming cornhusks into dolls. It was also imbibed on Twelfth Night, a January holiday that involves lighting a fire in an orchard, dancing, and singing incantations to apple trees in hopes of encouraging a bountiful harvest.

By the Middle Ages, the practice of sharing a giant bowl of wassail—that is, the practice of wassailing—evolved from a holiday celebration to a form of boozy begging. “At Christmastide, the poor expected privileges denied them at other times, including the right to enter the homes of the wealthy, who feasted them from the best of their provisions,” Robert Doares, an instructor at Colonial Williamsburg, explained. The poor would either ask to sip from their rich neighbor’s wassailing bowl or would bring their own bowl, asking for it to be filled. According to Doares, “At these gatherings, the bands of roving wassailers often performed songs for the master while drinking his beer, toasting him, his family, his livestock, wishing continued health and wealth.” The original lyrics of Here We Come a-Wassailing are quite upfront about what’s going on:

We are not daily beggars

That beg from door to door

But we are neighbours’ children

Whom you have seen before.

Not all rich folk were happy to see wassailers at their doorstep. One 17th century polymath, John Selden, complained about “Wenches … by their Wassels at New-years-tide ... present you with a Cup, and you must drink of the slabby stuff; but the meaning is, you must give them Moneys.”

Misers like Selden may have had a point: Since alcohol was involved, wassailers often got too rowdy. “Drunken bands of men and boys would take to the streets at night, noise-making, shooting rifles, making ‘rough music,’ and even destroying property as they went among the wealthy urban homes,” wrote Hannah Harvester, formerly the staff folklorist at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York. In fact, boisterous wassailers are one reason why Oliver Cromwell and Long Parliament passed an ordinance in 1647 that essentially banned Christmas.

By the 19th century, wassailing would mellow. Beginning in the 1830s, music publishers started releasing the first commercial Christmas carols, uncorking classics such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and The First Noel. Among them were dozens of wassailing songs, including the circa 1850 Here We Come a-Wassailing and dozens of others that are now, sadly, forgotten. As the custom of caroling became the dominant door-to-door pastime, alcohol-fueled begging dwindled. By the turn of the 20th century, carolers were more likely to sing about libations than actually drink them.

But if you’re interested in engaging in some good, old-fashioned wassailing, the original lyrics to Here We Come a-Wassailing are a helpful guide. For starters, ask for beer.

Our wassail cup is made

Of the rosemary tree,

And so is your beer

Of the best barley.

Don’t be shy! Keep asking for that beer.

Call up the butler of this house,

Put on his golden ring.

Let him bring us up a glass of beer,

And better we shall sing.

Remind your audience that, hey, this is the season of giving. Fork it over.

We have got a little purse

Of stretching leather skin;

We want a little of your money

To line it well within.

Screw it. You’ve sung this far. Go for it all, go for the gold, go for ... their cheese.

Bring us out a table

And spread it with a cloth;

Bring us out a mouldy cheese,

And some of your Christmas loaf.

Thirsty for your own wassail? Stock up on sherry and wine and try this traditional recipe from The Williamsburg Cookbook.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Holiday Window Display Designers

iStock.com/andykazie
iStock.com/andykazie

For decades, lavish holiday window displays at department stores have been one of the first signs of the season. But have you ever wondered how the designers behind the windows create those enchanting arrangements? Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at everything that goes into making the holiday windows so magical at this time of year—from the best way to arrange lights to the pre-season all-nighters.

1. Every holiday window has a purpose.

The holiday windows are supposed to make you feel something, says Jacques Rosas, New York-based artist, founder, and CEO of Jacques Rosas, which does holiday window installations in stores such as Godiva, Elizabeth Arden, and Bed, Bath & Beyond. Whenever Rosas is working on a window, he asks about the personality of the store, what they’re imagining, favorite decorations, traditions, and more—all starting with what they sell. “I try to pull settings that have nostalgia for them,” Rosas says. “I think the magical part is the nostalgia.” He loves the feel of an old-fashioned Christmas—last year, he decked out one store window with handmade stockings, old ornaments, and a real train.

2. You won’t see many Christmas trees in the store windows.

A Macy's 2007 holiday window display.
A Macy's 2007 holiday window display.
Wally Gobetz, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (cropped)

At least not any real Christmas trees, Rosas says. Usually, the windows are hot, dry places, so any live trees would dry out and die. They could also catch fire, so a lot of the newer buildings won’t use them even if they could create the right environmental conditions. “We tend to use a lot of fake stuff,” Rosas says.

3. You also won’t see any products.

While store windows throughout the year are supposed to sell products, this time of year is all about the entertainment, says David Spaeth, CEO of Spaeth Design, which does holiday windows for Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Tiffany & Co. and Bergdorf Goodman. Sure, you may see a product or two in some of the windows (it’s not a hard-and-fast rule), but this is the time to seduce customers with gorgeous snowflakes or pretty (fake) trees instead of fantastic outfits.

4. But you will see lights.

A Bloomingdale's 2008 holiday window
A Bloomingdale's 2008 holiday window
Wally Gobetz, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (cropped)

Lights are what draws customers to the windows, and they can really make the displays pop. But you’d be surprised at how few lights will make a big splash, Rosas says. “There’s not a lot of lights—that’s a big mistake,” he says. "If you do too many, the reflection will play tricks on the viewer, and you won’t actually be able to see anything but lights.” Instead, he uses a few perfectly placed lights that bounce off each other. Rosas also tends to use plenty of wood composite, fiberglass, bark, paper, and plastic to create his scenes. But don't be surprised to spot other wacky items in holiday store windows, like Lite-Brite (yes, the retro toy), coffee stirrers, and even taxidermy. Anything goes when it comes to creating the perfect holiday window.

5. They plan ahead.

When the holidays start dying down, these designers are just getting started on the following year, says Michael Bednark, owner of Bednark Studio, a Brooklyn-based fabrication studio that is responsible for some of the Macy’s holiday windows throughout the country. Design talks start in January, and by March, the ideas are set. It takes two more months to figure out rendering, and the summer months are for fabrication (building the physical elements). Installation starts even before Halloween—by about mid-October, Bednark says.

6. They have working habits comparable to vampires.

Ever wonder how holiday windows pop up like magic? That’s because the artists work through the night to put them up so that they’ll appear in the morning. Installation for the simpler windows usually takes six to eight hours, Rosas says. “We have to be like wizards,” he explains.

7. Some windows can take weeks to install.

A Bergdorf Goodman holiday window in 2014
A Bergdorf Goodman holiday window in 2014
iStock.com/LukeAbrahams

A regular window display is an overnight job, but the team working on the Macy’s windows pre-builds them inside the shop. There’s a fake window inside every single Macy’s store, filled with the entire holiday window display. “We pre-build inside the shop so we can make sure that everything fits,” Bednark says. The pre-build takes about four weeks. If it’s a go, it’s moved into the regular window, which takes three weeks.

8. To make it look perfect, the artists touch every light.

The reason store windows look amazing while your holiday display might look just passable is because these designers really pay attention to the details. “When you decorate a tree, or you’re doing your lights and everything, the secret to really nice displays is to touch and adjust each branch, each light, and position everything as if everything was its own individual thing,” Rosas says. “That’s the secret to styling.”

9. When the season is over, the displays are usually tossed.

Some stores will re-use the decorations in-house, but many will toss them because the décor is so unique. Basically, they don’t want to wear the same outfit two days in a row, Spaeth explains.

10. The holidays aren’t their only busy season.

People love holiday store windows, and they’re great for business. But these artists are busy year-round, Rosas says. In addition to doing store window displays for every season, they also decorate show rooms, do trade show displays, and even create sets for TV shows and product launches. In Rosas’s studio, they have two 7500-square-foot spaces, and they use these for creating fake store windows or for marketing experiences. For example, a yogurt company may hire Rosas to use that studio to build an entire yogurt set as a backdrop for a yogurt product launch. The yogurt company would then invite members of the media to the room, where they’d take pictures and do interviews. “We try to inspire people to write about [the company] there,” Rosas says.

11. If you want to replicate the look, get out your checkbook.

A Bergdorf Goodman 2014 holiday window
A Bergdorf Goodman 2014 holiday window
iStock.com/LukeAbrahams

To hire a professional display artist to do your holiday windows, expect to pay anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000 per window, depending on the number of details and amount of work it will take, Bednark says. In other words, making this kind of magic doesn't come cheap.

A version of this story first ran in 2016.

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