Places I Remember with Lea Lane

Winter Travel: Northern Lights, Christmas Markets, Weird (Cussing, Naked) Festivals!

November 23, 2021 Lea Lane, host of Places I Remember, shares her knowledge of winter markets and unusual festivals. Season 1 Episode 43
Places I Remember with Lea Lane
Winter Travel: Northern Lights, Christmas Markets, Weird (Cussing, Naked) Festivals!
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Winter can be cold, and Lea prefers warmth, but the lights, markets, and festivals of the winter months create warm, beautiful (sometimes weird) experiences, terrific travel opportunities to understand the variety of customs and cultures around the world.

Lea reflects on pleasures of winter. She talks of lights and fireworks and remembers festivities in places she has lived, including Miami, Paris and London. Christmas markets are described in Vienna, Prague, Strasbourg, Basel, Krakow, Talinn, Colmar, Heidelberg, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Birmingham, and Florence.

And then there are the festivals around the world: some grand with snow sculptures and costumed pageants; and some wacky fun, with food fights, ending with the weirdest of all -- the cussing festival and the naked man festival in Japan.

If you like hearing about these winter customs and festivals, check out others throughout the seasons, in Episodes 8 (spring), 19 (summer) and 31 (fall).

Wherever in the world you celebrate, Happy Holidays and Happy Travels in the new year!
Lea Lane is host of the award-winning travel podcast Places I Remember with Lea Lane. She blogs at, has traveled to over 100 countries, written nine books including the award-winning Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries.  She has written over a thousand articles and contributed to dozens of guidebooks. She's @lealane on Twitter; PlacesIRememberLeaLane on Insta;  PlacesIRememberLeaLane on LinkedIn. Her Facebook travel page is Places I Remember with Lea Lane. Her website: placesirememberlealane.comPlease follow, rate and review this travel podcast!

*Transcript edited for clarity.

Lea Lane  0:04 
Hi, I'm Lea Lane, an award winning travel writer and author of Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries. On this podcast we share conversations with travelers about fascinating destinations and memorable experiences around the world.

Lea Lane  0:23 
Not a big fan of winter weather, which is probably why I live in Miami. But if you've been following Places I Remember, you know by now that I love festivals, especially wacky ones, and through the seasons, I focused on some of the most fascinating and weird festivals throughout the world. In Episode 8, I talked about Spring festivals, including Songkran in the Buddhist world where everybody douses themselves and each other with water. Summer festivals on Episode 19 were just as fascinating, with events like the baby jumping contest in Spain. In Fall, as I described in Episode 31, is the Japanese Laughing in Unison festival, and now, Winter, and they have their share of beyond belief customs and traditions, culture and fun. Consider festivals when you decide to travel and choose some to experience, as a spectator or participant.

Lea Lane  1:17 
Let's begin. Winter brings out lights, candles, twinkling lights on trees and homes, and sometimes fireworks, especially in the new year. I know where I live in Miami, on New Year's Eve there's a bursting of colors in the skies all over the city, from Little Havana to the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables to Bayfront Park downtown and over to the beaches.

Lea Lane  1:38 
In Yanshu, Taiwan, there are firecrackers and fireworks at one of the top folklore festivals in the world. Near the end of the 19th century, a plague so terrified the locals that they prayed to the Holy Ruler Deity Guan, asking for help. The Deity replied that on the night of Lantern Festival Day, the Deity would parade through the streets of Yanshu, and followers must set off firecrackers as they trail behind the holy sedan chair. So every lantern festival between February 5 and March 7, as the sedan chair passes the doorways of stores and residences, racks of fireworks are lit sending firecrackers flying everywhere. Locals believe that after running through the flying fireworks, they get rid of bad luck and have a great new year. That's really trial by fire.

Lea Lane  2:25 
Speaking of lights, many seek the magic of the Northern Lights and there's even a festival for that. For 25 years, the city of Tromso in Norway has offered a musical extravaganza the last week of January. Under nature's amazing nighttime green and purple sky curtains, the Northern Lights Festival presents top artists from early music to modern opera to jazz chamber music to symphonic orchestras. Northern Lights and great music, the best of nature and human achievement.

Lea Lane  2:54 
The winter season is, of course, filled with Christmas markets, especially in Europe. The main draw: the shopping, the beauty, and traditions. You can cruise to sample many of the best of these in riverside towns throughout Europe, all the while staying in your comfy boat each evening. You can enjoy the pleasures of wooden chalets and 13th century towns, snowcapped mountains, seasonal cookies and cakes and display windows, and all the hot mulled wine you can drink. The European continent practically twinkles with fairytale festiveness, especially gorgeous when it's reflected in the river. You can just travel to a favorite city that celebrates holidays big time and stay for a while, soaking in the culture along with the whiskey soaked cakes.

Lea Lane  3:35 
Here are a few European cities that go all out: In Paris:  blue lights, the Champs Elysees. chestnuts and hot wine are pervading cafes and stalls. I remember one holiday season in Paris where I listened to a free concert every night in churches and cathedrals throughout the city, including Notre Dame. I lived in London for a year. And what I love the most about the holidays there were the lights lining Harrod's Department Store, and the pantomime shows filled with songs, gags, slapstick comedy and dancing. Pantomimes employ gender crossing actors and combined topical humor with a story more or less based on a well known fairy tale. I love that the audience is encouraged and expected to sing along and shout out phrases to the performers.

Lea Lane  4:23 
Vienna's first Christmas market was held in 1298 and today it offers more than 20 events to choose from. Just five minutes apart by foot, Prague's Old Town and Wenceslas markets are the best, maybe because of the gothic architecture and mulled wine stalls. Don't miss the barbecued pork, or trdelnik, a hot pastry rolled in cinnamon and sugar and cooked over a grill.

Lea Lane  4:49 
Strasbourg in eastern France had its first Christmas market in 1570. Today there are 10 locations with 300 stalls and lots of local outstation wine to enjoy among narrow alleyways and beautiful squares. Place Kléber is the site of the great Christmas tree. Strasbourg is just across the border from Germany so you get a 'two cultures in one' experience. Basel is Switzerland's most beautiful and largest Christmas city with a well preserved Old Town. Around 100 tall pine trees line up the streets like brightly lit sentinels. The Christmas market is on one of the most beautiful squares in Basel. And by the way, Art Basel in Miami, a December Holiday Market tradition of its own, has fine arts among the palm trees and beaches, along with cool parties and beautiful people from around the world.

Lea Lane  5:37 
At Krakow, Poland, the Christmas market in the city's huge main square, there are hand painted baubles that are a local specialty as are the spiced nuts and boiled candies. In addition to Estonian Christmas dishes like black pudding and sour cabbage, which is better than it sounds, Tallinn's market, the best Christmas market of 2019 according to European's Best Destinations, also has a Santa who arrives by reindeer pulled sleigh. A Christmas tree has been decorated in front of its town hall since 1441, the first Christmas tree to ever be displayed in Europe.

Lea Lane  6:11 
With its temperate houses and canal lined streets, Colmar, France, on the border of Germany, is basically a fairy tale come to life year round. And with twinkly lights, an ice skating rink, and an early 1900s carousel, it's one of the most charming Christmas destinations in all of Europe. The Heidelberg Christmas market is on all the squares in the old town and includes carousels, twinkling winter forests and the beautiful ice rink on the Karlsplatz. The Helsinki market is one of a kind and non traditional. You can play bingo for a vegan ham or watch a holiday outfit contest for dogs. Choirs sing Christmas carols and you can relax in the wood heated unisex sauna smack in the middle of the market in Center Square. Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen is decked out in more than 500,000 fairy lights. Danish treats include Æbleskiver, small pancake puffs topped with powdered sugar, or honninghjerter, which is similar to German gingerbread which is a honey cake filled with jam and buttercream and topped with a chocolate glaze. I'd travel there just for that alone. 

Lea Lane  7:19  
England's Second City, Birmingham, boasts the largest authentic German Christmas market outside of Germany. It's in Victoria Square, and there are over 80 stalls which sell everything from jewelry to handmade toys. Chris the Singing Moose hangs out at the market's Council House entrance. The annual Christmas market in Florence, Italy usually runs from December, and it's in the spectacular Piazza Santa Croce with a Franciscan basilica providing a backdrop for 50 stalls. Head to Piazza del Duomo for the nativity scene and Christmas tree which is lit up on December 8 as part of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. 

Lea Lane  7:57  
Let's move from the charming markets and focus on the wildest and weirdest winter festivals around the world, many of which have more to do with tradition and a season rather than holidays. Harbin, the Ice City of China, is famous for its frozen winters, ice and snow sculptures, ski resorts and exotic architecture. Every year from late December to February, the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival turns parts of the city into a wonderland. The largest snow sculpture ever, entitled Romantic Feelings, measured 115 feet tall and 656 feet long. On 20th of December 2007, a team of 600 sculptors from 40 different countries used 120,000 cubic feet of snow to create the Olympic themed landscape which included a French cathedral, an Ice Maiden, and a Russian church. This traditional party began in 1963 but was interrupted for many years during China's cultural revolution. We're glad it's back. 

Lea Lane  8:58  
For 200 years a battle has taken place in the town of Ibi in Spain. People dress up in fake military uniforms and play at a coup d'etat, not fought with swords or guns, but with flour and eggs. The Festival Flour Fight on December 28 is part of celebrations related to the Day of the Innocence, which is Spain's version of April Fool's Day. Citizens who disobey have to pay real money as a penalty, which is given to charities. When they're fed up from the power of the "government." Opposition steps into fight back. During the battle participants throw bag after bag of flour, launch hundreds of eggs, and detonate countless firecrackers and colorful smoke bombs. Sounds like lots of egg noodles to me. This festival would go well with La Tomatina, also in Spain, where tomatoes are thrown in the summer.

Lea Lane  9:48  
Each winter mermaids and mermen from all corners of the country gather at the Triangle Aquatic Center in Cary, North Carolina, for the North Carolina Merlefest run by NC Merfolk, a fun-loving group of mermaids and mermen. NC Merfolk donates a portion of their proceeds to various charities that support the sea turtles on the coast of North Carolina, as well as other environmental causes. 

Lea Lane  10:12  
The Jaisalmer Desert Festival in India is held every year in February, located near the city in the Thar Desert. With a spectacular desert backdrop, performers provide folk music, dance, magic shows, acrobatics, puppet shows and martial arts. The festival begins with processions from the fort to the stadium, locals in traditional bright costumes sing and dance, depicting the tragedies and accomplishments of the desert. The fire dance is a highlight.

Lea Lane  10:40  
Inti Raymi, or Festival of the Sun, is an Andean festival in Cuzco, Peru. More than 500 actors reenact an ancient Inca ceremony in adoration of the sun god. The nine day winter solstice celebration is held in the Great Square and includes banquets, music, and thousands of people dressed in colorful costumes. Surva, the International Festival of the Masquerade Games, is held in January-February in the town of Pernik. Bulgaria. Participants are men called Kukeri, who parade in homemade costumes and masks, made of wood, leather, fur and copper, and bronze bells. They dance, play games, make jokes, jump, jingle the bells, and roll on the floor. It's believed that Kukeri monsters are so ugly than any real monster would run away screaming. Well, I'm not a monster, but I might run. Some of the masks have two faces, on one side good humor, the other grim and sinister. The hope is that the evil spirits that Winter brought have been chased away and only good is to be expected of the future. 

Lea Lane  11:42  
Thaipusam is the second largest Hindu festival in Malaysia, and is celebrated in honor of Lord Subramaniam, also known as Lord Murugan. To mark this day of penance and thanksgiving, Hindus pierce their body with metal skewers and carry pots of milk on their heads along a four kilometer procession. That doesn't sound easy, even without the skewers. 

Lea Lane  12:05  
Japan has some normal festivals, for example, the Winter Light Festival in the Sapporo Snow Festival. But let's focus on the wacky with our final two festivals. On the third Sunday of December, on Mt. Atago in Japan, people are encouraged to swear. The cursing festival, Akutai Matsuri, is said to have begun 200 years ago during the Edo period. Workers in the garment industry, most of whom were women, were stressed out and they longed for a break from their fatiguing task of making kimonos by hand, so they found a way to release their stress by cursing. Today hundreds of people will take a 40 minute hike to Atago Shrine, swearing at 13 priests who are walking in front of them and disguised as Tengu, a disruptive demon with a big nose. The most popular faces used to curse are Bakayaro, "idiot," and  and Konoyaro, "bastard." Sounds a bit like politicians. Before reaching the Atago Shrine, the tengus will stop by 18 smaller shrines to present their offerings while the crowd keeps cursing and trying to take the offerings. Those who get the offerings are blessed with good luck. Damn, what a festival! 

Lea Lane  13:14  
And here's our last winter festival,  the Naked Man Festival. On the third Sunday in February, some 10,000 men wearing nothing but a thin loincloth gather around Saidaiji Shrine in Okayama. These barely clothed men jump into an icy pool for purification, then at midnight lights of the shrine are turned off and the men shove each other in the freezing temperature for more than an hour to compete for the lucky sticks that will be thrown by the priest. The winners of those who captured the sticks then push them into a box filled with rice called masu. Those who get the sacred sticks are called Lucky Man and blessed with a year of happiness. Some people believe that the festival was born around 500 years ago. Worshipers of the shrine competed to get paper charms from the priest at the end of the year because they believe good things would happen to them if they received one. Another legend states that being naked could ward off evil forces and misfortune. Hence, villages would choose one "Lucky Man" to absorb all the misfortune. The man that was chosen would walk through the crowd naked, then he would leave the village together with all the bad luck, troubles and illness of all the villages. If it were only that easy. 

Lea Lane  14:26  
So, we gave you a whole variety of winter fun from markets to naked, cursing people. I love researching these festivals which show how original we can be. Please let me know if you enjoy them, too, at the links in the show notes, and check out my website I'll write you back, and maybe share your comment on an episode. Happy Holidays, and stay warm.

Lea Lane  14:55  
Thanks for sharing travel memories with us. My book, Places I Remember, is available on Amazon and at bookstores, in print, on Kindle, and I read the audio version. Please subscribe to this podcast and consider giving us a review. Until next time, join us wherever in the world we're going.

Holiday Lights, around the world, including one for the Northern lights
Concerts in Paris, pantomime in London, Christmas Markets, by riverboat and in big cities
Winter Festivals-- grand and strange -- around the world