‘But why can’t I drink water while I’m eating?’ I asked. My friends rolled their eyes, ‘because it’s bad for your health of course!’ they all cried. ‘But why?’ I wondered. Other cultures can seem baffling sometimes: no drinking at mealtimes in China, touching chimney sweeps for good luck in Germany and making sure never to open an umbrella in the shade in Africa. Every country seems to have its quirks and when I started to think about it, Britain was no exception.
Drawing a crowd of over five thousand spectators from all over the world and creating the perfect entertainment for a drizzly afternoon, Cheese Rolling is a perfect example of my own culture’s eccentricity. This bizarre and much-loved event is traditionally held in the village of Brockworth near Gloucester. Participants chase an eight pound Double Gloucester cheese down a 180m slope, hoping to catch it and be crowned as the year’s Cheese Rolling champion. Injuries are many, as cheese-chasers somersault to the bottom of the steep hill. Among the usual dislocated shoulders, broken bones, cuts and bruises, last year’s ambulance crews reported that fainting spectators were also keeping them busy during the races. Although no one is sure how the festival started, Cheese Rolling has been on the British calendar for at least two hundred years and is becoming ever more popular.
If cheese-rolling isn’t quite your cup of tea, the World Bog Snorkelling Championships are held in Wales’ 55 metre Waen Rhydd peat bog and attracted over 1000 participants this year alone. Supposedly sparked by a conversation in the Neuadd Arms pub, the contest has been going strong since 1976. Competitors must wade through the thick, freezing bog in a snorkel and flippers- without using any recognised swimming strokes! People fly in from as far away as Australia to join the fun, swapping the Golden Coast’s sunny beaches for Wales’ stagnant swamp.
But it seems it is not just the Brits who have a strange taste in festivals: the Spanish village of Castrillo de Murcia is famous for El Colacho (baby jumping), in which local men, dressed as devils, jump over all the babies born that year. The ritual is believed to rid the babies of sin and serves as a kind of baptism. If you head west to Castrillo de Murcia on the fourth Sunday in January you may also catch the annual goat throwing festival. Despite the celebration’s ban, goats are still thrown from the village church’s 50 foot tower and caught by the crowd below. And it is not only goats that the Spanish like to throw. The world’s biggest food fight takes place in Valencia’s Buñol on the last Wednesday in August. 150,000 tomatoes are estimated to be hurled during the one-hour battle. The festival’s origins are not really known, although there are lots of rumours about how the celebration got started.
The Japanese are also not far behind, boasting the Hadaka Matsuri naked festival. The celebration is held in various places at various times, although the Okayama festival is by far the most famous, attracting over 9,000 participants. Wearing just a loincloth, these freezing men run around the city, competing for lucky charms. Hadaka Matsuri has its roots in ancient tradition and is over 500 years old, although nowadays many people just participate for fun.
Although our festivals and traditions don’t make much sense to outsiders, when we think about it, they don’t really make much sense to us either. From throwing goats and tomatoes, to chasing cheeses, swimming around in a bog, to running around naked - it is hard to explain where most of these ideas came from, and even harder to explain what they mean to us now. Despite our different traditions, languages and histories, we do all seem to have one thing in common: our love of bizarre celebrations!