13 Unusual Fall Festivals for Budget Travelers

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In some parts of the world, fall is a season of color, warmth, and comfort before the onset of the cold, barren winter. In others, autumn marks the end of the rainy season, a time of abundance, feasting, and giving thanks. And for some, fall can be a mystical time when the veil between the human world and the spirit world thins. The following are just some of the myriad fall celebrations around the globe. Apart from the cost of travel and lodging, the festivities are often free and open to all. Travelers who time their trips with these cultural events can make a trip to a faraway place all the more memorable at no extra cost. (Note: Consult the U.S. State Department's travel alerts and warnings before setting out for some of these sites.)
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Chinese people have been known to say that if one cannot spend Mid-Autumn Festival with family and loved ones, there is no point in living. Also called the Moon Festival, this is a time for families to gather together, look at the moon, and think about loved ones who are far away. It is the second biggest festival in China (second to Chinese New Year), causing a frenzied migration at train and bus stations as masses of people travel to reunite with their families. It's also a time to eat, and the snack of choice is moon cakes, round in shape to represent the reunion of family. Traditional moon cakes have a sweet filling, with flavors that vary by region and may be traditional (e.g., red bean or lotus seed paste) or contemporary (e.g., pineapple or green tea custard).

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The festival of Dasain, honoring the powerful and bloodthirsty Hindu goddess Durga, falls at the end of the monsoon season. Rituals celebrate the victory of good over evil and the vanquishing of a buffalo demon by Durga. On Kalratri, "the black night," celebrants slaughter thousands of goats, sheep, and buffalo as sacrifices to Durga and sprinkle the blood on cars to ward off accidents and evil spirits throughout the year. Nepalis take time to bathe in holy rivers, fly kites, don masks, and dance. The holiday is celebrated throughout the country, but activities center in Kathmandu, where parades fill the streets and citizens converge at Hanuman Dhoka Gate with garlands of flowers.

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The historical old quarter of Ghadames, officially uninhabited since the mid-1980s, is preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage site. But for one day in October, the city comes alive with dancing, singing, and partying in the streets. Residents of the modern part of Ghadames return to the old city and throw open the doors of their family homes to celebrate the date harvest. It's a popular time for weddings and re-enactments of ancient ceremonies and, of course, consuming dates in every form. The old city is crisscrossed with covered walkways that protect inhabitants from the searing Saharan sun. The date festival is three days in total, with the first day in the modern city and the second day in the old city. On the third day, the festival moves to the desert for a night of dancing in the dunes at the camp of the Tuaregs, Saharan nomads known as the "blue men."

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During the festival preceding Taoist Lent, a month of abstinence that includes refraining from all animal products, men parade the streets in a trance with knives and tree branches pierced through their flesh. Onlookers line the streets handing off flowers and cups of tea and children light firecrackers in the alleyways. The feeling at the celebration is one of religious frenzy, as mediums perform acts of self-mutilation in order to enter a trance state that will invite the nine Taoist emperor gods to earth. Shopkeepers and others decorate the sidewalks with candles, incense, fruit, flowers, and nine tiny cups of tea (one for each emperor god), which are accepted as offerings by the mediums during their procession.

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Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, is a colorful celebration of death and life that occurs on November 1-2. The festival has mixed origins in both indigenous Aztec celebrations and the Catholic All Souls' Day brought by Spanish conquistadors. During these two days, believers visit the graves of the deceased, bringing plates of food, gifts, family photos, and radios and musical instruments for singing and dancing. There are also street festivals, parades, and feasts. The nature of the celebrations varies by region, some very lively and others more somber. Oaxaca, Mexico, is famous for flamboyant parties. Celebrants in Todos Santos, a village in the Guatemalan highlands, enjoy an alcohol-fueled horse racing competition. The skies of Santiago Sacatepéquez, Guatemala are filled with thousands of ornate, rainbow-colored kites that are used to communicate with the deceased. Food and drink are always central to the celebrations and often have a morbid theme, such as skeleton cakes and coffin-shaped loaves of bread.

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For the Wodaabe people, nomadic cattle-herders who live on the edge of the Sahara Desert, the end of the rainy season is the last chance to gather together before families break into smaller groups to find grazing land for their livestock during the dry season. They use this opportunity for a weeklong celebration called Gerewol, the highlight of which is the Yaake dance. Men spend days preparing for the dance, even hunting exotic birds for feathers to complete their costumes. They don ankle bells, braid their hair, and paint their faces with symmetrical red, yellow, and black designs. The young, unmarried women watch as the men dance and sing love songs for hours on end. The Wodaabe value large, round eyes, white teeth, and tall height as markers of physical attractiveness, so the costumes and dances emphasize these features. Finally, each of the young women spectators selects one of the dancers with whom she wishes to spend the night; the rest of the dancers must wait until next year to try their luck. The unusual social mores and eye-catching aesthetic of this celebration have garnered some international attention in recent years, which means travel to this somewhat remote area may be easier and cheaper than it used to be.

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Of three thousand moulids (religious festivals) on the Egyptian calendar, the largest attracts more than 2 million pilgrims from as far away as Sudan. It is the moulid of Sayyid Ahmed al-Badawi, a 13th-century Sufi saint whose body rests in a mosque in Tanta in the Nile Delta. In late October, at the end of the cotton harvest, a carnival-like atmosphere pervades the streets and alleys surrounding the mosque, which fill up with thousands of colorful tents. Snake charmers dance with cobras, barbers perform mass circumcisions, and vendors hawk cone-shaped hats and candied nuts called hubb el Azziz, or "seeds of the Beloved Prophet." Sick people come to the shrine to be cured and parents bring children to be blessed. Swaying lines of Sufi celebrants perform the zikr spiritual ceremony, chanting and clapping with increasing tempo to reach a trance state.

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Diwali, the Festival of Lights, is the year's biggest celebration in India and arguably the most enchanting. Celebrants light small lamps and lanterns and place them around the home, on the doorstep, in the garden, and atop roofs to represent the victory of good over evil, hope over despair, and knowledge over ignorance, and to remind people of the inner light protecting them from spiritual darkness. Diwali celebrations typically last five days and are practiced in different ways by Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains. Celebrations include eating sweets and dried fruits and decorating the floors of the home with creative patterns. Children wake before sunrise to light firecrackers and listen to stories about the battle between good and evil. For some, it is an occasion for acts of peace -- each year, at the border, Indian soldiers give sweets to Pakistani soldiers, who return the gesture. In some parts of India, the fourth day of the holiday is dedicated to the relationship between wife and husband and the fifth day honors relationships between siblings.
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On Nov. 5, 1605, Guy Fawkes and other British Catholics planned to explode the English Parliament to protest the treatment of Catholics in Britain at the time. The plot was foiled and today, every Nov. 5 the British celebrate this event with bonfires, fireworks, and burning effigies of Guy himself. Lewes, in southeast England, is famous for its Bonfire Night attended by thousands of people. Fire is the theme of the holiday, but parades, local fairs, and musical performances are also part of the festivities, as are toffee apples as a sticky treat.

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The celebration of Sukkot is a time for Jews to give thanks for the gifts of the earth. It is a joyful and exuberant holiday, following on the heels of one of the most solemn holidays of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. Sukkot is such a time of delight that Jewish literature often refers to it as "the Season of our Rejoicing." Historically, it celebrates the harvest and also honors the 40 years when the Israelites wandered the desert living in temporary shelters. Today, Israeli Jews remember this by building makeshift huts outside their homes. Celebrants spend seven days eating, socializing, singing, and sometimes sleeping overnight in the shelter, called a sukkah. According to tradition, they shake wands of willow, myrtle, palm, and a type of lemon in all directions each day. Sukkot is celebrated throughout Israel and in Jewish communities around the globe. But in Jerusalem there seems to be a sukkah on every corner and the seven days are packed with parties, food, and games.
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According to Vodou beliefs, the Gede are vivacious, rowdy, mercurial spirits. In early November, during Fete Gede, the spirits visit the living and must be appeased and repaid for any favors they have granted throughout the year. To outsiders, the festival appears similar to the Day of the Dead in Central America. Vodou believers gather in the National Cemetery in Port-au-Prince, bringing gifts like flowers, homemade candles, and chili pepper-infused rum (to keep the spirits warm). Celebrants congregate at temples to engage in wild dancing, in which the Gede are said to join. If dancers become possessed by spirits, they may rub the pepper-infused rum on their genitals. Children are also welcomed and celebrated at the festivities. Because the Gede are associated with fertility, it is said that the presence of children is pleasing to them.


Each year, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, men in elaborate costumes take to the streets to perform complex choreographed dances. They dress as devils and demons with huge curved horns, terrifying masks, golden embroidered capes, and even electric lights. The origins of this ceremony, which is also celebrated in parts of Chile and Bolivia, are unclear. Some say it celebrates the departure of the devilish conquistadors in the late 19th century, while others claim it honors the spirits of Lake Titicaca. In any case, the costumes and dances are amazingly intricate and the festival is a colorful and unsettling spectacle.