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Alison Armstrong

Updated: Mar 4, 2022

Writer and Photographer

Festivals and Celebrations


Chiapa de Corzo in Chiapas, Mexico, is home to the annual Fiesta Grande de Enero - the Great Festival of January. It is a celebration of the patron saints of Chiapa de Corzo, and is also to celebrate and honour a woman of Spanish descent who helped the town in the 1700’s by distributing food and money for the children during a famine.

The men dress in light skinned masks and straw hair to resemble the fair skin and light hair of the Spanish woman who helped their village. They are known as Parachicos – for the children. The women of the village, known as Chiapanecas, dress in elaborate embroidered dresses. The third character in this grand theatre is the Chunta - men dressed as women in the clothing of Spanish servants.

They represent and pay homage to the servants who distributed the food and coins during the famine. There are church services, and a fair in the town square, fireworks, and bands playing all night. And several parades of the Parachicos and Chiapanecas, each parade a prayer, an offering of gratitude, and an offering to the saints.


Seven hundred thousand people descend on the Tokyo neighborhood of Fuchu City and the Okunitama Shrine for the weeklong Kurayami Festival. It is held annually in May, and its roots date as far back as the 2nd century CE when Emperor Keiko established the shrine.

The core of the festival is calling down the shrine’s deities, or kami, and parading them through the neighborhood to bring good fortune for the year.

Among a bewildering array of activities and performances there’s a manto lantern competition, children performing traditional stories and dances, and above all the parade through the streets of six enormous taiko drums. Amid fervent chanting, drummers pound on them continuously to wake up the neighborhood; and the following day a second parade of the drums followed by the procession of the kami, housed in giant golden portable shrines. I’ve been to many cultural festivals, but none other had me literally shaking from the energy as this one did.


Each year in Puno, Peru, the Festival of the Virgin of Candelaria takes place during the first two weeks of February, and rivals Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival in size, scope and brilliance. The sheer size of Candelaria is staggering: fifty thousand dancers, and fifteen thousand musicians, plus another twenty-five thousand that includes the many artisans who make the extremely elaborate costumes.

Like many festivals in South America it is a rich mix of the indigenous sacred practices, both Aymara and Quechua, and Catholicism. There are dances and ceremonies dedicated to Pachamama and the other indigenous gods. At the same time there are masses and solemn processions for the Virgin of Candelaria; religious syncretism at its best.

The whole event is an extravagant orgy of music, dancing, partying, and parading. There are two major dance competitions at the stadium, each lasting all day. From the stadium each group dances through the streets of Puno, taking hours to cover a few kilometres, drinking beer along the way, then sloshing some onto the ground for Pachamama, cheered along by the enthusiastic crowds of thousands lining the streets. It’s a celebration of truly epic proportions.


Nightly ritual to the Ganges, known as Ganga Aarti and performed in several cities in India.

The Ganges is regarded throughout India as a goddess, and an important deity in the Hindu pantheon. Ganga

Aarti is a nightly ritual to honor, pray to, and give thanks to the river.

This ritual to dispel darkness is more than 2000 years old, and every evening at sunset Ganga Aarti takes place

in four towns along the Ganges – Varanasi, Allahabad, Haridwar, and Rishikesh. The ceremony is so

beautiful, and so compelling that I go to it three times in Varanasi, once in Haridwar, and three times in


It begins with a loud blast on a conch shell, followed by live music that continues throughout the entire ceremony: harmonium, flutes, drums and cymbals, chanting and singing. And the bells! Always the bells! It’s a joyous harmonious cacophony loud enough for even the gods to hear.

There is a palpable sense of the divine, and, regardless of the ability to understand the chants, the power of the ritual is universal, transcending boundaries of language and culture. It goes straight to the heart, a 40-minute Hindu hallelujah.

📍 Oaxaca, Mexico

The Guelaguetza Festival in Oaxaca, Mexico, is an annual two-week affair. The indigenous people of Oaxaca present their traditional dances, music, costumes, and food. It’s a wild party where their cultural traditions are affirmed, deepened, shown to each other and the world, and madly celebrated. It’s about maintaining and

sharing their traditions, and gifting. After every dance performance gifts are thrown to the crowd, ranging from tiny woven corn-sheaf artifacts, to traditional pastries, to small plastic bottles of mescal, to pineapples!

The word Guelaguetza is Zapotec meaning offering or gift. The celebration pre-dates the arrival of the

Spanish, and was originally a celebration of the ancient deities. It was also an integral part of the ancient

cultures at weddings and baptisms, and later, after the integration of the Catholic faith, at the celebration of

the village patron saint day.

The Guelaguetza Festival is huge and spectacular, and includes two large parades, and four four-hour long

dance performances at a sold-out stadium seating ten thousand - the best of life, the best of human endeavor,

the best of community.

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