Strange but True!
What do these activities have in common: running after a piece a cheese, racing along with a wife in your arms, and having a fight with others in which the main weapons are tomatoes?
The answer is that they are all the subject of festivals around Europe, some of them with deep historical roots. And at this time of celebration here in Bangladesh, rather than trying to tell you what you already know about Eid, and no doubt getting it wrong in the process, I thought I'd describe a trio of bizarre but perfectly genuine festivities from different ends of the continent. In their small way, they fulfil the main aims of any festival: binding communities together and offering them identity through shared experience, offering a chance to escape the humdrum elements of daily life, marking the passing of the seasons, and transferring local traditions to the next generation. But that doesn't make them any less weird…
Let's begin with the oddest of all. If you have any idea of the Gloucestershire countryside in the West of England, you probably imagine a rural idyll with broad lazy rivers, sturdy oak trees and rolling hills. Perhaps there is a string orchestra playing in your head. The sunlight is gentle and dewy, and the sky a pale baby-blue. And you'd be right, except that on the last Monday in May each year this scene of peaceful reverie is rudely interrupted by the sound of grown adults screaming as they chase a large round cheese down a hill.
Cheese rolling began as a pagan festival hundreds of years ago: a celebration of the onset of summer. Other theories have it relating to age-old fertility rights as well as the hope of a successful harvest. Whatever its origins it's undeniable that cheese rolling is a phenomenon only for the recklessly brave or the truly insane.
Four races are held on the big day, including a women's event. In each, dozens of contestants stand in eager anticipation at the top of 300-yard Cooper's Hill which plunges steeply down to the ground. A Master of Ceremonies counts them down. 'One to be ready, Two to be steady, Three to prepare', at which time an invited dignitary launches the round cheese on its downward journey, then 'Four to be off.'
What follows is best described as dairy-based mayhem. Broken bones are guaranteed and sprains and bruises are numerous, as up to twenty contestants in any given race tumble their way headlong down the slope in pursuit of the speeding cheese. Keeping your feet is rarely an option. Contestants just seem to go with the flow, hurtling out of control. Of the fifty-odd competitors in last year's event, for example, eighteen injuries were reported. And casualties are not limited to participants. At least one of the estimated 4000-strong crowd was treated for head injuries after tumbling thirty yards down the course whilst attempting to escape from a wayward lump of the main cheese. Inevitably the cheese wins the race, but there is a prize too for the first human to reach the bottom: he or she gets to keep the cheese. I'm not sure how edible it is, but it's the thought that counts.
Much further north in Sonkajarvi, Finland, another esoteric festival takes place in July each year: the practice of racing with a wife in your arms. Like so many of the world's more bizarre events, wife carrying has its origins buried deep in an age old local tradition: in this case, the 19th century practice of wife stealing. Finnish men back then were known to plunder the female populations of neighbouring local villages, capturing and making off with any beautiful woman who caught their eye. In today's more sophisticated twenty-first century, the practice may have changed but the motivation remains largely the same. To enter the modern day championships a wife is a necessity, though not necessarily your own. In fact any female over the age of 17 will do.
To the cheers of thousands of assembled spectators, contestants, with wife in arms or on their backs, must negotiate a 275-yard course covering sand, grass and asphalt. To add a measure of difficulty to the event, two dry and two water-based obstacles have been added to the mix.
Besides the more obvious reprisals that are likely to arise from dropping your wife on the ground, the judges also take a dim view of a bouncing spouse. The result: a deduction of fifteen points. And the winner? Well, along with a variety of comestibles and electrical goods, they get to carry home their wife's weight in beer. (And kindly note, dear readers, that your correspondent is merely reporting on this festival, not endorsing it in any way. Please send any letters of moral outrage, in Finnish naturally, directly to the mayor of Sonkajarvi)
Festivals also very often involve food. The word itself comes from the Latin root “fest” meaning 'feast.' In fact, a little later in the summer in Bunol in Spain there's an annual festival which reinforces this close link between food and celebration, though not exactly in a way you might expect. It's called “La Tomatina” and its origins go back to 1944. It all started with a one-off fight between villagers, who fortunately only had tomatoes to hand rather than automatic weapons, but quickly established itself as an annual event. The festivities begin in the week leading up to the big day with a celebration of the town's Patron Saint. Fireworks light the heavy summer sky while street parties warm up at ground level. Rose wine flows and the aroma of the national rice-based dish paella fills the air. Music plays and people dance, but the majority of revelers are here for one thing and one thing alone - the chance to go berserk with 90,000 lb of tomatoes
Early on the last Wednesday morning of August as a precaution against the mess created by the thousands of people throwing tomatoes at each other, shopkeepers line their storefronts and doors with plastic sheeting. Within hours the Plaza (main square) is awash with travellers and locals alike. Seasoned veterans mix with wide-eyed first timers as wine is passed around and the excitement level grows.
Then at around about noon, a number of trucks carrying the red grenades rumble their way into the Plaza to the rather predictable chant of "tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes" from the excited crowd. Not wanting to disappoint the eager hordes, locals known as 'instigators' begin hurling their cargo from the back of the trucks. And not being the types to take this sort of thing lying down, the revelers return fire. So before you know it, you've got a tomato fight on your hands… as well as your faces and your backs. It all begins and ends within the space of an hour. Little is sacred, although some rules do apply, above all that tomatoes must be squashed in the hand before hurling: not unreasonable, you might think. Then, as exhausted combatants trudge their way towards temporary showers put in place for the event, the cleanup begins in earnest. And within hours, the Plaza magically returns to its former tomato-free glory.
You may begin to wonder how many of these festivals are truly traditional and meaningful and how much of this is commercial, geared towards tourism and consumption. Indeed, in a desperate bid for a share of the global tourist market, there are plenty of towns around the world actually fabricating new festivals, which may not stand the test of time, such as the annual bathtub race in Dinant on the River Meuse in Belgium, or the bewildering range of events invented in the USA, such as the “Bald is Beautiful” Convention, in which hairless heads from round the world gather each September to celebrate the gleam on their pates. Perhaps the most meaningless of these wannabe fiestas is the Quiet Festival, in which people gather together in Ocean City New Jersey each November to do nothing but yawn and take it easy.
Reading about these festivals old and new, you might also just start to entertain the nagging thought that the world has in fact gone mad. And you may well be right.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007