People all over the globe incorporate animals into cultural traditions and ceremonies that happen all year long.
Let’s look at a year of animal celebrations:
Each year, on February 2 (exactly halfway between winter solstice and spring equinox), America looks to a furry brown creature to predict the future. A groundhog named Phil pops his head out of a tree trunk in front of a crowd of thousands in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. According to tradition, if Phil doesn’t see his shadow, warm spring weather will arrive sooner than expected. If it’s sunny, the country is in for six more weeks of hard winter. Full disclosure: NOAA reports “The [data] shows no predictive skill for the groundhog during the most recent years of this analysis,” but don’t tell Phil.
A highlight of the Elephant Festival in Jaipur, India, is a tug-o-war game between one elephant and 19 humans! There’s also an elephant parade, elephant polo, and an elephant race. The mahouts (elephant keepers and riders) adorn their elephants with velvet, precious metals, jewels, and crowns, then dress in coordinating fashions. Elephants are an integral part of Hindu culture, present for weddings, processions, and historically on the battlefields. The elephant-headed god, Ganesha, removes obstacles and is believed to be the highest deity.
At a German Ostermarkt (Easter Market) shoppers buy chocolate eggs, osterhasen (chocolate Easter bunnies), and painted decorative eggs. German immigrants shared these traditions with their American neighbors. But a couple of German practices never caught on here, like osterbäume (Easter trees). Actually, Easter Bushes (or flowering branches arranged in a vase), osterbäume are traditionally decorated much like Christmas trees, with egg ornaments and garlands.
According to the Eyewitness Travel Guide to Holy Lands, the South Sinai Camel Festival in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, is not to be missed. Bedouin tribes from all over Sinai arrive at this desert location for a single event: camel racing. If you have ever ridden on the back of a plodding camel, imagine staying seated while the camel is running! Camels also have a reputation for being more stubborn than mules. It’s normal for camels to stray from the track, which keeps the crowd on their toes. Sometimes the winner is the sole jockey still on their camel who crosses the finish line.
Never heard of a vicuña? Not as well-known as their close cousins, alpacas, vicuñas were never domesticated - yet they produce a softer wool. To protect a sustainable population size, Peru’s government mandates wild vicuñas are only caught and sheared every few years in an event called Gran Chaccu. Local families gather to herd wild vicuñas by walking shoulder-to-shoulder and encircling them until they can be caught by hand and herded towards a makeshift corral to be sheared.
In the not-so-bleak midwinter of Knysna, South Africa, anyone can join in the running, biking, and oyster-slurping fun of the Knysna Oyster Fest. According to the Festival's website, it began in 1983 to boost community engagement and advertise the region to tourists through a combination of sports and oysters. Since then it has evolved into a premier event for the South African coast. A marathon and cycling tour kick it off, followed by banquets, oyster shucking contests, and delicious tastings of sustainable seafood, all while raising charity for community organizations.
Ireland’s Puck Fair, a well-deserved celebration of wild goats, has been taking place for more than 400 years. One lucky he-goat is selected by a local goat catcher, brought to town, and crowned as “King” of the town by the “Queen of Puck” (a young girl). For three days, the new king is attended to by a veterinarian, who ensures the goat’s supreme welfare. The “king” is then returned to his mountain home and the towns govern themselves for the next 362 days until the next Puck Fair.
Alpabzug is an age-old traditional Swiss ceremony heralding the coming of autumn. Brown cows and white goats are paraded down the Alps to their winter grazing grounds, accompanied by youth in lederhosen and vests. Yes, yodeling IS included in this celebration. Yodelers vocally guide the livestock and harmonize with the cows’ large bells to notify roadside towns of the parade. At the base of the mountains, the cows’ bells are removed and the herds are released into their new grazing lands. The humans aren’t left out; the nearest town celebrates goatherds and cowherds with dancing, music, drinks, and feasting.
Perhaps the most blatant appreciation of animal and human relationships, Nepal’s Kukur Tihar is a multi-day festival celebrating animals that help people: dedicated to crows, revered by Hindus as messengers of death. Day two celebrates dogs as the representation of the god Bhairav. Working, domestic, and even feral dogs are presented with marigold leis and given red forehead markings. Days three and four pay respect to cows and bulls, respectively, honoring the Hindu goddess of wealth, Laxmi, and thanking these working bovids for their service to humans.
Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a two-day festival celebrated all over Mexico, is dedicated to departed ancestors. It honors the cycle of life with feasting, dancing, music, and spirited celebrations. Celebrators believe that the gates of heaven open at the stroke of midnight on October 31 for children’s souls to visit their families. The following night, children return to heaven and adults’ souls travel to be with their loved ones. The corresponding return of mariposas reinas (or monarch butterflies) who winter in Mexico are said to represent the souls of children and adults returning to Earth to be reunited with family and friends.
Legend has it that a pine tree unexpectedly sprouted outside the cabin of an impoverished Ukrainian family. All year the children tended it, and it grew strong and tall. Yet when Christmas came, the family had no money to decorate it, and went to sleep saddened that it would be barren for Jesus’ birthday. In the night, the spiders that lived there, excited to celebrate Jesus’ arrival, spun webs all over the tree’s needles and branches. In the morning, the family awoke to a glistening, gilded tree. Today, Ukrainian families hang shimmering spider-web ornaments on their trees to commemorate the spiders’ charming contribution.
*Learn about a different animal each month with our Critter Kit!