Top alternatives to Halloween

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Tired of the same old Halloween parties? Well, Halloween isn't the only festival for fans of costume parties, the occult, fireworks and general merriment. In this excerpt from Lonely Planet's A Year of Festivals, we provide a guide to six fantastic Halloween alternatives around the world.

1. Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), Oaxaca, Mexico

Mexico’s carnivalesque remembrance of departed souls is one of the world’s most universally familiar festivals. Its papier-mâché skeletons and candy skulls are as recognisable as the jack-o’-lanterns at Halloween. Westerners find the Latino rave from beyond the grave, with its upbeat treatment of immortality, both fascinating and confronting.

In anticipation of the gloriously grisly event, stores and markets fill with miniature coffins, skulls and skeletons made of chocolate, marzipan, paper, cardboard or clay. Many of them are engaged in highly un-skeletonlike activities such as riding bicycles, playing music or getting married.

In a belief system inherited from the Aztecs, Mexicans believe their dead are lurking in Mictlan, a kind of spiritual waiting room, and they can return to their homes at this time of year. Families thus begin preparations to help the spirits find their way home and to make them welcome, starting with an arch made of bright yellow marigolds – a symbolic doorway from the underworld. An altar is erected and piled high with offerings to the invisible visitors: flowers, ribbons, coloured candles, tamales, fruit and corn. Two important additions are a container of water, because the spirits arrive thirsty after their journey, and pan de muertos (bread of the dead).

The first day, Día de Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels), is dedicated to dead children, and the toys they once loved are placed on the altar.

The rituals are particularly important if the household has suffered a bereavement in the previous year. Women will spend all day cooking the favourite food of the dead relative for the customary feast, in which friends and family gather to toast the ghostly visitors.

The event climaxes with a visit to the cemetery. Families will devote a day to cleaning the graves, decorating them with candles and flores del muerto (flowers of the dead), having picnics and dancing to mariachi bands. By now, the streets are full of papier-mâché skeletons, which are life-size but could never pass for the real thing in their dresses, jewellery, flowery boas and hats.

The event is, like many aspects of post-colonial Mexico, a melange of influences. It originally fell around August, but the Christian conquistadors, hoping to assimilate the heathen holiday through their favoured tactic of cultural mestizaje (mixing), moved it to the day after All Saint’s Day.

Dates: 1–2 November

Level of participation:

3/5 – everyone’s invited to the party, even the dead

Essentials:

celebrations take place all over the country, but their heartland is southern Mexico, where indigenous culture is strongest. Mixquic, southeast of Mexico City, is known as 'City of the Dead' for its procession that calls at shrines to the deceased. A popular location is Oaxaca, where there are graveyard tours and a 'best altar' competition.

Local Attractions:

Situated in rugged countryside, Oaxaca is a Spanish-built city of narrow streets.

More info:

www.visitmexico.com. Also, see our full article on Mexico's Day of the Dead celebrations.

2. La Diablada, Puno, Peru

There are various stories about the roots of La Diablada, in which men dressed as demons are added to Puno’s usual population of women in multilayered dresses and bowler hats. According to one version of events, the horned parade hits the streets in remembrance of the departure of the devilish conquistadors in the late 19th century. Another version has it that the procession is lakeside Puno’s way of paying its respects to the ancient spirits of Lake Titicaca.

Either way, a local incarnation of the Dark Lord himself leads the procession, accompanied by dancers shaking it like Peruvians possessed. A sure sign that there’s nothing unholy afoot – and that La Diablada grew out of the mixture of Christianity and indigenous beliefs that characterises many Latin American festivities – is that the red monsters leave their crucifixes around their necks.

Puno is known as the capital of folklore for La Diablada and its February event, La Virgen de la Candelaria festival. This features a masked dance, also called La Diablada, which tells the tale of trapped miners who battled an army of demons.

Dates: week leading up to 5 November

Level of participation:2/5 – demons on Lake Titicaca

Essentials:fortify yourself for the grisly display with a glass of La Diablada pisco (Peruvian brandy).

Local attractions:Lake Titicaca, a remnant of an ancient inland sea, is a splash of sapphire amid the stark Altiplano plains, overlooked by the Cordillera Real’s snow-topped peaks.

More info:www.peru.info; Iperú Tourist Information, Puno (+51 51 36 5088)

3. Bonfire Night, High St, Lewes, East Sussex, England

Bonfire Night is a classically English affair where burning effigies and fireworks illuminate the winter night in memory of centuries-old skulduggery. In the early 17th century, some English folk were hoping that their new monarch, James I, would relax the hardline Protestantism favoured by his predecessors. One group of Catholics was particularly disappointed when this situation failed to materialise. So, naturally, they decided to blow up the Houses of Parliament, with the king, his eldest sons and most of parliament inside the building.

The plot progressed seamlessly until, on 5 November 1605, Guy Fawkes was rumbled in the vaults, about to light a fuse leading to barrels of gunpowder. He was tortured for a few days, and later hung, drawn and quartered with his co-conspirators. On Guy Fawkes Night, as the event is also known, an effigy of the papist schemer is burnt on a pyre, celebrating the grand government building’s close escape from a fiery end.

Before the big night, children build scarecrow-like ‘Guys’ out of old clothes stuffed with flammable materials, and display their efforts in the streets. A primary school Michelangelo asking for a ‘penny for the guy’ is the English equivalent of ‘trick or treat’ at Halloween.

On the night itself, Guys across the country go up in flames to cheers from crowds, many of which know little and care less about the display’s sectarian origins. Adults consume mulled wine, children wave sparklers. Everyone battles hypothermia and fireworks fill the sky. The night is heaven for kindergarten pyromaniacs, but councils can console themselves that their safety messages do reach children…who chant warped nursery rhymes about singed fingers.

Lewes in southern England has double the reason to bring out the rockets. In 1555, the Catholic queen Mary I lived up to her nickname, Bloody Mary, when she had 17 Protestant rebels burned at the stake here. Up to 60,000 visitors flock to see effigies of the pope get incinerated, in memory of the martyrs. The holy dummy is often joined by modern-day figures such as prime ministers, presidents and terrorists. Six Bonfire Societies, some dating back to the mid-19th century, parade the streets in medieval garb with flaming crosses, sending banger-filled barrels cracking and fizzling into the river.

There are other regional variations. In parts of the Midlands, people traditionally eat Groaty pudding, made from crushed grains and other goodies. In Ottery St Mary, Devon, families enjoy rolling flaming barrels of tar through the centre of town. The ancient tradition possibly incorporates a pagan ritual to ward off evil spirits. Find out the best places to celebrate with our guide.

Dates: 5 November

Level of participation:3/5 – warm your hands on the fire and don’t mention religion

Essentials:wear your gloves, to protect against both the cold and sparks.

Local attractions:Hillside Lewes has a ruined castle, a traditional brewery, a Georgian high street and medieval lanes called twittens.

More info:www.enjoyengland.com

4. Festa del Cornuto (Festival of the Horned One), Rocca Canterano, Italy

With all that unbridled passion flowing in Italy, there have to be some losers in the game of love. Luckily, all those unfortunate cuckolds, who have been betrayed by a fickle partner, can be consoled by more than the thought that their mother never liked that traitorous hussy anyway. No one can remember why Rocca Canterano, a village near Rome, decided to host the Festa del Cornuto, but the main thing is it cheers those who have been given cuckold’s horns.

The event has no truck with lovelorn moping. Rolling down the main street on allegorical floats, costumed actors recite satirical compositions about the whole ugly business of betrayals and bust-ups. The festival has an unofficial patroness, an honour for which self-respecting celebrities would surely swap an Oscar. America’s former first lady, Hilary Clinton, has been lucky enough to hold the title.

Cuckolds who have had their fill of jokes at their expense can pig out at another small festival taking place, dedicated to roasted chestnuts.

Dates: November

Level of participation:2/5 – watch the actors lampoon the love-sick

Essentials:if a fellow festival-goer suggestively asks you, with a sly look at your partner, if you’d like to fare le corna (make horns), they’re not inviting you to a local craftwork demonstration.

Local attractions: find a new flame in Rome, the world’s unofficial capital of romance, with beautiful architecture and bars packed with good-looking single people.

More info:www.romaturismo.it

5. Pirates Week, George Town Harbour, Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands

The only festival to take place on all three of the Cayman isles, the Pirate Festival is geared towards infant swashbucklers. The ten-day programme of music, dances, costumes, games and controlled mayhem begins with a mock invasion. Two replica 17th-century galleons, accompanied by other boats and even the odd submarine, all swarming with rogues, carry out a ‘surprise’ attack on George Town Harbour. The ensuing action differs from year to year, but the general idea is that the mangy seadogs battle the defending force, capture the governor and throw him in the clink. Pillaging of the world’s fifth-largest commercial centre is kept to a minimum.

In fact, most of the fun on offer is safer than a censored sea shanty. There’s a 5km run, sponsored by accountants Deloitte, and a 10km sea swim, sponsored by petrol giant Texaco. The tough-sounding Pirate Rock is the happy hour at the Hard Rock Cafe. If you’re an anti-capitalist pirate, best point the forecastle towards another port.

One of the more entertaining events is the Cardboard Boat Regatta, with gongs for the shortest race, best costume and most spectacular sinking. Shortly afterward, the Trial of the Pirates, fireworks display and street party bring an end to the cutlass-waving.

Dates: ten days in mid-November

Level of Participation:3/5 – don an eye-patch and a hook

Essentials:practise guttural exclamations such as 'Avast' and 'Shiver me timbers'.

Local attractions:Search for sunken treasure at Grand Cayman’s 160 dive sites.

More info: www.piratesweekfestival.com and check out our full article on Pirate Festival.

6. Fantasy Fest, Duval St, Key West, Florida, USA

One of the most outrageous parties in the lead up to Halloween is this camp blow-out in subtropical Florida. Started in 1979 as an unashamed ploy to liven up a quiet period for the local tourist industry, Fantasy Fest is a mind-bending series of fancy dress parties and parades. We’re not just talking about obvious dos like the Pimp and Ho Party (with its $700 Mr Pimp and Ms Ho contest). Some of the themes would make a costume designer scratch their head. There’s the Dungeons & Dragons leather fetish bash, the Party in Plaid and a homemade bikini contest. The Monster’s Ball is overrun with man-sized serpents, mermaids and other creatures that should probably remain submerged deep in the subconscious.

The venues doll themselves up as imaginatively as their clients. Hard-working Sloppy Joe’s Bar, which also hosts the Hemingway Look-Alike Contest, throws a huge toga party. Bed sheets and laurel wreaths are de rigueur and those not getting into the Roman spirit have, on occasion, been stripped.

The fun begins with a Caribbean-style street party and climaxes with a parade of glittering floats and 70,000 freaks having the time of their life.

Dates: 10 days ending on the last Sunday in October

Level of participation:5/5 – indulge your wildest fantasies

Essentials:some headgear for the Headdress Ball.

Local attractions:Beyond touristy Duval Street, the 'Conch Republic' sports Bahamian architecture and diving trips aplenty.

More info:www.fantasyfest.net

This article was first published in October 2010 and was refreshed in October 2012.