This is an excerpt from Lonely Planet's A Year of Festivals.
Festivals are a living, dancing museum of cultures and traditions in an increasingly globalised world. There is no better place for travellers to understand a country than an event where it proudly celebrates its individuality, whether through music, camel races or monumental food fights.
The top festivities for May are listed below.
Location: Cocullo, Italy
Date: first Thursday in May
The feast of St Domenic might sound fairly tame, but that’s only until you throw in a writhing nest of snakes. One of Italy’s strangest festivals, the Processione dei Serpari is celebrated in the tiny Abruzzan hamlet of Cocullo by adorning a statue of St Domenic (the protector against snake bites) with jewels, banknotes and live snakes. Read more.
Location: Pentecost Island, Vanuatu
Dates: diving ceremonies usually take place each Saturday through April and May
When the first yam crop emerges in early April on the Vanuatu island of Pentecost, the southern islanders begin to build high wooden towers. Once completed, and through until about the end of May, village men and boys dive from these rickety structures with only two vines attached to their ankles to break their fall (yes, naghol was the inspiration for bungee jumping). Read more.
Location: Parque González Hontoria, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain
Dates: three weeks after Semana Santa (the week leading up to Easter Sunday)
Southern Spain’s festive spring moves to Jerez de la Frontera for the annual Horse Fair. Jerez is a city where sherry, flamenco and horses vie for top billing, but over these seven days in May the horses have no competition (even if the fair does also involve plenty of sherry and flamenco). Read more.
Location: In front of Pak Tai Temple, Cheung Chau, Hong Kong
Dates: starts on the sixth day of the fourth lunar month, usually late April or early May
Unique to the Hong Kong island of Cheung Chau, the Bun Festival is renowned for its rocket-shaped towers standing up to 20m high and covered with sacred rolls. At midnight on the designated day (the Buddha’s birthday public holiday) competitors scramble up the towers, grabbing a bun for good luck. Read more.
Location: Ermita del Rocío, El Rocío, Spain
Dates: the pilgrimage concludes in El Rocío on Pentecost (49 days after Easter)
Spain’s biggest religious pilgrimage draws hundreds of thousands of festive pilgrims to the Huelva village of El Rocío every Pentecost to commemorate the story of the sacred effigy of Nuestra Señora del Rocío (Our Lady of El Rocío). Like most of Spain’s holiest images, this one – known as La Blanca Paloma (the White Dove) – has legendary origins. Read more.
Location: El-Kelaâ M’Gouna, Morocco
Dates: mid-May (dates vary depending on harvest time)
In the dry folds of the High Atlas mountains, approaching the Sahara, there’s an unexpected place called the Vallée des Roses where, in spring, the entire area is awash with pink Persian roses. Read more.
Location: Grote Market, Ypres, Belgium
Date: second Sunday in May (tri-annually) - the next one is in 2015
A cat festival might sound rather cute and cuddly, and this one is, but that’s only by recent design. In truth, the Kattenfestival has its roots in a 12th-century tradition that had the city jester throwing live cats from the Lakenhalle’s belfry. Read more.
Location: Vadakkumnatha Temple, Thrissur, India
Dates: held in the Malayalam month of Medam (April or May)
The city of Thrissur is Kerala’s festival hot spot and Pooram – the elephant procession to end all elephant processions – is the festival that out ranks all others. Introduced as a spectacle around 200 years ago, it’s an inclusive celebration bringing together Hindus, Muslims and Christians, though it’s mostly about the elephants. Read more.
Location: Palais des Festivals, Cannes, Paris
Dates: mid- to late May
For 12 days in May, all eyes turn to Cannes on France’s glitzy Côte d’Azur, centre of the cinematic universe, where more than 30,000 producers, distributors, directors, publicists, stars and hangers-on descend to buy, sell or promote more than 2000 films. Read more.
Location: Gubbio, Italy
Date: 15 May
Few Italian festivals hold a candle to Gubbio’s centuries-old Corsa dei Ceri, held to commemorate the city’s patron saint, St Ubaldo. Contested since the 12th century, it’s a strongman contest of unusual proportions. Three teams race through the city’s streets and up the steep slopes of Monte Ingino to the Basilica of St Ubaldo, each carrying a socalled ‘candle’ (ceri), which is actually a 4m-long wooden pillar bearing a statue of one of three ‘rival’ saints (Sts Ubaldo, George and Anthony). Read more.
Location: Borobudur, Indonesia
Date: full moon in the 4th month of the Chinese lunar calendar (usually May)
Waisak (or Vesak) is the holiest day on the Buddhist calendar, and is celebrated across the Buddhist world, but is most spectacular at Java’s Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple, one of Southeast Asia’s most spectacular sites. Read more.
Location: throughout Laos and northeastern Thailand
Date: usually on the May full moon
In Southeast Asia the rain dance isn’t dead, it’s just been juiced up with some high-powered bamboo rockets. This pre-Buddhist rain ceremony can be one of the wildest festivals in Laos or northeastern Thailand, with music, dance, folk theatre, processions and general merrymaking. Read more.
Location: Cooper’s Hill, Brockworth, England
Date: last Monday in May (Spring Bank Holiday)
You may have thought the most dangerous thing about cheese was the mould, but then you’ve probably never stood atop Cooper’s Hill on this mad Monday. The premise is simple: a handmade, seven-pound circle of Double Gloucester cheese is rolled down the hill and a gaggle of people chase down behind it. Read more.
Location: Les Stes-Maries de la Mer, France
Dates: 24–25 May
Amid the haunting and desolate water land of the Camargue, the delta of the River Rhône, lie the remains of St Sara, or Sara the Black, the patron saint of the Gitans, also known as Gypsies. Near the end of May, Gitans from all over Europe make their way to the Camargue for a flamboyant street fiesta of music and dancing. Read more.
Location: Tenganan, Bali, Indonesia
Dates: fifth month of the Tenganan calendar (usually in May)
In the walled, Bali Aga village of Tenganan, you’ll see a couple of fairly typical fairground scenes: girls on ferris wheels and boys fighting. The difference here is that these two things are what the festival is all about. The village’s unmarried girls sit on the wooden ferris wheel, which is turned for hours on end by foot power alone (though in recent times there have been years when the village has had no unmarried girls). Read more.
Location: Grand Place, Mons, Belgium
Date: Trinity Sunday
Calling all dragon slayers. On Trinity Sunday each year, Mons shakes off its workaday role as the capital of Hainaut to stage one of Belgium’s most riotous battles. Known locally as La Doudou, Mons’ great George-versus-the-dragon occasion has attracted royal audiences and is listed by Unesco as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, proving that dragon slaying really is serious business. Read more.
Need more festivals? Here's a list of further events in May:
Cinco de Mayo (Puebla, Mexico; 5 May) City-wide party commemorating the defeat of French troops in the Battle of Puebla on 5 May, 1862.
Brighton Festival (Brighton, England; beginning first Saturday of May) www.brightonfestival.org England’s largest arts festival, with three weeks of theatre, dance, music and comedy, featuring performers from all over the world.
Oil Wrestling Festival (Selçuk, Turkey; first Sunday in May) Famous oil wrestlers grease up, then try to grip and grab their opponents into submission.
Festival Of The Holy Cross (Caravaca De La Cruz, Spain; 2 May) www.caravaca.org Riderless horses, cloaked in magnificent colours, race to the castle in this Murcian town.
Igitun Chalne (Goa, India; dates vary with the lunar calendar) At the temple in Sirigao, devotees of the goddess Lairaya walk across a pit of burning coals to prove their devotion.
Buddha’s Birthday (Seoul, South Korea; Sunday before the eighth day of the fourth month in the Chinese lunar calendar) On the Sunday before Buddha’s birthday, Seoul celebrates with the country’s largest lantern parade, featuring 10,000 Buddhists walking from Tapgol Park to Jogyesa.
Nationale Molendag (Netherlands; second Saturday in May) Windmills across Holland throw open their doors for a day.
Tōshō-Gū Grand Festival (Nikkō, Japan; 17–18 May) Horseback archery on the first day and a 1000-strong costumed re-enactment of the delivery of Ieyasu’s remains to Nikkō on the second.
Anastenaria (Ayia Eleni and Langada, Greece; St Constantine’s Day, 21 May) Watch villagers enter a trance and try a spot of fire walking.
Monaco Grand Prix (Monte Carlo; dates vary in May) The beautiful people head to the principality for Formula One’s champagne event.
Q’Oyoriti (Ausangate, Peru; late May or early June) Thousands climb Ausangate’s icy slopes at night to the top of a glacier (at about 4700m), returning with glacial ice to be used as holy water.
Karneval der Kulturen (Carnival of Culture; Berlin, Germany; four days over the Pentecost Weekend) www.karneval-berlin.de Lively street festival with a parade of flamboyantly costumed people dancing and playing music.
See festivals in other months of the year here.