The World's Weirdest Winter Celebrations

In Iceland, they eat the winter.

Harbin Ice Festival
Robert Schrader

No matter your feelings on cold weather, it's difficult to deny the beauty of winter, particularly on a sunny day with fresh snow. On the other hand, traditional winter imagery and activities can get old quick, whether you've endured decades of it throughout your life, or your life in a place that has an especially long winter season.

One potential antidote to the winter blues? Perhaps paradoxically, it seems that celebrating the coldest season can make it less miserable.

But wait—you said participating in a "hair freezing competition" is not your idea of winter fun? Well, some of these weird winter festivals around the world will simply make you thankful for how ordinary winter is where you live.

01 of 06

Harbin International Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival, China

Harbin Ice Festival
Robert Schrader

Building snowmen is an art—ask any schoolchild thwarted by a soggy carrot, temperatures a degree too high or white snow made black by car exhaust or tire tracks. If it takes a cold-weather DaVinci to build a great snowman, however, then the men and women who put on China's annual Harbin International Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival must be deities.

The Manchurian city of Harbin, which in spite of its low international profile is actually more populous than New York, has several months of temperatures below zero. So far below zero, in fact, that the Songhua River that flows through the city freezes completely. Our aforementioned sculptor friends harvest huge blocks of ice from the frozen river and carve it into smaller cubes, which they use to build what can only be described as a city of ice.

There's a snow component to the festival, too—and it is impressive. No matter which of these frigid media you prefer, China's weirdest winter festival is nothing, if not miracle work.

02 of 06

Whitefish Winter Carnival, USA

Ullr Nordic God
Public Domain

You say you want to stay closer to home? Well, Montana's Whitefish Winter Carnival allows you to do this, geographically speaking, but don't worry: There's nothing "normal" or wholesome about this weird winter festival in Big Sky Country. In fact, it's a story that seems right out of Game of Thrones—or, more technically, Scandinavia.

The story goes that Nordic snow god Ullr decided to make his home in Montana once upon a time, only to find his queen threatened with kidnapping by a group of particularly abominable snowmen. The royal family evaded this fate, however, a triumph Whitefish's residents celebrate each year by skiing through town and building snow and ice sculptures, albeit not ones on par with those in Harbin.

Legend has it that the sasquatches are still looking for a woman to kidnap, never having gotten the queen, so if you do attend this festival and happen to be female, think twice before talking to any hairy-handed men taller than about seven feet.

03 of 06

Þorrablót, Iceland

Thorrablót Feast
The blanz via Wikimedia Commons

Speaking of Nordic people, the ones who live in Iceland have a particularly long (and dark) winter, owing to their country's location at the Arctic Circle. While this has some benefits—black sand beaches covered in icebergs; the Northern Lights—it does get old for local residents and probably did to a much greater extent before they had the super-fast internet and American TV they now enjoy. 

To be sure, Þorrablót (written "Thorrablót" in English letters) sees Icelanders quite literally eat winter, or at least an effigy of it—Thorri, the god of winter, manifests himself in disgusting foods like ram testicles and fermented shark. The jury is out on what, specifically, this is supposed to accomplish: Some Icelanders believe it starts the process of forcing winter out, while others simply believe it is a show of strength in the face of it. 

While Thorrablót traditionally lasts the entire month of January (before "Stranger Things," there was literally nothing to do here in this part of the year, modern Icelandic families sometimes relegate this custom to a single meal.

04 of 06

Matariki, New Zealand

Ле Лой via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, winter is neither just for the Northern Hemisphere, nor exclusively cold. In New Zealand for example, where winter starts during the month of June, locals celebrate Matariki, the Maori New Year (which, for much of the country's population, sees temperatures that are pleasant and even balmy) by flying kites and putting on art exhibitions. Even in places on the South Island, where weather is more traditionally wintry, cultural performances take precedence over, say, snowman-building. Some of the world's weirdest winter festivals, you see, are weird mainly in how they avoid cliché manifestations of winter.

Continue to 5 of 6 below.
05 of 06

International Hair Freezing Competition, Canada

International Hair Freezing Competition
Takhini Hot Pools

Canadians are a hardy bunch, a fact you know if you watch any "Polar Bear Plunge" footage from New Year's Day, when people all across the country dive into frigid water (or sometimes, "swim" in snow), to the terror of snowbirds in Florida, Texas, and Arizona. 

It stands to reason that the further north you go in Canada, the less intimidating the cold is, which might explain how someone living in Yukon Territory thought to come up with a "hair freezing" competition. You know, going outside and getting your hair wet and hoping that the air will freeze it quickly enough to actually look like something.

The good news about this competition is that it takes place at a hot spring, which means that none of its participants will freeze completely—just their hair.

06 of 06

Busó Festival, Hungary

Buso in Hungary.

It's fitting to end this list of weird winter festivals with one that, unlike the ambiguous Thorrablót in Iceland, is 100% about bringing on the end of the season. Specifically, a bunch of (grown) Hungarian men dress up as horned devils each March, with the idea that the sight of them (which is, admittedly, terrifying) will chase away the winter. To be fair, this concept probably didn't sound as ridiculous back in the 18th century, when the tradition start. Interesting, it made its way into a recent Scandinavian music video, albeit one with a female protagonist

Was this page helpful?