US Festivals: Nomads Share Their Favorite Unique Celebrations

Celebrating history and culture, music and literature, long-held traditions, and just plain weirdness, interesting festivals happen all over the US, in every season of the year. Here are a few key events to check out.


Photo © Tobias Roybal via flickr

Fiestas de Santa Fe

“Burn him! Burn him!” At first, this sounded like a macabre chant straight out of my nightmares. But I soon found it’s par for the course at the Burning of Zozobra – the fiery kick-off to the Fiestas de Santa Fe, in New Mexico. Founded in 1712 to celebrate the return of Spanish rule following the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, the fiesta is billed as the longest-running community festival in the US.

Zozobra, aka Old Man Gloom, is more recent. Local artist Will Shuster first created a six-foot puppet in 1924 for a celebration inspired by a Catholic ritual where an effigy of Judas is burned. Word of this backyard celebration spread, and it went public two years later. As the festival has grown, so has the puppet. Zozobra, who takes his name from the Spanish word for anxiety, is now a 50ft tall (15m tall), green-haired, tuxedoed marionette that’s burned to cast off worries.

At the festival, I cautiously approached the part-ghost, part-monster with a slip of paper inscribed with my personal woes. I dropped the slip into the “gloom box,” where it joined countless others to make up his stuffing. As the pageant began and flames began licking his feet, the marionette writhed above the audience, taunting us and moaning eerily. Yet, by the time flames engulfed his body and cries of “Burn him!” rose from the crowd, I had joined in the revelry – hopeful that my gloom would be carried away in the flames along with Zozobra. - Ashley Biggers

Las Fiestas de Santa Fe is held the first or second week of September.

Zozobra, aka Old Man Gloom. Photo credit: Enrique A Sanabria via flickr

Frozen Dead Guy Days

You’d think coffin racing would be a euphemism for chain smoking, base jumping, or some other deadly pursuit. But you’d be wrong. In the mountain town of Nederland, Colorado, it’s the star attraction of arguably the world’s most eccentric festival: Frozen Dead Guy Days.

The story starts in the mid-90s, with a young Norwegian lad, Trygve Morstol, getting kicked out of the country and leaving behind his dead grandpa, Bredo, whom he’d frozen in a cryogenic chamber he built himself in his garden shed. Talk about a cool man-cave.

What did the locals do when they discovered Gramps? Contact a legitimate cryogenic facility? Bury the poor chap? No. They threw a party. Frozen Dead Guy Days has been held every year since to help raise funds to keep the dead dude on ice.

Think of the festival as a cross between Monty Python and the zombie apocalypse: three days of frosty, death-themed merriment and silly games, including 30+ live bands, costumed polar plunges, frozen-turkey bowling, and more.

But I haven’t come as a spectator – I’ve come to compete. The UK had never had an official entry in the coffin race before. I convinced my wife and five friends, bought some masks and a couple of inflatable corgis, and team Royal Bloody Family was born.

It seems so simple. Teams of six pallbearers, and one rider, must carry a home-built coffin over a 650ft (200m) course filled with hay bales, mud pits and icy hills, without it breaking or dumping the “corpse” inside on the ground. Hundreds have gathered in support of the 30 teams that compete, racing a head-to-head knockout: Lady Lumberjacks versus the Disco Queens, Rainbow Unicorns against the Toilet Plunger Knights. As we approach the start line, the crowd is hushed. This is our moment.

Or not. I’d love to tell you we won. But the truth is: coffins are heavy, we’re out of shape, and team Mario Kart scuppers us with an actual banana peel thrown out the back of their box.

But then, something amazing happens. After the race, the teams take part in a Death March through town. Her Majesty is a hit. Strangers hoot and high-five us as we pass. We may have lost the race, but we win the parade. And that’s the thing: To compete is honorable, but to laugh at yourself while doing so is truly enlightened. Grandpa Bredo would be proud. - Aaron Millar

Frozen Dead Guy Days takes place every March.

Frozen Dead Guy Days. Image credit: Getty Images / Jason Connolly

National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

I first realized the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering was special when I ran into one of the musicians buying fencing at the local ranch store. Given the talent and artistry on display throughout the week, it’s easy to forget these cowboys and cowgirls authentically live the life portrayed in their poems and songs. Their deep love and appreciation for Western heritage brings this community together in the high desert of Nevada in the dead of winter each year.

My father and I attended our first gathering in 2014, wanting to explore this intersection of poetry, cowboys, and the American West. I’ve attended every Gathering since, still proudly wearing the hat I made that first year. The opportunity to steep in a world so different from my everyday life keeps me coming back.

Started in 1985 by the Western Folklife Center, the Gathering is a week-long celebration of the arts and crafts of cowboy culture. Though the American West portrayed in TVs and movies was overwhelmingly white, the reality is quite the contrary, and the Gathering tries to incorporate a different ethnic group each year – recent years have featured Mongolian, Hawaiian, Mexican, and Basque performers.

The early part of the week is filled with workshops ranging from poetry writing to hat making to cooking Western fare. Performances kick into high gear Thursday through Saturday, with simultaneous events at venues around town – typically three or more performers alternately reciting poems, singing songs, or telling stories centered on a theme like After a Night on a Cowboy Town. Beyond the shows, there are dances, western goods for sale at the local casinos, and the Deep West video series offering first-hand stories of the rural west. - Bill Sullivan

The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering takes place in Elko, Nevada, in late January every year.

National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Photo credit: TravelNevada

World Ice Art Championships

I can’t help but think of Robert Frost’s famous philosophical puzzle as I stroll through the World Ice Art Championships in Fairbanks, Alaska: will the world end in fire, or ice? Judging by the shimmering, phantasmagoric sculptures at the Tanana Valley Fairgrounds, it won’t be ice. Though they may be standing still, these sculptures are far too lively to represent the end of anything.

More than 100 experts from Europe, Asia, and North America have turned one-ton (927kg) blocks of ice into vibrant depictions of mythical beings, wild animals, and historic scenes. Alaska’s second-largest city is a reliably frigid venue for the planet’s best ice carvers to work outdoors from mid-February to the end of March. Happily, this is also an excellent time to view the Northern Lights.

I’m bundled up against temperatures that can dive below 14°F (-10°C), but Fairbanks’ sheltered location with little wind means I can wander the festival grounds in comfort. Arthurian jousting, Wagnerian apocalypse, soaring griffons, and elvish fairylands – the sculptures depict universes both real and imagined.

Local carvers offer workshops where I try my hand at this art, and I find it is nowhere near as easy as it looks, even though I’m wielding a small electric saw meant for delicate shaping.

“You’re working without a net,” explains my instructor because, once it’s sawn or ground away, ice cannot be put back. And, although this is a winter art, it turns out heat is the final touch: I smooth all my ragged surfaces and curves with a small blowtorch, and wind up with a mediocre, faceless, alien-planet monolith. As always, best to leave the real work to professionals. - Eric Lucas

The World Ice Art Championships is held from mid-February to the end of March.

World Ice Art Championships. Image credit: Getty Images / Cultura RM Exclusive/Stuart Westmorland

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