Friday, February 18, 2011


    The 15th day of the first lunar month each year, known as "Yuan Xiao", it is one of the three major traditional festivals in Taiwan.  It is also the first festival celebration after the start of the Lunar New Year.  Special events include the Taiwan Lantern Festival, Pingxi Heavenly Lanterns, Taitung Bombing of the god Handan, the Beehive Rockets of Yanshui, the Taipei Lantern Festival, and traditional celebratory temple rituals.
   Since 1990, the Taiwan Tourism Bureau has organized the Taiwan Lantern Festival, and this year, the the festival enters its 22nd year.

Year of the Rabbit Lantern

   The centerpiece of the event is a giant themed lantern modeled on the Chinese zodiacal animal of the year, accompanied by subsidiary lanterns and special lantern areas such as the Hope & Wishes lantern section, the Fun Filled lantern section and many others, all of which successfully display the art of lantern making.  During the official opening ceremony, performing groups from Taiwan and overseas enliven the festivities, making this an event you don't want to miss.


   Starting in 1990, the Tourism Bureau integrated civilian and local governmental resources to conduct the event to celebrate the Lantern Festival (15th day of the first month in the lunar calendar).  The purpose of the festival is to spread the traditional folklore of the festival.

   The firecrackers ceremony of the Wumiao Temple in Yenshui Township was held by ancient people in order to show respect for the exploits of Guan Yu.  Fengpao, is the ceremony to start the burning of thousands of firecrackers hung on  15 to 75 foot high wooden stands.  This ceremony starts from 6 p.m., and goes on until 5 the next morning.  Thousands of visitors attend the ceremony.


     The origins of Mardi Gras can be traced back  to Medieval Europe, though we have no written record of how that really transformed into the current Mardi Gras of today.  But the origins of the Mardi Gras we celebrate today....with Kings, Mardi Gras colors, and brass bands....are traced to New Orleans.
   Although we can trace its history to the Romans, a French-Canadian expolorer, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville, landed on a plot of ground 60 miles directly south of New Orleans in 1699 and called it "Pointe due Mardi Gras".  He also established "Fort Louis de la Louisiane" (which is now Mobile) in 1702.  In 1703, the tiny settlement of Fort Louis de la Mobile celebrated the very first Mardi Gras.

   In 1704, Mobile established a secret society (Masque de la Mobile)....similar to those who form our current Mardi Gras Krewes.  It lasted until 1709.  In 1710, the "Boef Graf Society" was formed and paraded from 1711 through 1861.  The procession was held with a huge bull's head pushed along on wheels by 16 men.  This occurred on Fat Tuesday.
   New Orleans was established in 1718 by Jean-Baptise Le Moyne.  By the 1730's, Mardi Gras was celebrated openly in New Orleans...but not in parade form.  In the early 1740's, Louisiana's Governor The Marquis de Vaudreuil, established elegant society balls...the model for the New Orleans Mardi Gras balls of today.

   The earliest reference to Mardi Gras "Carnival" appears in a 1781 report to the Spanish colonial governing body.  That year, the Perseverance Benevolent & Mutual Aid Associaiton is the first of hundreds of clubs and carnival organizations formed in New Orleans.
   By the late 1830's, New Orleans held street processions of maskers with carriages and horseback riders to celebrate Mardi Gras.  newspapers began to announce Mardi Gras events in advance.
   In 1871, Mardi Gras's second "Krewe" is formed, the Twelfth Night Reveler's, with the first account of Mardi Gras "throws".

   1872, was the year that a group of businessmen invented a King of Carnival-Rex-to parade in the first daytime parade.  They introduced the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold, the Mardi Gras song, and the Mardi Gras flag.
   In 1873, the first floats were constructed entirely in New Orleans instead of France.  In 1875, Governor Warmoth of Louisiana signs the "Mardi Gras Act" making it a legal holiday in Louisiana, which it still is.
   Most Mardi Gras Krewes today developed from private social clubs that have restrictive membership policies.  Since all of these parade organizations are completely funded by its members, we call it the "Greatest Free Show on Earth"!

History Behind the King Cake

   As part of Christian faith, the coming of the wise men bearing gifts to the Christ Child is celebrated twelve days after Christmas.  We refer to this as the Feast of Epiphany or Little Christmas on the Twelfth Night.  This is a time of celebration, exchanging gifts and feasting.  Today, the tradition continues as people all over the world gather for festive Twelfth Night celebrations.  A popular custom was and still is the baking of a special cake in honor of the three kinds called "A King's Cake".
    Inside every cake is a tiny baby (generally plastic now, but sometimes this baby might be made of porcelain or even gold).  The tradition of having King Cake Parties has evolved through time, and the person who receives the slice of cake with the baby is asked to continue the festivities by hosting the next King Cake party.

   Originally, King Cakes were a simple ring of dough with a small amount of decoration.  Today's King Cakes are much more festive.  After the rich Danish dough is braided and baked, the "baby" is inserted.  The top of the ring or oval cake is then covered with delicious sugar toppings in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold.
   In more recent years, some bakeries have been creative with stuffing and topping their cakes with different flavors of cream cheese and fruit fillings.

   January 6th, the Twelfth Night after Christmas, is also the day Mardi Gras season begins.  Mardi Gras Day is always 47 days prior to Easter Sunday (Fat Tuesday is always the day before Ash Wednesday).
   So, in Louisiana, especially, Mardi Gras season and King Cakes go hand in hand with literally hundreds of thousands of King Cakes consumed at parties and office lunch rooms every year.
   Ordering King Cakes over the Internet has now become an annual tradition by consumers all around the world...and many of the bakers offer them year around.  After all, you can't have a Mardi Gras party without a King Cake.


   Most people no longer see a Spanish holiday as merely straw donkeys, Sangria and the hot sun of the southern costas.  Tourism to Spain's wondrously varied interior are now commonplace, with Andalucia and Grenada particularly popular.  There are though, still areas of Spain which go largely unnoticed by tourists, and some fantastic sights and experiences are there to be found by anybody looking for a slightly different experience of "Spanish culture".  One such place is Galicia.

   Galicia is the "nub" of Spain which sits directly north of Portugal, in the extreme North West of Spain itself.  It's an area of mountains, forests and , unlike much of the rest of the country, abundant water.  Its people, who are Celts, display all the natural warmth and vivacity you find in their British and Irish cousins.  It's there Celtic influences, together with a lack of mass tourism and a feeling that you're in a very different Spain from the one we've all seen from its beaches, that give Galicia the feel of a genuinely alternative Spanish destination.

     The period leading to the start of Lent is a particularly good time to go.  The whole Latin world celebrates carnival during this time, and Galicia is no different.  Different areas celebrate in different ways, all with their own trademark.  One such trademark is the orgy of flour throwing which engulfs the town of Viana do Bolo, in Ourense, ever year.
   Viana do Bolo is not one of the most accessible places to take a holiday, but, particularly at Carnival time, it's well worth the effort.  The specific origins of the flour festival are lost in time, but the locals make up for that with an entirely wholehearted celebration which lasts about three weeks, reaching a peak during the lat five days before Lent, the same time that Mardi Gras is happening all over the Latin world.  The entire town becomes engulfed in flour as people go after each other armed to the teeth with bags of the white stuff.  The perfect delivery is a handful delivered to the face, smothering the cheeks and mouth, below the nose.  Men go after women and vice versa.  A clean face is an invitation not to be missed to a Vianes.  If you go out into town during Carnival, you accept the chance that you're going to get a handful to the face-don't wear your best clothes!

    It's not just flour though.  This is a vivacious and easy going culture which places a huge emphasis on food and music as part of the celebration.  On the last Sunday of Carnival, the Folion come to town.  The Folion is the tradition of drumming your area's specific identifying beat on huge drums (but also shovels, heads or anything percussive!).  Folion bands from the local towns parade through Viana in their finest costumes, beating their own beat over and over again while the crowds are kept at bay by the tall and highly decorative Boteiros, running up and down the edges of the parade, bells ringing.  It's an explosion of noise and color which is followed by an impressive array of local meat delicacies:  chorizo, lacon and androlla, and red wine, all handed out free by volunteers.

   Then it's a stroll uphill to the local sports hall, where 3000 people will sit and eat an even richer feast centered again around local meat, and watch pipe bands and more drumming.  A quiet lunch it isn't.  The sound of 3,000 Vianese eating their cutlery on the long wooden tables, hammering out Viana's own Folion, stays with you for some time.
   If you want a break from the noise and activity, there are other things on offer in the wider area.  Galicia has beautiful and spectacular scenery,with largely undeveloped mountainous areas offering trekking or mountain biking opportunities if you want to get away from the Carnival.  The landscape is breathtaking and extremely quiet, and the pace of life in the area is reflective of that calm, outside of Carnival at least.  Portugal, with its own festive traditions and pretty, old towns like Chaves, is just over an hour's drive away.  There's even skiing available at Manzaneda, again, only about an hour from Viana.

   Viana, indeed Galicia generally, is not a beach holiday.  If you're looking to catch some sun, go to an enormous nightclub and entertain children, it's not for you.  A car is absolutely essential, not just for getting around but for getting there in the first place as the nearest airports are all a couple of hours away.  But it's cheap, and it's real.  Its largely undiscovered nature makes it a taste of real Spain.