Once upon a time, every town and village in Europe had its fairs and annual events by which local people marked their calenders. In Britain at least, what started out as trade and agricultural fairs, later acquired secondary characteristics such as pancake-frying, Maypole dancing or tossing the caber.
But this festive world then ran into the industrial age. Communities broke up and traditional events lost their appeal. Towns and villages forgot their pre-industrial habits and rushed to embrace modernity. The few local events that struggled through into our own age were regarded as quaint if not downright ridiculous.
These relics ranged from the annual Viking Up-Helly-Aa festival in Lerwick in January, to May-Pole dancing in Oxford on 1 May, to "Bawming the Thorn" in the town of Appleton Thorn Cheshire (which happened yesterday). Beyond these historic curiosities, there were respectable events such as the Henley regatta or the Edinburgh Festival, but the festive calender for Jo Bloggs-ville had gone virtually blank.
That was before the rise of tourism. Nowadays, no self-respecting town can rely on just Wimbledon, Christmas and 5 November to get them through the year. For this reason town councillors, PR agencies and sponsors up and down the land have come up with a solution - invent new festivals.
Some of these upstarts have serious pretensions to becoming major festivals in their own right. On top of the Glastonbury pop festival, which now has a solid track record of 26 years, a whole series of events are lining up for the summer.
Just in the coming week for example, we will have seen the City of London Arts Festival (started 1962), the Glasgow International Jazz festival (1986), the Bradford Festival (1985) and the Harwich Festival (1985).
Some of these festivals are in fact reincarnations of much earlier fairs which had fallen into abeyance. The Bradford Festival emerged from the ashes of something called Saint Blaize's Festival, an eighteenth century fair for wool-combers. "That fair petered out in the 1820s," explained Rob Walsh, a festival spokesman. "There were attempts to revive it over the years, but it's only now that we've got something really going."
For later on in the summer, we have BITE (the Bath International Taste Extravaganza), a food festival of two year's vintage, taking place in the city of Bath. Then there is the Headworx Cherry Coke Surf Festival - trendy American sports plus music - being held in Cornwall at the end of July. The Ace Cafe Reunion meanwhile, a focal point for men with motorbikes, is this year being held in Brighton in September.
At the other end of the commercial scale, some of the more new-fangled events are no more than parodies of existing traditions. Snail racing in Norfolk, bog snorkelling in Llanwrtyd Wells and worm charming in Devon are but a few of the odder items in this year's diary of British "festivals".
Not that an explosion of festivals is only a British phenomenon. Worldwide, cities are inaugurating events in the desperate hope of starting something big - a new Rio Carnival, say, or a Pamplona running of the bulls. Forthcoming events range from Singapore's Food festival (all July) to the Slug Festival (July 4-7) in Washington State where activities include riding a tram covered in slug-slime.
Starting before the end of the century is doubtless a smart move to enable festival promoters (within four years), to speak of their particular event dating back "to the last century". Too commercial and artificial? Not necessarily. Festivals have to start somewhere. And as anthropologists will tell you, all of them have roots in tourism.Reuse content