Birmingham is perhaps the most multicultural city after London in England. Yet it has just a few main nationalities (apart from White British): Pakistani – Bangladeshi, Afro-Caribbean, Polish, Irish and a few Chinese. No doubt there are other nationalities but their numbers are less.
A few major festivals and events take place over the year: some of them and nationwide and some of them are specific, mostly related to the main ethnic groups. If you can, it is always more interesting to visit the city during one of these celebrations. Having lived in the city for some time I participated in all of them and decided to share them with you, if you’re planning to visit or just as a curiosity:)
Birmingham Half – Marathon (usually in October)
It took place on the 23rd of October this year: over 15000 people participated and it is one of the biggest running events in the Midlands.
Some people take it seriously, some less…. but it is a good reason for a “fun” run:)
Diwali – the festival of lights (sometime between mid October and mid November)
It is maybe the most important festival of the year for Hindus, Sikhs and Jains (somehow an equivalent of Christmas and New Year’s Eve) and is a public holiday in countries like India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Malaysia or Singapore. It is celebrated in other cities in the UK but in Birmingham it is a particularly large community of followers.
During the celebration many small clay lamps filled with oil are being lit to celebrate the triumph of good over evil and people share sweets and snacks with family and friends.
Bonfire’s night (on November the 5th)
This British celebration goes back in time to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 – a mercenary called Guy Fawkes got involved in a plot to overthrow the king, James I, the son of of Queen Elizabeth I as English Catholics were being persecuted under the rule of this Protestant king. The conspirators were planning to blow the House of Parliament in London (with the king inside of course) using 36 barrels of gunpowder. The plan was discovered though and Guy was the first scapegoat (he was found guarding the barrels). He was tortured and then executed and since then people celebrate the event by burning a dummy puppet representing the Guy on an open fire, followed by a display of fireworks.
Frankfurt Christmas Market (takes place from mid November till Christmas)
The German market is a local speciality with mostly non-local products! This is the largest such event outside Germany and Austria and it has been organised by the local council for 10 years (as Birmingham is a twin city of Frankfurt).
For over one month the Victoria Square and New Street are invaded with stalls with all kind of German food goodies, Christmas decorations, toys, cloths and there are music and dance events every evening. Artisans come from Germany to sell authentic products (some of them might be a bit pricey though) and there are also lots of German beer, German sausages, marzipan and gingerbread cakes (once you start, you’ll discover you can’t have enough of them) and other delicacies.
But my favourite part are the little trinkets and hand-made Christmas decorations and of course the nut-crackers! Some more photos will follow in three weeks time, with the start of the market on the 18th November!
Chinese New Year (usually falls in January or February every year)
Arcadian Centre is the venue for the event as it is right in the heart of the Chinatown. The Chinese community in Birmingham is expanding quickly and the city council has felt it would be the case to have a proper New Year’s festival. I went to watch this year and I thought all the performers were very gifted and enchanted the public despite the bitter cold outside:)
Are you scared by dragons? Don’t be, say the Chinese who think them as being friendly and helpful, a symbol of good-luck, long life and wisdom. A Chinese dragon is a hybrid of 7 mythical creatures, including a stag, a fish, a hawk, a tiger and others. Dragon dances are meant to scare away evil spirits and the longer the dragon…the luckier it gets! Sometimes a man carries a “Pearl of Wisdom” on a white pole in front of the dragon who is following it (meaning it is searching for wisdom and knowledge).
A show of Chinese acrobatics, balance performances and comedy acts is usually part of a New Year celebration. This form of art is very old and widely spread in China and it is also a form of street entertainment.
Saint Patrick’s Day (the Irish festival on the 17th of March)
Birmingham holds the largest Saint Patrick’s Day in Britain. The Irish have had this day as a religious holiday for over 1000 years. Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland and is thought to have introduced Christianity on its lands. In many years the celebration falls during the Lent (fasting period before Easter) but, for the joy of all Irish church-goers, the restrictions on food and alcohol are lifted on this day.
Green is the colour of the day – symbol of the country and of Saint Patrick, traditionally associated with the shamrock. According to the legend, the Saint used the three leaves of the plant to explain the Holy Trinity to the Irish.
The tartan and kilt are a Scottish invention of the 16th century but Irish have “borrowed” them in more recent times, apparently at the turn of the 20th century in order to prove their affiliation to the Celtic identity.
“Erin go Bragh” is an Irish expression (translated as “Ireland forever”) indicating the sense of belonging to Ireland and its culture.
Bagpipes are another symbol of affiliation to the Celtic culture.
Limericks are a form of short poetry, often with funny or slightly dirty rhymes that originated in Ireland. Not surprisingly, they were first invented and recited in pubs and taverns and their creators were in many cases drunk:)
Here is such an example :
There was an Old Person whose habits,
Induced him to feed upon rabbits;
When he’d eaten eighteen,
He turned perfectly green,
Upon which he relinquished those habits.
Birmingham’s Pride (during the long weekend of the Spring bank holiday in May)
It is the Gay Parade of the city which apparently has the largest gay community after Brighton in England. Its organisers say it is the largest free gay and lesbian event in the UK. There are concerts, food stalls, funfair rides and street entertainment and it welcomes everyone, be them gay or straight!
The first such festival in Birmingham was organised in 1972. The focus of the event is in Hurst Street in the Gay Village.