On July 2, since 1659, the Italian city of Siena has hosted Il Palio, a medieval-style horse race around its central piazza that lasts only 70 seconds but occupies local citizens for the entire year. It's no Kentucky Derby, with high-stakes Thoroughbreds and swank parties; it's a celebration of the soul of the city. Each of 17 competing horses represents a neighborhood. On race morning, the horses are led into Mass at local churches to be blessed by a priest, and the jockeys, who ride bareback, are bedecked in their neighborhoods' special colors and symbols (she-wolf, dragon, porcupine, noble goose). Weeks of feasting, partying, and betting precede the race, and afterward, throughout the year, each neighborhood puts on a colorful, noisy festival anticipating next year's Palio. While you might balk at the idea of staging a horse race in your own town square, you might tap into Palio's grand spirit by organizing interneighborhood softball games or volleyball matches, complete with festive decorations and a party afterward.
Celebrated for centuries, August 1 (Lughnasadh, the Celts call it; Lammas to the Anglo-Saxons) marks the start of the harvest season when grains, fruits, and vegetables ripen. Lugh was an influential Celtic god, the master of light whose gift of long days made the harvest possible. Food is, of course, the celebration's centerpiece. Some English village churches still hold a Loaf-Mass to bless bread made from the season's first wheat. Fresh-baked bread can begin your own Lughnasadh feast; add freshly picked berries, tomatoes, melons, and sweet corn from the garden or farmers' market. Traditionally, this celebration was marked with merry fairs featuring agricultural displays, athletic contests, and games--which inspired our own state and county fairs, held across rural North America in late July and August. This was also a time when young men and women engaged in serious wooing of prospective mates, a tradition that has survived, as anyone who has watched teenagers at a county fair can attest.