If you’re weary of winter and ready for a breath of spring, communities from coast to coast offer festivals saluting everything from dogwood blossoms to horseradish. Here are eight celebrations that will inspire you to get outdoors.
National Cherry Blossom Festival, March 20-April 13
When the mayor of Tokyo gifted the U.S. capital with 3,000 cherry trees in 1912, the seeds were planted for a festival now known as “the nation’s greatest springtime celebration.”
More than a million people enjoy the three-week event, held during the trees’ peak blossoming season and featuring hundreds of mostly free activities including a parade, a pageant and performances—a far cry from the first simple ceremony in 1912 when President William Taft’s wife, Helen, and the wife of Japan’s ambassador quietly planted the first two Yoshino cherry trees in West Potomac Park.
About 100 of the original 3,000 cherry trees remain, including those first two. However, thousands more have been planted so that some 3,700 cherry trees burst into pink and white colors every spring—all maintained by the National Park Service.
“The festival started with a gift of trees reflecting cultural understanding,” says spokeswoman Danielle Davis. “Today cherry blossoms have become a marker across the nation of spring beginning.”
Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, April 1-30
Mount Vernon, Washington
Millions of tulips burst into bloom each April in the Skagit Valley, where commercial bulb growers happily share their fields of flowers with people enjoying driving tours of the stunning springtime vistas.
“We’re unique in that most areas with bulb production don’t allow the public in or near their fields,” says festival director Cindy Verge.
About 450 acres of tulips are grown through-out the valley, home to about 75 percent of the nation’s commercial tulip bulb production. The month-long festival, which attracts about 350,000 people, was started in 1984 by the Chamber of Commerce in Mount Vernon, the county seat of Skagit County. Other highlights include the Tulip Parade and a 22-days-long wild salmon barbecue that raises up to $100,000 for community projects.
Kentucky Derby Festival, April 12-May 2
Run since 1875, the Kentucky Derby is the oldest continuously held sporting event in the United States. But since the thoroughbred horse race lasts for only two minutes, why not extend the party? Such was the thinking when four local businessmen organized a downtown parade in 1956 and began turning the famous Run for the Roses into a weeks-long festival.
Today, more than 1.5 million people enjoy up to 70 events beginning with Thunder Over Louisville, one of the nation’s largest fireworks shows. Other highlights include hot-air balloon events, a marathon, concerts, bed races and America’s oldest continuously held high school basketball all-star game. Most events are free.
“You may not be able to go to the Derby,” says festival president Mike Berry, “but you can help celebrate it.”
Vidalia Onion Festival, April 24-27
The aroma of fried, caramelized and raw onions fills the air for four days each spring as part of the annual celebration of Georgia’s official state vegetable.
Sweet Vidalia onions have thrived in the low-sulfur soil surrounding the town of Vidalia since the Great Depression, when farmer Moses Coleman sold 50-pound bags of onions for $3.50 each. Today, more than 200 million pounds of Vidalia onions grown in a 20-county region are shipped annually across the nation, which definitely is cause for a homegrown celebration.
Dating to 1978, the festival attracts 35,000 people with farm tours, cooking competitions, the Miss Vidalia Onion Pageant, an onion-eating contest and concerts to salute Vidalia’s namesake vegetable.
Daffodil Festival, April 25-27
Amid sea breezes and millions of colorful daffodils, spring awakens on Nantucket Island with a festival that adorns cobblestone streets, antique cars, baby strollers and even pets in yellow, white and orange blooms.
Once a hub for the whaling industry, Nantucket developed into a thriving summer colony during the early 20th century and became a tourist destination. The Daffodil Festival began in 1975 when the Nantucket Garden Club persuaded the American Daffodil Society to sponsor a local show. Paintings of daffodils were sold to fund the event and to pay for planting of bulbs in public places.
Today, more than 60,000 visitors converge on the seaport town to celebrate winter’s thaw and enjoy an antique car parade, a community tailgate picnic, art shows, the Daffy Hat Contest and, of course, the Nantucket Daffodil Flower Show.
Maifest, May 2-4
One of the oldest German heritage festivals in the South, the Brenham Maifest began in 1881 to mark the arrival of spring and to honor the town’s early German settlers.
“There’s a lot of German heritage in Texas,” explains Maifest Association president Heather Thielemann. “What’s really cool is that traditions are being passed on.”
During the peak of German immigration to the railroad town during the 1880s, the volunteer fire department in Brenham started the festival with a parade and the crowning of a Maifest king and queen. Today’s coronation events involve more than 700 young people.
The festival begins with a traditional Maipole dance and features German food, music and dancing. More than 5,000 people attend, and profits fund worthwhile activities for local youth.
Magnolia Blossom Festival, May 16-17
When art teacher Marjorie Chamberlain organized the first sidewalk art show in downtown Magnolia in 1950 to display her students’ paintings, she had no idea the event would evolve into a full-fledged festival on the magnolia tree-lined Columbia County Courthouse square.
Today, the fragrant aroma of magnolia blossoms intermingles with the sizzle and smell of steaks on the grill. Since 1989, the World Championship Steak Cook-off has been held in conjunction with the festivities and serves up 4,000 rib-eyes to help defray event costs. The best grill masters are awarded thousands of dollars in prize money.
California Strawberry Festival May 17-18
Whether you like your strawberries hand-dipped in chocolate or drizzled over funnel cakes or nachos, the plump springtime fruit remains the star of this annual festival on the fertile Oxnard Plain of Southern California.
Expect to see fields of strawberries when driving into Oxnard, where growers produce about one-fourth of California strawberries in a state that provides 88 percent of the nation’s supply.
Since 1984, the town has hosted its weekend festival to honor strawberry growers. More than 60,000 people come to enjoy pie-eating contests, cooking demonstrations, arts and crafts, and a Strawberryland for Kids.