Decorating a tree, shopping, and fireworks are all great and time-honored ways to celebrate the holidays in America, but other parts of the world have their own unique take on the season. We all like to be home for the holidays, but if you can’t, maybe these celebrations will give you the inspiration to travel instead. Seeing these festivities first-hand is a great reminder of the how, regardless of where we’re from, how much this time of year means to many of us. At a minimum, you may get an idea for putting your own unique spin on your own holiday celebrations.
Santarun, Newtown, Wales
Occuring in the last week of November or the first week in December, the Santarun is exactly as it sounds—lots of participants, many dressing up as Santa, running in a long-distance race. About 5000 people congregate to jog over 7 kilometers. The real jolly Old St. Nick would have a difficult time keeping up with the participants in this run, many who can clock times of 18 minutes or less. The run is organized by charity, meaning the Santas in this run help give their own gifts to the needy, and you may even be part of the run that breaks a Guinness World Record. All in all you, can keep off a little holiday weight, be charitable, and maybe even be part of history.
Hogmanay is the celebration of the last day of the year, as is celebrated in distinctive Scottish fashion. While many Americans kiss or set off fireworks at the stroke of midnight, the Scottish practice “first-footing,” where you attempt to be the first to cross the threshold of a friend or neighbor to grant them good luck gifts for the new year. While New York drops a lit-up ball to commemorate the New Year, the town of Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire lights balls on fire and swing them around their heads like mad men. That’s right, participants fills balls of chicken wire with flammable material and parade around the city, whipping them about before casting them into the harbor. Try this in America and you may be spending the New Year in jail, but in Scotland this is greeted with large crowds, pipe bands, and in case there weren’t enough pyrotechnics already, a fireworks display.
Réveillon, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
How’s New Years on the beach sound? That’s how it’s celebrated in the Brazilian capital, where millions congregate on the sands of Copacabana to watch the calendar roll over. The crowds typically dress in white and bring with them lilies to sacrifice to Yemanja, Goddess of the Sea, who grants them three wishes in return. Live performances entertain revelers until midnight, when large barges set of fireworks for the entertainment of those on shore. Party goers will then often move on to Ipanema Beach, where festivities can continue until the early morning. And as most world travelers can tell you, Brazilians definitely know how to party.
Quema del Diablo, Guatemala
Christians in America and several other countries celebrate Christmas as Jesus’s birthday, and commemorate his role as conquering Satan to save the souls of all mankind. Guatemalan Christians also express Jesus and Mary’s triumph over the devil by literally burning him. Every December 7, at a precise time, families build bonfires outsides their homes and burn effigies of Satan. The tradition is a way of cleansing their home of demons and serves as a lead-in to the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the holiday season in general. You have to admit, once you’ve seen the devil on fire, Thanksgiving parades and Black Friday seem downright tame by comparison.
Three Kings Day, Mexico
Three Kings Day commemorates the end of the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” which go from Christmas evening to the Epiphany on January 6. As the name suggests, the holiday is based on the biblical story of the Magi, or Three Kings, who saw a bright star the night Christ was born which led them to Bethlehem. Mexicans will often give gifts on Día de los Reyes in addition to Christmas. Another tradition is the baking of Rosca, a ring of sweetbread in which a small baby Jesus figure is baked into the bread. The one who finds this figurine becomes to host for another party—Candelaria in February. From giving gifts out after Christmas to setting the stage for another celebration, no one knows how to keep the party going like Mexico.
Sunburnt Christmas, Bondi Beach, Sydney, Australia
Love Christmas but hate the cold? Why not celebrate in on the beach, and one of the world’s most famous beaches at that—Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia. The event occurs on Christmas Day but is celebrated like a summertime beach music festival, with two dozen artists playing on 3 stages. Partygoers, most of them young, will assemble wearing traditional beach garb but often with a Santa hat added on. Some will even paint on Santa suits over their swimwear. These seems like the kind of place Santa himself would want to blow off steam after a successful night of delivering presents.
Santa’s Hometown, Savukoski, Finland
What better place to celebrate Christmas than where Santa himself is from? Savukorski is known as the the home of Father Christmas (Joulupukki in Finnish), where he makes his gifts in a hidden workshop. Because of this, Finnish children are excited that they will be the first to receive gifts from their fellow countryman. While many children (attempt to) sleep while they await Santa’s arrival, Father Christmas in Finland skips the chimney and in facts comes directly to their doors in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. While they wait, families will have a traditional dinner of ham or pork roast, casserole, or fish, with “glogg,” a flavored wine, as a drink. If you literally can’t wait for Christmas and want your presents before everyone else, Savukoski may be the place for you.
Giant Lantern Festival, City of San Fernando, Phillipines
A lot of us decorate our houses with bright lights for the holidays, but no one can really illuminate a city like the Filipinos. Held on the Saturday before Christmas Eve, the Giant Lantern Festival is competition of huge decorative lanterns called parol. The lanterns can be as big as 40 feet in diameter and illuminated by over 4000 different light bulbs. They are often star-shaped to represent the star that led the three wise men to Jesus. Each participant in the contest presents their lantern, which often have a light display coordinated to change along with a song, before a winner is chosen by the festival organizers. The celebration has become so popular and synonymous with the holiday, San Fernando is now known as “The Christmas Capital of the Phillipines.”
By Seamus McAfee