The 5 best things to do in Java, Indonesia
21 February 2024
Christmas in the West usually means cold weather and shopping for presents, a turkey feast; and if you’re traditionally inclined, maybe a carol-led church service or two. Though versions of Christmas are celebrated in hundreds of countries all over the world, going away over the festive season can seem a wild choice. Doing something totally different, however, can make Christmas seem new and magical all over again.
We’ve gathered some of the most intriguing Christmas rituals and festivals around the world, so you can imagine a Christmas away from home. Read on to stoke your Christmas spirit and be ready to plan your next big trip…
Over in Eastern Europe, Romania enjoys a rich culture full of myths and folklore, while largely practising an Eastern Orthodox religion. This fusion of heritage and tradition really feeds into Christmas celebrations here, enriched by the wintry magic of the mountainous surroundings. Much of Romania’s festive timeline aligns with many other countries – there’s a period of Advent which begins on November 14th, and many people fast at this time, eating one meal a day until Christmas Day.
What makes the Romanian Christmas period unique are the winter rituals that take place in some regions. The capra dance (or ‘goat dance’), for instance, sees participants dressed in sheepskins and masks, dancing in a procession of jaunty movements to expel evil spirits. The dance is accompanied by trumpets or other folk instruments and takes place in the streets, drawing crowds of excited onlookers. In some towns, dancers even go door-to-door and entice people out of their homes to watch.
Rural regions in Romania are more likely to partake in heritage performances – try spending Christmas in snowy Maramures for a truly immersive festive experience.
This sparkling Caribbean archipelago knows how to party year-round – it is, after all, the home of the illustrious Vincy Mas festival, and dancing and music are intrinsically woven into the culture and history of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. At Christmas time, these rich celebrations enjoy a festive twist, with street parades, concerts, and vibrant markets punctuating the season.
As well as observing the religious importance of Christmas with church congregations, carols and services, locals of the islands will gather for community events. The Nine Nights of Lights in Kingstown is particularly picturesque, while the Nine Mornings celebrations start music-led activities in the streets from as early as 5am!
If dates coincide, don’t miss the Jonkonnu festival, a masquerade ball of sorts featuring fusion music from around Africa, Europe and the rest of the world. This time-honoured get-together originates from the time of slavery, and performances will depict characters in intricate costumes who will dance in ground-stomping unison, singing and encouraging onlookers to partake. If you’re looking to join the party at Christmas in a new and refreshing way, you can’t get more spirited than this Caribbean jolly.
What better place to celebrate Christmas than the home of Santa Claus? Lapland is globally recognised as the all-time Christmas destination, and with the frosty December air, snow-blanketed forests, sleds pulled by husky dogs and the chance to pet reindeers on the nose – not to mention, meet Santa himself – it’s kind of inarguable.
To add to the quintessential magic of Lapland, Finland has its own Christmas rituals. Christmas Eve is the main day to celebrate here, known as Jouluaatto. As the temperature is suitably freezing, it’s customary to visit a sauna with the family, alongside the regular gift exchange and eating a big meal.
Though not on par with Germany’s, the Christmas markets here are also full of atmosphere and sensory delight. In cities such as Helsinki, local artisans gather to sell handmade crafts, sweets, ornaments, decorations and local gourmet delights. With the spicy smell of gingerbread cookies and twinkling fairy lights galore, you’ll soon be singing along to the enchanting carol performances.
Don’t forget (and how could you?), December is the ideal time to catch the mesmerising northern lights in Finland. If your visit stretches into January, the festival Lux Helsinki sees the city illuminated with immense light installations.
If you think the first signs of Christmas appear too early in the West, you might find the four-month-long celebration of the Philippines a shock. For Filipinos, Christmas (locally known as Pasko) lasts from September right through into the third week of January, making it the longest Christmas celebration in the world.
Traditions in this former Spanish colony are deeply rooted in Catholicism; celebrations and religious ceremonies pay respect to the nativity and traditional Christmas story, alongside your typical illuminations and decorative tree displays.
In the lead up to Christmas Eve and the day itself, crowds of Filipinos will attend a series of nine dawn masses called Simbang Gabi. From December 16th, locals will attend church from as early as 3am and congregate out front to eat breakfast as the sun rises. It’s a stirring time to visit the Philippines, as the sense of community spirit is contagious.
The entirety of Christmas in the Philippines falls within the dry season, so though it might seem unusual for Westerners, you can decorate your Christmas holiday with snorkelling in Palawan, hiking the Chocolate Hills in Bohol, or just sunbathing the day away.
Christmas is a magical time to visit Ethiopia, a country which deeply honours its ancient heritage. It’s one of the only African nations whose population practises an ancient branch of pre-colonial Christianity, and for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Christmas is celebrated on January 7th.
Unlike in the West, Christmas here isn’t deeply commercialised; celebrations are rooted in religious origins and many people fast from November 25th, eating only one vegan meal a day in an act of ‘cleansing’ for the birth of Jesus.
After a ‘Christmas Eve’ mass congregation that can run from 6pm to 3am, those who partake in public ceremonies will dress in a white shawl garment and carry candles, looping in a procession around the outside of the church as a choir sings. It’s a very moving spectacle, especially for those who wish to reconnect with the original meaning of Christmas.
Ethiopia’s iconic rock-hewn churches of Lalibela will often draw big crowds at this time of year, as people visit as a mark of pilgrimage. Get in touch with our local team in Ethiopia if you’re interested in doing the same.
Japan is a pleasure to explore at any time of year, and Christmas is particularly intriguing. It’s much more of a commercial celebration here than religion-rooted, and isn’t a national holiday, yet still the cities of Japan will be set up with elaborate light displays and large-scale Santa figures as people prepare for feasting and gift-giving.
Christmas Eve is almost like Valentine’s Day in Japan – couples will exchange gifts and go out for a romantic dinner, while families across the country will share a seasonal dessert, a strawberry-topped cream cake. On Christmas Day, however, comes the big feast: a family-sized KFC meal. This amusing ritual was started back in the 1970s due to a (clearly successful) marketing campaign by KFC, and has simply stuck. Japanese families will book a ‘Christmas barrel’ meal weeks in advance, and you can expect to see long queues outside KFC outlets on Christmas Day as people flock for southern-fried chicken.
If you’re drawn to Japan at Christmas due to its exquisite cultural sites and world-renowned culinary scene (which doesn’t have to include KFC), our partners based in Japan offer sensational tours of Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and beyond. Japan knows how to showcase its cities at Christmas, and its quirky, high-spirited energy to the season will make it one to remember.
Over in sun-splashed Central America, Guatemala’s Christmas festivities are steeped in Spanish Catholicism and Mayan heritage. It’s a vibrant and joyous time to visit, with an abundance of community congregations and parades to celebrate the nativity.
One distinctly Guatemalan event, La Quema del Diablo, literally translates to ‘The Burning of the Devil’. Local communities gather in public spaces each December 7th at 6pm sharp to burn a menacing devil effigy; a ritual meant to cleanse evil spirits in the lead-up to the day of Jesus’s birth.
Much like a Guy Fawkes tradition in the UK, many families fashion their own ‘devil’ from rubbish and burn a small bonfire in the front of their homes, an action intended to cleanse their houses of evil or negative energies that have built up throughout the year. After the burning, families will eat buñuelos, a traditional donut treat, and drink a mulled fruit punch to celebrate a purified Christmas season and new year.
One of the best places to observe La Quema del Diablo at Christmas is likely Guatemala’s capital, Antigua – a beautifully historic city scattered with ancient and colonial churches. The festivities will likely be soundtracked by a marimba band and finished with a firework display. Get in touch with our travel experts in Guatemala to include this event in a Christmas holiday.
If you want to celebrate Christmas differently, get in touch with our locally-based travel experts around the world. They’re on the ground in the destinations, ready to chat about how you can authentically experience their local Christmas traditions in the best way.
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