– This post was written by Neesha Kanga –
Whether it’s glimmering fir trees in living rooms or partying ferociously before the clock chimes twelve, the holiday season brings out a special mood in all of us! And, though the festive season may look a little different this year, with so many unusual Christmas traditions and New Year rituals to try out, there’s plenty of festive fun to be had. What unique traditions can you celebrate like a local? How many unforgettable memories can you make this New Year’s Eve? Without further ado, here’s your definitive guide to classic and unusual Christmas traditions and New Year’s ideas, courtesy of Tiqets’ culture hounds.
Places to go for Christmas
You could tap on Google Earth’s “I’m feeling lucky” and spin the virtual globe to take you to a unique Christmas destination with its own set of traditions and festivities – but you may end up with some questionable selections such as Oymyakon (the coldest inhabited place on Earth), the Mapimí Silent Zone (supposedly UFO territory), or Isla Caja de Muertos (literally meaning Coffin Island). So instead, use this hand-picked list of some top places to visit during Christmas or use it to develop some new Christmas traditions for a fun holiday at home!
Visit Christmas markets in Europe
Imagine medieval squares adorned with brightly lit wooden stalls, where the glühwein is warm and the weather is frosty. Christmas markets are undoubtedly the best Christmas activity for kids and adults alike (make sure to replace glühwein with hot chocolate for the little ones!). And, some of them will be going ahead this year.
Popping up in the weeks leading to Christmas, these markets are the perfect place to pick up some whimsical last-minute gifts while indulging in the festive season and way too many gingerbread cookies.
If you’re not sure where to start, check out our round-up of the best Christmas markets in Europe. This handy guide will tell you everything from where to go, what makes a certain market unique, and what to eat when you’re there.
Slip, slide, and ice skate in Dubai or Rotterdam
Throw on some skates and soar into the holidays on an ice rink. This Christmastime tradition isn’t exclusive to snowy regions. Many countries that never see snow tend to boast ice-skating rinks these days. In fact, the world’s biggest permanent indoor ice-skating rink is in a desert – or Dubai to be specific.
Many small-town Christmas markets feature simple rinks in the center of the main square, and bustling cities don’t skimp on this tradition either. The Rotterdam Schaatsbaan in the Netherlands is one of the longest-running ice rinks in the country. Whirling around on the 400-meter-long ice rink with changing rainbow lights is a quintessential Christmas tradition for most Rotterdammers.
Eat your way through Christmas in Scandinavia or Japan
The holidays are upon us; it’s time to abandon all diet plans – resistance is futile when stuffing is on the table. In fact, now’s the best time to stuff yourself silly with bratwurst, cookies, cakes, chocolate, and pudding (the real stars of any respectable Christmas table).
If you’re looking for a foodie way to add an unusual Christmas tradition to your holidays, look no further than Julefrokost, a uniquely Scandinavian feast. Think grazing table with pickled herring, meatballs, cheeses, rice pudding and an array of local finger food served up with Akvavit (a strong liquor) and beer next to a warm fireplace. Say “Skål” and dig in!
Spending Christmas in Japan – or meant to be spending Christmas in Japan but stuck at home thanks to travel restrictions? Make a reservation at your fanciest KFC to be a part of the most finger lickin’ good Christmas dinner ever (or order in!). In 1974, KFC Japan promoted fried chicken as a Christmas meal. The company drew parallels between their tasty buckets and the Western Christmas tradition of turkey dinner… and the rest is history.
Whether you’re in the Nordic neighborhood, the Land of the Rising Sun, or anywhere in between, don’t miss out on more weird and wonderful Christmas traditions that may just be around the corner.
Catch some sun in Asia or South America
Sunshine may be be on the unusual Christmas traditions list for many of us, but of the two billion people who celebrate the occasion, almost a quarter of them reside outside of North America and Europe.
How do non-Western countries celebrate the holiday season? You’ll find intricately reconstructed European villages and fully-functioning Christmas markets inside outrageously large, city-sized shopping malls. Chasing the sun? Then pack your swimwear and hit up Rio de Janeiro to work on your tan while also seeing the largest Christmas tree in the world.
If you’re further down the Southern Hemisphere, celebrate Christmas in Bali with locals and tourists who put on many seasonal events on the Island of the Gods. Think Santa hats and beach shorts. Feast on Indonesian rendang instead of turkey, and spend the day chasing waterfalls or swinging over the forest on the highest swing in Bali.
See the Christmas lights in Melbourne or Amsterdam
Melbourne in December is always a good idea. Temperatures range between 20°C to 24°C, so switch out your sweaters for shorts and hit up Christmas Projections Melbourne. This colorful city-wide light festival runs from 29 November until 25 December 2019 and sees the Australian city come to life with themed Christmassy projections on landmark buildings.
After your yuletide venture, you can further explore Melbourne’s beauty by taking a stroll in the historic Melbourne Gardens. Thanks to the warmth of the Southern Hemisphere, you can spend more time outside. Why not soar 285 meters above the city at the Eureka Skydeck and take in spellbinding views?
Amsterdam also goes all-out each year with the Amsterdam Light Festival. You can witness lit-up art installations and light shows adorning the inner-city canals as you cruise on a cozy boat. 2020’s Amsterdam Light Festival may be a pared down affair because of local Coronavirus restrictions, but you can still enjoy a spectacular showing of light art.
Get theatrical with these unusual Christmas traditions in Austria, Iceland, and Sweden
We’re not just talking about Swan Lake or The Nutcracker. If you look beyond Broadway, you’ll find that many countries and communities put on theatrical festivities that are steeped in rituals which paint a more ancient tale of Christmas.
In Austria, the Krampus Parade is a Christmas highlight. While jolly ol’ Santa may leave you a lump of coal if you’ve been naughty, the horned half-man, half-goat demon known as Krampus may sneak up on you, toss you into a bag, and take you back to his den. Each Christmas, Austria throws a parade to celebrate this well-loved local legend by lighting torches and taking part in what resembles a dreadful, grotesque goblin procession.
Many Scandinavian countries have intertwined Pagan folklore and Christian traditions. Iceland has the Yule Lads, who are the thirteen sons of Gryla – a flesh-eating giantess. Sweden has effigies of goats made of straw known as the Gävle Goat, which you are under no circumstances supposed to set on fire. Don’t do it.
If you’re in Copenhagen or Budapest, go to church
We don’t want to preach to you, but churches put on some pretty legendary cultural events around Christmastime. From LGBT Christmas Carol services in Dublin to classical concerts, Nativity plays and more, you can see or be a part of some pretty amazing seasonal events. (On a side note, San Francisco’s Gay Men’s Choir puts on a foot-tapping Christmas chorus each year to ring in the holigays!)
Religion is inextricably linked to culture, but if you want to focus on just the latter, skip up the 400 steps of Our Saviour’s Church’s tower for 360° views of Copenhagen at Christmastime.
Hannukah is also celebrated in December and if you happen to be in the vicinity of Budapest, pop into Dohány Street Great Synagogue and witness musicians, writers, and poets offering commemorative performances to Holocaust victims. If it’s all too poignant for you, amble out to the streets of the Jewish Quarter and pick up a latke that’ll put a smile back on your face.
Need more inspiration for cool and warm Christmas destinations and unusual Christmas traditions? Check out this diverse list of the best places to go for Christmas city breaks for families, solo travelers, and couples.
Traditions to celebrate like a local
If doing what the locals do is your thing, then here’s a round-up of seasonal traditions that are sure to get you into the holiday spirit. Be it pilgrimages, festivals, giving presents, or watching Christmas performances, find the perfect ways to immerse yourself completely in unique cultures and have an unforgettable holiday experience. You may even pick up a new tradition for yourself!
Pray like a local in France or Ethiopia
Don’t sweat it if you can’t make it to the Holy Land like the magi once did – there are plenty more stunning cathedrals and temples to be seen all around the globe.
Midnight mass is celebrated in most churches; but if you want to walk a more secular route, venture out on a pilgrimage like Christians and other believers have over centuries. Embark on the Les Chemis Du Mont-Saint-Michel if you find yourself in the vicinity of France. This 330-kilometer-long medieval pilgrimage trail begins in Rouen and ends at the tidal island of Abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel.
Intrepid travelers can uncover a lesser-known Christmas holiday destination in Ethiopia by joining the annual pilgrimage to Lalibela’s 12th-century rock-cut churches. Ethiopian Christmas, Genna, is celebrated in January and the pilgrimage to Lalibela is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The trail starts from anywhere in the country and you can identify pilgrims based on their flowing, white garments. Oh, and of course, from their singing, dancing, and overall joyously communal way of traveling.
Gift like a local in America or Catalonia
In the U.S., for a brief period, people believe their wallets to be as endless as Santa’s sack full of gifts and fork out on material goods like no other country in the world does. The American Santa Claus is a jolly old man dressed in red, who squeezes himself down chimneys at night to leave gifts in homes. He then rides his reindeer-propelled flying sled back to the North Pole. We hope you wished for a smart home security system this year.
The Catalan tradition of Tió de Nadal (or ‘Christmas Log’) really beats most other Christmas traditions. It involves a hollow log that’s treated as a family pet. The children ‘feed’ this log each night and protect it against the cold with a blanket. They then beat the absolute poop out of it.
As the festivities near, kids grab sticks and beat it into submission while singing a song urging it to empty its bowels and release their rightful gifts. If you want to partake in this Catalan Christmas tradition, the song goes a little like this:
poop* nougats (turrón),
hazelnuts and mató cheese,
if you don’t poop* well,
I’ll hit you with a stick,
(* Edited for profanity)
Repent like the locals do in Mexico
We spend the better half of the year gathering a lot of sin. From going for that
second third slice of cake and giving in to gluttony, to maybe getting a little too enraged at that… ahem…Christmas Log who cut you off in traffic.
Why not celebrate Christmas the Mexican way and repent in the most fun way possible? This unusual Christmas tradition sees church squares and residential streets adorned with papier-mâché or clay piñatas. These special-edition piñatas are traditionally shaped like a seven-pointed star to represent the seven deadly sins, and filled with candy. Make your own piñata at home, don a blindfold and proceed to beat the sin out of it this Christmas.
On an energy high after all that pummeling? If you happy to be in Mexico this Christmas, indulge further with tickets for some traditional Mexican lucha libre wrestling. After that, why not treat your famished self to a traditional food tour? Time to rack up a new sin-count for 2021!
Chill like the locals in Iceland and New York do
Baby, it’s cold outside – but if the cold is your element, then we hope you’re celebrating Christmas in Iceland. It’s the textbook definition of a winter wonderland! December is the darkest time of the year here, and the capital city is lit up by thousands of lights that twinkle off the thick blanket of snow. If you’re lucky, you may be able to see the northern lights at Christmas in Iceland.
Reykjavik gets into the spirit by placing sneaky Santas around the city. Try and spot the 13 hidden holograms of Santa Claus hiding on buildings and in windows. If the cold gets too much, dip into a steamy geothermal lagoon framed by Iceland’s natural landscapes – the country’s full of them! And if you’d like to adopt this unusual Christmas tradition for your holiday at home, make your own tiny Santas and hide them around the house. Keen on the steamy lagoon idea? Your local spa should do the trick!
Not ready to go quite that cold? Christmas in New York is an unmatched experience. It’s known to be covered in frost and the Rockefeller Christmas tree stands proudly in the center of the Rockefeller Center. The glitzy stores on 5th Avenue have window displays that’ll put Santa’s workshop to shame – why not take it all in with a Holiday Windows Walking Tour (it’ll make it easier for you to find your way back with a credit card later)? And if you’re not in New York but you want that Christmas-in-New-York feeling, pop on a classic Christmas film set in the city that never sleeps – there are plenty to choose from.
Relax like the locals in Cancún or London
The holidays are homey affairs that see families gathering to eat, drink, and make merry. But if you and your family want to make merry somewhere else, head to Cancún: one of the best places to spend Christmas for families! Celebrate the season like some half a million Cancúnenses do by enjoying the city’s bountiful natural wonders.
From white sandy beaches to zipline adventures through the jungle and zero chance of freezing your toes off, you’re in for a tropical Christmas in Cancún. Despite the warmth and sun, the holiday spirit is in the air and many restaurants do Christmas dinner menus (with reservations in advance). Most bars, clubs, and resorts located in the Hotel Zone put on an array of themed events for every age, from Christmas karaoke to building sand snowmen.
Want a more conventional and cozy Christmas? For a quieter affair, check out London in Merry England. You can hop from pub to pub while taking in the city’s special wintertime atmosphere. Art and culture addicts, rejoice! The Natural History Museum has its own ice skating rink, and the Victoria and Albert Museum is hosting free drop-in sessions from 28 till 30 December.
Pop into the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland, one of the best things to do in London during Christmas. The park will be home to the world’s tallest transportable Observation Wheel – need we say more? Oh yeah, entrance to the event is free!
Keep the park vibe going by discovering the festivities over at Kew Gardens and party it up (or down) this Christmas in London.
If you’re hunkering after a British Christmas from afar, take some of these ideas and make them your own in the comfort of your own home. Make some classic pub grub for you and your family, visit your local gardens or ice rink, or put on Love Actually and get cosy.
To discover more unusual Christmas traditions and find out how the holiday is celebrated across the rest of the globe, read our post about fascinating Christmas traditions around the world.
Wrap it up with an epic New Year’s Eve
So, let’s assume you’ve survived Christmas, and now it’s time for a spectacular New Year’s celebration. With hundreds of traditions to pick from, it’s easy to miss some bucket-list New Year’s experiences. Each corner of the globe welcomes this fresh chapter with their own unique New Year rituals that range from food, traditions, and outdoor parties that stretch into dawn. Let this New Year’s Eve guide inspire you to start 2021 right!
Usually you can dive into the new year in the Netherlands…
… But not this year. After a crazed night of drinking, fireworks, and partying, the Dutch like to start the New Year fresh by stripping down and diving into the cold, dark waters of the North Sea. In the middle of winter. While hungover. And almost naked. Luckily for those less excited by this prospect, this annual ice-cold dip has been cancelled this year due to the Coronavirus restrictions. Ice cold bath, anyone?
If that doesn’t sound like your idea of fun, opt for a sedate party with a maximum of two visitors with hot drinks, central heating, and being fully clothed – bliss!
Party it up Madeira-style
Funchal in Madeira, Portugal is a sleepy harbor city during winter. But as December 31 draws close, the main street, Avenida Arriaga, plays host to orchestras, choirs, bandoleers, and folk bands. And while this year may be a quieter celebration, you can always plan for next year.
Usually, the city suddenly bursts into life in what is recognized to be one of the largest fireworks displays in the world. The many cruise ships docked by the harbor blow their whistles and set off their own flurry of fireworks, giving you the feeling of being enveloped in the fieriest, loudest, and most sublime New Year’s spectacle.
Be a part of Budapest’s largest pool party
Széchenyi Baths in Budapest keeps its doors open until 3:00 am to celebrate the New Year in the most rejuvenating way possible: the Széchenyi Baths New Year’s Eve Party. This New Year ritual draws thousands of people and promises cocktails, pálinka, water fights, whirlpools, light shows, music, and more – all while you’re soaking up the medicinal waters of the famous outdoor pools. If you think about it, you’re actually doing your body a favour.
Book in advance to be a part of the world’s grandest pool party, as this event always sells out. And while it may not be taking place this year, you could add it to your 2021 must-do list.
Take part in the world’s biggest water fight in Thailand – in April 2021
Didn’t have a chance to travel during the Western New Year? Forget that pesky Gregorian calendar that you can never keep up with anyway, and celebrate Thai New Year instead. Songkran, as it’s called, takes place between April 13-15 every year, so start saving!
Songkran is Thailand’s take on a water fight, and it will leave you drenched. Arm yourself with buckets and super soakers, and leave anything that isn’t waterproof behind. While the origin of the festival isn’t concrete, traditionally on Songkran, Buddhists pour water on Buddha statues, the elderly, and the young as part of a purification ritual.
In Bangkok, the opening ceremony is held at Wat Pho, and the largest party happens around the infamous Khao San Road. Bear in mind that Songkran is, at its core, a religious ceremony and participants caught being disrespectful of local culture will be fined.
Have a cultured start to the year in Florence
Florence is a New Year’s destination that’s all about drinking bubbly out of plastic champagne glasses until the sun comes up. You can party like the Medicis once did, surrounded by the centuries-old marbled decadence of the Duomo wander over to Piazzale Michelangelo, which would ordinarily host a street party like no other.
Florence’s world-famous museums usually switch up their opening hours to allow visitors until after midnight, but not this year. Save a New Year’s late night/early morning visit to the Uffizi Gallery for 2021 which would usually be open from 8:15 am to 1:50 pm on New Year’s.
Smash plates and jump off chairs in Denmark
New Year’s Eve in Copenhagen begins at 6:00 pm sharp with the Queen’s New Year’s Speech, followed by champagne and kransekage (wreath cake). In another year, you could then plan to hit up Tivoli Gardens, which would be open until 00:30. The Tivoli Julemarked (Christmas market) would still be standing and the gløgg would still be pouring.
Here’s a Danish New Year ritual you can celebrate this year! Join in the Danish tradition of dish-smashing on December 31, by smashing plates on your friends’ and neighbors’ doorsteps. The tradition is supposed to bring good luck and fortune over the coming year. The larger the pile of broken dishes in front of your house is, the more friends you have who care about your luck. (All this luck when all you need is a broom!)
After smashing dishes, the Danes then clamber onto chairs and jump off while yelling ‘Godt Nytår!’, sometimes with a drink in hand. New Year’s Eve in Copenhagen is an unforgettable, and sometimes manic affair.
Eat grapes and burn effigies in Colombia
Colombia’s New Year falls on December 31, and along with the usual fireworks displays, this South American nation has a few traditions of its own up its sleeves.
As they do in Spain and most Latin countries, locals try to stuff twelve grapes into their mouths as the clock strikes midnight. Each grape represents a wish they hope will come true. If you’re trying this for the first time, hold back on the champagne and watch the experts at work.
Other traditions include burning effigies (año viejo) that represent aspects of the previous year you’d like to leave behind, as well as putting lentils in your pocket to attract wealth over the next year.
If you live and breathe travel, you’ll love the uniquely Colombian New Year’s tradition of running around with a suitcase as the clock strikes midnight. This is to ensure an abundance of positive and safe travels in the new year. Join in by lugging your suitcase around the block with your pockets filled with lentils, to truly immerse yourself in the local culture – and give yourself every chance of travelling in 2021!
Find out which 10 European cities throw the best and most unique New Year’s parties to have a special and memorable start to each year.
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