Same stuff, different year? Holidays can get stale – Thanksgiving at the cottage, New Year’s Eve downtown, Canada Day on the Hill, St. Patrick’s Day in a puddle of … something. Whether you’re tired of the same old, same old for holidays or just looking for new experiences, we offer some alternatives. The world is your big, fun oyster, so don’t limit yourself.
New Year’s: Madeira, Portugal
Few places on earth ring in the new year with such fervour. Madeira, a Portuguese island off the coast of Morocco and famed for its two main exports – wine and Cristiano Ronaldo – embraces New Year’s Eve with a bang. Well, with millions of tiny bangs. Funchal, the capital, is famed for the world’s largest New Year’s Eve fireworks display and all the streets are lit with thousands of tiny lights. According to Discover Madeira, the whole island turns out in formal dress to watch the show and usher in the new year.
Lunar New Year: Malaysia
Travel during the Lunar/Chinese New Year in many parts of Asia is tricky. Particularly in China, where everyone competes for airline and train tickets to return to their hometowns. But Chinese communities in nearby countries celebrate the new year with none of the logistical mess of the mainland. Chinese-Malaysians, particularly in George Town, Malacca and Kuala Lumpur celebrate vociferously, with piles of delicious food in a pleasant tropical climate. Fancy hotels lay out dinners of hilarious yu sheng “prosperity” noodles, which patrons toss high in the air to usher in the coming year.
Valentine’s Day: Saint-Valentin, France
Think of romantic cities and Paris inevitably springs to mind, but the best place for a Valentine’s Day getaway is elsewhere in France. That the very tiny French town of Saint-Valentine (population 280) goes big on celebrating its patron saint isn’t shocking. The surprise is that it has wholeheartedly embraced the commercial aspect: Each year, Saint-Valentin – rebranded in the 1980s as “The Village of Love” – has a three-day festival during which the town is bedecked in roses and couples tie paper promises to the Tree of Vows or plant a tree in the Garden of Love to eternalize their marriage.
St. Patrick’s Day: Savannah, Georgia
Each year on March 17, many of us are surprised to learn that everyone on earth is actually of Irish descent. Green-clad lunatics wander seemingly every street in every city everywhere, shouting incantations to the gods of beer and whisky. But while Sydney and Chicago deserve honourable mention for their acts of greenifying their Opera House and river, respectively, Savannah, Georgia should top the list of any destination drinking on St. Patrick’s Day. The city has been celebrating St. Paddy’s for nearly 200 years and now has the world’s second-largest celebration, drawing half a million people to its annual parade.
Easter: Antigua, Guatemala
Easter celebrations around the world vary both in terms of religiosity and glucose intake, from the entirely secular Norwegian hobby of reading and watching crime stories (really) or the creating and consumption of a 5,000-egg omelette in Haux, France, to retracing the path of Jesus’s crucifixion in Jerusalem. But the most colourful and possibly most beautiful Easter celebration (not to mention the world’s largest) is held in Antigua, Guatemala. The streets are painting in bright colours and men dressed in purple robes carry enormous floats through the ancient city. Events last for an entire week, starting on Palm Sunday.
Ramadan: Istanbul, Turkey
Ramadan starts April 23 next year, meaning fasting days are shorter and iftar – the fast-breaking meal after sunset call to prayers – begins around 8 p.m. in Istanbul. As a moderate city with a mixed population of practicing Muslims and secular Turks (plus a smattering of expats and tourists), Istanbul offers something for both the devout and the casual observer during Ramadan. In public squares outside of mosques, the municipalities erect iftar tents and communities break the fast together nightly. These festivities are open to non-Muslims as well, so sip Turkish tea and snack on dates with the locals and experience Turkey’s famous hospitality.
Canada Day: Seoul, South Korea
There are Canadians everywhere, but strong Canadian expat communities are hard to find. Not so in South Korea, where a degree in any subject from any Canadian university is sufficient to get a working visa as an English teacher. Dubious professional credentials aside, the ease by which Canadians can live and work in South Korea has created a vibrant Canadian community. In Seoul, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce puts on a massive barbecue event, but several “Canadian” bars, most notably Canucks Restaurant in foreigner-heavy Itaewon, are the best bet for a home-away-from-home vibe.
Rosh Hashanah: Los Angeles
For an alternative take on welcoming the Jewish New Year, head to the West Coast and soak up the sun in Venice Beach. The Open Temple, with its slogan of “re-enchanting Judaism,” offers Rosh Hashanah activities that focus on interfaith dialogue and work with homeless groups and the LADP to create a cross-community high holiday experience. A more solemn Rosh Hashanah temple service is available at the Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks, and there are scores of Jewish restaurants across the city – such as Greenblatt’s on the Sunset Strip – to celeb-spot while chowing down on a massive smoked meat sandwich.
Thanksgiving: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
There are Thanksgiving-like festivals in many countries, parties to mark the end of harvest season and to give thanks to the abundance of nature. Canada has one of the earliest, along with Germany, Austria, and Switzerland’s Erntedankfest and South Korea’s Chuseok (late September to early October), and the Americans and Brazilians are the latest. Brazil celebrates Dia de Acao de Gracas (day of giving thanks) on the same day as the Americans, a diplomatic hangover from Brazil’s first ambassador to the United States. The feasts are similar, but the weather in Rio at the end of November is substantially better than most places in North America.
Halloween: Transylvania, Romania
It is believed Halloween finds its origins in the Irish Celtic traditions of Samhain – which is why each October the city of Derry hosts a legendary frightful four-day celebration. But for a truly terrifying Halloween experience, head to the dark and foggy forests of Transylvania. The Medieval towns of Sibiu and Sighisoara are spooky year-round; an evening drive around the small towns in Transylvania will send shivers up your spine. Top off your adventure with the Halloween party at Bran Castle, home of the Dracula legend, either on Oct. 31 or Nov. 2 each year.
Hanukkah: Buenos Aires, Argentina
The two tallest menorahs in the world, as with so many of the world’s biggest and best, are both in New York, but for a more distinct – and considerably warmer – place to spend Hanukkah, head south. Buenos Aires is home to the largest Jewish community in South America (nearly 200,000 people). The menorah is lit in Plaza Republica Oriental del Uruguay in the Recoleta district, but Hanukkah festivities sprout up around the city. The areas of Abasto and Once have Jewish restaurants and shops and the Templo Libetdad is the city’s largest synagogue.
Christmas: Krakow, Poland
Most countries in Northern Europe embrace the Christmas spirit in ways that can only make Canadians blush. Christmas Markets take over town squares and the chilly days and (sometimes) snowy streets add that air of familiarity. It’s a perfect time to explore one of Europe’s most underrated cities: Krakow. It’s a small, mostly walkable city with a stunning old town, hip bars, and infinite perogies. Take in the Christmas Market on the main square of the old city, which is also dotted with nativity scenes for the city’s annual Nativity Crib Contest. The Chopin Music Hall has Christmas concerts including a glass of wine every night in December.
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