Celebrate the season without Jesus as the reason.
In many countries, the Christmas holiday dominates the month of December and can elicit a wide range of emotions, from absolute joyous excitement to downright disillusionment and everything in between.
It is no easy task to escape Christmas entirely. Many places in the world celebrate Christmas in some fashion as the holiday has now become commercialized for widespread consumption and is no longer observed by Christians only. The good news is that there are places where it is possible to participate in celebrations that do not require the consumption of ham or the need to buy a gift for an adult man.
The festivals vary in size and intent—some are geared toward attracting tourists to a particular town or region, some are elaborate extravaganzas that bring in thousands of people from all over the world, and others serve a cultural function for the local community.
For those who are not keen to celebrate Christmas for whatever reason, here is a list of Santa-free festivals that take place on or very close to December 25th.
Phitsanulok Food Festival
WHERE: Phitsanulok, Thailand
Sample scrumptious regional street food at the annual Phitsanulok Food Festival in one of Thailand’s oldest cities. A small yet pleasant town that is often overlooked by tourists, Phitsanulok boasts a reputation as an exceptional destination for food and is populated with an inordinately high number of eateries.
The festival is a prime opportunity to sample northern Thailand’s finest local and regional cuisine in addition to some unique dishes that are hard to find anywhere else. A tasty, flying vegetable dish that is specific to Phitsanulok is phak bung loy fah—tangy green morning glory vines cooked in a wok with garlic and soy sauce and then thrown through the air to a nearby cook who catches it in another skillet before serving.
In addition to the food festival, there are other attractions worth a visit such as the Phitsanulok Night Bazaar, the Thai Bird Garden, and Wat Yai, a temple that houses what is considered to be one of Thailand’s most aesthetically pleasing buddhas.
The Phitsanulok Food Festival will take place from December 25, 2019, to January 1, 2020
WHERE: Gujarat, India
Spread across miles of desert in Gujarat, the westernmost state in India, Rann Utsav is a celebration of art, music, history, and culture that attracts 500,000 people from all over the world during its nearly four-month run. The festival takes place in the Kutch, a salt marsh that turns into a vast, crystallized desert during the dry season when 400 tents pop up to create a small temporary city in the middle of nowhere.
During the festival, visitors can enjoy regional folk music, dance performances, camel cart excursions, meditation, yoga, artisan markets, cultural events, paramotoring, and roaming the desert on ATVs.
The state of Gujarat offers plenty of attractions beyond the festival. Visitors can explore the nearby villages and hill towns, spend a day at any of the beaches along the 1,600 kilometers of coastline, or learn about the region through various archeological attractions, religious sites, and a wildlife sanctuary. The location is ideal for stargazing or full moon views over the endless expanse of the desert.
Rann Utsav will take place from October 28, 2019, to February 23, 2020.
INSIDER TIPIt is not easy to attend this far-off festival—the journey to get there can prove to be lengthy and logistically challenging.
Hmong New Year
At the completion of the rice harvest in Laos, Hmong New Year begins, and for the Hmong people, it is a time to honor the abundance of the season and pay tribute to dearly departed ancestors in the hopes that they will bestow blessings on their families in the new year.
The Hmong people are an ethnic group that spreads across many countries in Southeast Asia. In Laos, the Hmong reside primarily in the north of the country, and many of the celebrations take place in Luang Prabang and northern villages.
Modern influences and economic opportunities can greatly impact long-standing cultural traditions, and in Laos, the New Year celebration is a time for the Hmong to practice and preserve their heritage. Hmong people who have moved to larger cities or other countries return home during this time to reunite with their families. The new year is also time for matchmaking, and eligible young people come together to play a game called pov pob, where a cotton ball is tossed back and forth for the purpose of meeting new potential partners and socializing with them in a communal setting. A bounty of food is prepared, with ten different dishes served every day of the festival. Elaborate and beautiful clothing designed in the Hmong tradition is worn, and each individual does their best to show off their skill and creativity through clothing, jewelry, and headwear.
These celebrations are not done for the sake of attracting tourists, however, the Hmong are friendly and welcoming to outsiders who are interested in celebrating their traditions along with them.
Hmong New Year will take place from December 15-22, 2019.
Whirling Dervishes Festival
WHERE: Konya, Turkey
Whirling dervishes, also known as Mevlevis, are known for their distinctive appearance and practice of whirling, a centuries-old style of dance that is performed in the Sufi tradition and most prominently observed in modern-day Turkey.
The Mevlevi Order is based on the teachings of Rumi, the 13th-century Islamic scholar, philosopher, and Sufi mystic. Rumi’s influence continues today, as his legacy and spiritual teachings are revered by Muslims across borders and cultures, from Turkey to Central Asia. Rumi’s poetry is known and appreciated worldwide by people of all backgrounds.
Rumi’s emphasis on music and dance as the means to achieve higher consciousness led to the creation of the whirling dervish tradition. The costumes, music, and dance all have a specific meaning. The movements act as an instrument of worship and a connection between the physical and spiritual worlds. Wearing conical hats and white robes, the dervishes whirl counterclockwise in a controlled yet fast spin that is mesmerizing to the viewer.
Rumi died on December 17, 1273, in his adopted hometown of Konya, Turkey, and the anniversary is marked by the festival. Today, Konya is located within a conservative region of the country, therefore the religious and spiritual implications of the festival are taken very seriously, and visitors, no matter their beliefs, should observe the norms of modest dress and behavior. Taking photos or videos is usually forbidden, as the performances are meant to be a spiritual experience, not entertainment.
The Whirling Dervishes Festival was held from December 10-17, 2019.
Celebrating Hanukkah in Israel is a prime opportunity to experience why the holiday is also referred to as the Festival of Lights. Menorahs light up the windows of most shops, homes, hotels, and restaurants, creating a beautiful and magical scene that is easily enjoyed by strolling around town.
Lights aren’t confined to the windows. In Tel Aviv, there are many public candle-lighting ceremonies to observe, and in Jerusalem, crowds line the street to watch a torch passed down from the hills through the city to the Western Wall, where a rabbi lights the first candle in a large menorah commemorating the first day of the holiday.
Another favorite Hanukkah tradition is to eat fried foods, most notably Sufganiyot, which are sweet and fluffy filled donuts. During Hanukkah, 24 million of these donuts are consumed in Israel, and Tel Aviv especially makes some of the best. Hanukkah is also the time of year when potato latkes abound, and pockets are lined with chocolate coins won in a game of dreidel.
When the entire country is taking off of school or work and eating copious amounts of sugary treats, they need a way to expend their energy. Throughout Hanukkah, there are numerous concerts, dance productions, comedy shows, and public celebrations for both adults and children to attend.
Hanukkah will take place from December 22-30, 2019.
WHERE: Kampot, Cambodia
Held in a different seaside province every year, the Sea Festival in Cambodia is a celebration of the culture and cuisine of the country’s tiny coastal region. The festival exhibits a carnival-like atmosphere, keeping the energy high with games, concerts, dance performances, martial arts displays, parades, and fireworks. Cambodia’s limited coastal access doesn’t dampen their enthusiasm for the water, and they hold motorboat races, swimming competitions, and beach volleyball games to take full advantage of their precious waterfront.
Cambodia’s first dedicated “food street” will be constructed for this year’s festival in an effort to attract visitors with local cuisine that is focused on high-quality.
This year, the Sea Festival will be held in Kampot, a small, relaxed coastal town that is by no means a hot spot but should appeal to those who are interested in veering off the tourist trail. The coastal region is one of the least developed parts of the country, and the Sea Festival began eight years ago as a way to attract tourism and improve the economic opportunities for local businesses. To this end, the Cambodian government opens its border with Thailand during the festival, making it easy for people to attend the festivities. The government is also improving and expanding the roadways throughout the region to increase accessibility and commerce.
The Sea Festival will take place from December 20-22, 2019.
Dubai Shopping Festival
WHERE: Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Sales and shenanigans are front and center at the Dubai Shopping Festival, where concerts, fashion shows, fireworks and so much more bring a festive atmosphere to rock bottom deals on some of Dubai’s most luxurious goods.
Whether it’s gold and gadgets or bags and jackets, almost everything under the sun is eligible for some red hot discounts. The low prices aren’t limited to brand-new luxury goods, even the local sellers and flea markets are slinging savings on goods like spices and dried fruits.
Within Dubai’s many gigantic shopping malls, live entertainment is everywhere, and art installations, concerts by popular musical acts, raffles, and competitions to win cars create the ultimate consumer paradise.
Christmas is not totally overlooked in the city, and Dubai becomes a veritable lit show of illuminated installations that dazzle within the city’s already impressive skyline.
The Dubai Shopping Festival is held from December 26, 2019, to January 26, 2020.
Dalat Flower Festival
WHERE: Dalat, Vietnam
Known as The Kingdom of Flowers, the city of Dalat in Central Vietnam hosts a biennial flower festival to show off their cultivation skills and make the most of their perpetual spring climate.
Elaborate designs and intricate displays of flowers created by both professional and amateur local artists cover the city in fragrant, colorful blooms. Miniature landscapes, ornamental plants, and flower baskets are placed throughout the city, delighting visitors as they seek out these floral works of art.
Along with the flower displays, the festival also hosts events that celebrate Vietnamese culture or are just for fun, such as the costumes of Central Highland indigenous peoples, dance parties, laser light performances, sporting matches, fireworks, and a flower car march.
The Dalat Flower Festival will take place from December 20-24, 2019.
International Sahara Festival
WHERE: Douz, Tunisia
The International Sahara Festival in Douz, Tunisia is an annual celebration of Bedouin and Arab culture in the middle of the desert. It began centuries ago as a Bedouin bridal fair where families would meet to arrange matches for their sons and daughters and trade their goods. Later, the festival evolved into a cultural display that aimed to educate European colonists in the ways of the culture they had imposed themselves within. Today, the festival is an opportunity to practice and preserve the ways of Bedouin culture that have been influenced and diminished by modernization, as well as bringing tourism to a region of the world that is often overlooked.
The festival is four days of cultural traditions, cuisine, art, and sporting events set across the stunning landscape of the Sahara. Visitors can observe a traditional marriage ceremony, daring young men racing on horses, wrestling matches, simulated rabbit hunts, belly dancers, purebred Arabian horses, a camel marathon, parades, an evening bazaar, poetry readings, local folklore, smoking tents, traditional food, hot air balloon rides, and reenactments of traditional desert life.
The city of Douz is an oasis in the south of Tunisia, perched at the edge of the desert, where the palm trees outnumber the residents. The festival attracts 50,000 people from all over the world. From Douz, it is possible to arrange tours and other excursions to experience desert life first hand.
The International Sahara Festival will take place from December 19-22, 2019.
Harbin Ice Festival
WHERE: Harbin, China
Calling the an extravaganza is a gross understatement. It is difficult to fathom the scale of this festival, now in its 36th year, as the gargantuan size of the festival grounds and the towering sculptures are significantly larger in size and scope than most temporary seasonal celebrations. More than 100 landmarks are recreated with snow and ice, resulting in a full-size town filled with the most recognizable structures from all over the world, made of three-feet-thick blocks of ice and illuminated with bright, colorful lights.
The festival is the largest ice festival in the world, and it is a sensory overload in the best, most mind-blowing kind of way. Although the larger sculptures are mostly constructed using machinery, there are many hand-sculpted pieces and installations that will leave the viewer stunned by the talent and hard work that went into creating such a place.
In addition to the sculptures, the festival hosts over 100 different events in the worlds of sports, fashion, music, art, and performance —ice sculpting competitions, fireworks, an over-the-top opening ceremony, photography contest, painting exhibition, curling, badminton, winter swimming and so much more.
The Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival will take place from December 25, 2019, through February 25, 2020.
INSIDER TIPHarbin is desperately cold at this time of year, the average temperature is -18℃ with potential to go below -30℃ at night.