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Mele Kalikimaka! 8 Tropical Christmas-Time Traditions

♫ Oh, banyan tree, oh banyan tree, how lovely are thy branches ♫

Snowy landscapes may have cornered the market when it comes to dominating cards, decor, and even the songs that make up the fabric of the Christmas season. But there are plenty of places where Christmas has less to do with Jack Frost nipping at your nose and more to do with seafaring parades and ambulatory parties. Discover some of the ways Christmas is celebrated in these tropical places.

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WHERE: Anglophone Caribbean

This extravagant street parade is held the day after Christmas and New Year’s Day. Though Junkanoo is a staple throughout the English-speaking Caribbean, it’s especially beloved in the Bahamas. And the capital city of Nassau is the home to the largest Junkanoo celebration in the Bahamas, where the most dedicated revelers will spend months creating their costumes and dance routines.

There are several theories about how the festival got its name. One is that it was named in honor of John Canoe, a legendary African hero. Another possible origin is that the festival’s name comes from the French phrase gens inconnus–or “unknown people” because of the masks that are worn. But the festival itself likely grew out of a tradition that started with enslaved people who would recreate the celebrations of their homelands during the three days off a year they would get during the Christmas season.

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Grand Market

WHERE: Jamaica

On Christmas Eve, major towns and cities in Jamaica play host to a Grand Market. Shoppers looking for everything from last-minute gifts and decorations to a bite to eat or a festive treat are sure to find what they’re looking for from the wide array of vendors selling food, gifts, and other items that set up shop. But perhaps the true draw of these markets is the chance for members of the community to socialize and celebrate together. Often time streets will be cordoned off in order to accommodate the musicians and even dancing that usually extends late into the night.

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WHERE: Puerto Rico

On paper, parrandas have a similar premise to caroling. Both involve a group of friends showing up at another friend’s house and serenading their unsuspecting audience that may reward the spontaneous singers with food or gifts. The surprise element of the parranda even has its own, more specific term. If your audience is woken up after going to bed for the night by you and your fellow musical merrymakers, that is called an “asalto navideño” (a “Christmas assault”). But instead of singing one or two songs before moving on, Christmas-time parrandas in Puerto Rico usually involve doing some partying before moving onto the next venue.

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Ligligan Parul

WHERE: The Philippines

A popular Christmas decoration in the Philippines are parols—paper and bamboo stick lanterns made in the shape of stars in order to evoke the image of the Star of Bethlehem. Parols are so quintessential in the Philippines that there’s even a festival dedicated to them. Ligligan Parul (Giant Lantern Festival) is held every year during the holiday season in the city of San Fernando. During the festival, teams of designers compete to create the lantern that will be crowned the best of that year.






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Festival of Light

WHERE: St. Lucia

This feast day (which falls during the Advent season, during which Christians prepare spiritually for the arrival of Christ) honors St. Lucia (also called St. Lucy), a martyr who is said to have brought food to the poor and Christians hiding in the Roman catacombs. In order to carry more food and light her way, she is said to have worn a wreath of candles on her head. Consequentially, candles and lights frequently play a part during the feast day celebrations–which are held on December 13, the shortest day of the year in the Julian calendar, and a day when you can use a little more illumination.

The Caribbean island that was given the saint’s name by European colonizers, has made the Feast of St. Lucia its National Day. But it’s the night before that’s particularly festive. On December 12, a celebration is held wherein lights are lit throughout the capital of Castries. There are lantern-making competitions and a Parade of Lanterns all of which help light the way in a dark season. The celebration reaches its zenith with a fireworks display.

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Lighted Boat Parade

WHERE: Key West, Florida

Christmas parades are fairly common fixtures of the holiday season. But if you’re looking for a nautical spin on this tradition, look no further than the lighted boat parade! While a few waterfront destinations have their own floating floats, this quirky tradition is simply made to be experienced in Key West. Schooner Wharf Bar has hosted its Lighted Boat Parade for 29 years. (Note: This year’s parade was canceled due to COVID-19). Over the years, the vessels have ranged in sizes (from kayaks to literal schooners) and are decked out in lights. After which they sail the waters spreading illuminated holiday cheer (as well as compete for bragging rights and cash prizes).

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El Tope

WHERE: San Juan, Costa Rica

Costa Rica is also home to a parade centered around one particular mode of transportation. Equestrians from all over Costa Rica travel to San Juan for the December 26 Tope Nacional. It’s the largest parade of its kind in Costa Rica. Though the general tradition of holding horse parades goes back to Spanish colonizers holding races, the first official event that would become El Tope Nacional was held in 1958 and goes back to riders on horseback herding imported livestock to the banana plantations. In addition to being a showcase for the impressive steeds, El Tope is also an opportunity for celebrating and partying.

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Lighting of the Banyan Tree

WHERE: Maui, Hawaii

While Honolulu does host its own tree-lighting ceremony at Honolulu Hale that’s reminiscent of Rockefeller Plaza with its impressively large evergreen, it’s also home to a unique arboreal tradition. In Lahaina, on the island of Maui, it’s become a tradition to light a large banyan tree and its prop roots with thousands of twinkling lights, making for a yuletide sight you can only find in Hawaii.