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Joy to the World - Christmas Around the Globe

The Christmas season is truly a world event. The spirit of peace and joy, glad tidings and gift giving, shine forth upon the earth in a myriad of ways, even in countries without a predominantly Christian population. In fact, many of the traditions we now lovingly associate with this special time of year came from centuries-old customs in distant lands.

MistletoeScandinavians – Goddess of Love, Frigga and Saint Nicholas
Scandinavians associated mistletoe with their goddess of love, Frigga, bringing about the favored tradition of kissing underneath the special plant. The Christmas tree, originating in Germany, is most commonly credited to the religious revolutionary Martin Luther, who, in 1530, was so moved by the sight of stars shining though the forest of firs near his home he cut a small one down and brought it indoors.

Saint Nicholas, the original Santa Claus, was born in the 4th century in Turkey, where he spawned a reputation for generosity and kindness so vast that it gave rise to legends throughout the world. Even the abbreviated form of the holiday—Xmas—originates from Xristos, the Greek word for Christ.

The Christmas season is widely celebrated throughout many countries, making these magical destinations even more special to travelers. That is why travel agents say now is a great time to give the entire family a gift they’ll never forget—a Christmas vacation to enjoy the festive holiday season in an exotic land.

To discover a foreign destination steeped with exciting and unusual Christmas traditions, check out these ideas compiled by the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA). Some of the most travel-wise people in the world, ASTA members know that sometimes you need a break from your living room to discover the true spirit of Christmas with your loved ones.

Christmas around the worldSpain – Bonfires, Roosters and Swinging
In Spain, the Christmas holiday season is full of the usual festivities, but there is one tradition truly unique called hogueras, or bonfires. During this ancient tradition that honors the winter solstice, lads and ladies a-leaping jump over bonfires to symbolically protect themselves against illness. This fire-jumping fiesta is most spectacular in the cities of Granada and Jaen.

Other Spanish traditions include extensive Christmas markets scattered among villages and cities, hawking piles of fruits, flowers, marzipan, candles and hand-made gifts. As the Christmas Eve stars appear in the sky, the crowds at these markets return home to prepare for the coming meal. Celebrations are later interrupted at midnight by the ringing of bells calling the families to La Misa Del Gallo, the Mass of the Rooster. The most spectacular of these candlelight services is held high in the mountains near Barcelona at the monastery of Montserrat.

Christmas Day is spent at church, at feasts and with a peculiar Spanish tradition called swinging." Young people use swings set up throughout courtyards as the crowd laughs and sings along. The Spanish Christmas extends for a few weeks after December 25, up until the Eve of Epiphany, January 5, when children place their shoes on the doorstep for the Three Wise Men to leave gifts inside as they pass secretly in the night. The next day, the Epiphany is heralded with parades in various cities where candy and cakes are thrown to throngs of gleeful children.

Switzerland – Tall Bishops, Sooty Rags and Bladder Men
Centuries of isolation endured by the Swiss during the winter months when heavy snowfalls eliminated travel between mountain valleys created a wide variety of customs in neighboring villages. Now this variety show of parades gives rise to celebration among all who witness, providing hours of entertainment for both connoisseurs of folklore and regular folks open to adventure.

On December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day, the tiny village of Kussnacht on the shores of Lake Lucerne glows with the light of nearly 200 enormous, transparent bishop’s miters worn by men parading through the streets. The headpieces, some reaching heights of six feet, are designed by local artists, cut out of cardboard and lit by a candle from within. Dressed in white robes, the muscular men wearing these elaborate miters accompany St. Nicholas on his way through the village, clanging heavy bells worn around their necks.

In the village of Ziefen, dozens of young bachelors walk along a traditional route through the streets every Christmas Eve. The tallest bachelor dons a white beard and leads the procession while carrying a sooty rag attached to the end of a long pole. Curiosity seekers leaning from their doorways and windows risk getting more than just an eyeful of the event, as quite a few end up scrubbing chimney soot from their faces.

An ancient tradition in the town of Laupen involves a rather unique level of revelry. Originally this particular ceremony took place on Christmas Eve, and for years the town officials tried unsuccessfully to have it outlawed. Eventually the town priest managed to have the date changed to New Year’s Eve, since it involved such an elevated state of noise and rowdiness.

After nightfall on December 31, three boisterous groups of schoolboys meet on the hill at the local castle and proceed down to the village. In the first group are the bell ringers," swinging large bells that can be heard for miles around. Next the broom men" carry long poles with bunches of juniper branches tied to the top. The third group, the bladder men," carry pig’s bladders filled with air, squeezing them to create a truly unique sound. The procession stops at various locations along the route as the leader recites a rhymed farewell to the old year and wishes the crowd a happy new one. At the end of journey, the broom men and the bladder men, all armed with inflated pig’s bladders, proceed to playfully beat" the onlookers, especially young ladies, until their weapons are in shreds.

Christmas around the worldEngland – Norwegian Wood and Well-Lit Shopping
Londoners love Christmas. The ancient streets come alive as thousands of shoppers and partygoers make their way past carol singers and chestnut vendors under a canopy of shimmering festive lights. The shops are overflowing with gifts, decorations and delicious food, and there are thousands of seasonal events from carol services to wild parties as the holiday spirit takes hold.

The festive season kicks off in earnest around November 20 as the colored lights are switched on in London’s famous shopping streets, and in December theatres throw their stage doors open to outrageous pantomimes and festive classics. The spiritual side of Christmas is celebrated in hundreds of churches and cathedrals throughout the city, and in the religious music heard everywhere from Albert Hall to street corners.

The Christmas tree is central to England’s holiday celebration, and one of the most popular can be seen in the heart of London, where a giant spruce is set up and decorated with great ceremony each year in Trafalgar Square. The tree is a gift from the people of Norway, for during the Second World War, King Haakon of Norway was forced into exile in England when the Germans occupied his nation. During his exile, Norwegian forces would risk their lives to smuggle a tree past the German coast patrols so their king could celebrate Christmas before a tree from his beloved homeland. Since the war, Norway continues to send a huge Norwegian spruce to be shared by all as thanks to the English people.

Christmas around the worldAustralia – Christmas On the Beach and Six White Boomers
When Australians see the red on Rudolph’s nose, they think its sunburn, for Christmas in Australia takes place in the heat of summer. In fact, Aussies often enjoy their midday Christmas dinner right on the beach. Bondi Beach, in Sydney’s Eastern suburbs, attracts thousands of people on December 25. If an Aussie family is home, swimming in the pool or playing cricket in the backyard highlights the day. Festivities are not complete until the Pavlova, a special Australian meringue confection, is served, topped with kiwi and passionfruit.

Carols by Candlelight is one tradition that is purely Australian. It began on Christmas Eve in Melbourne in 1937 and is now an annual event in the days leading up to Christmas in cities and towns all across the nation. Tens of thousands gather at Sydney’s Domain, singing traditional carols as well as some local ones like Six White Boomers" and Santa Never Made it into Darwin." For the final selection, everyone holds up their candles and joins hands to sing Let There Be Peace On Earth and Let It Begin With Me," stirring the hearts of all who witness.

Jamaica – Jingle Bells, Mon, and Sweet Drinks
If you like the idea of a beach but find Australia a bit too far away, hop over to Jamaica for a Christmas with a distinctly tropical flavor. Christmas carols in Jamaica are the same ones you know and love, but here they’re given a wonderful reggae twist, adding an infectious beat to the dusty classics.

In a tasty departure from North American beverages, the drink of choice for Jamaicans during the Christmas season is sorrel, which is all the rage from early December until mid-January. Made from dried sorrel sepals, cinnamon, cloves, sugar, orange peel and rum, and usually served over ice, it is a drink worth traveling miles to get and can be found in just about every single home during the Christmas season.

Unwrap the Greatest Gift of All
Break away from your traditional Christmas and experience another country’s traditional Christmas with your family. Forget about trying to buy the latest CD for your daughter or the newest gadget for your husband. Surprise them with the gift of travel, the present of another culture and the wonderful opportunity to spend valuable family time together in a remote, fun and festive holiday atmosphere.

Visit your local travel agent’s office and start dreaming of a white Christmas in Switzerland or a sandy Christmas in Australia. Have your travel agent plan a ski package, a joyful cruise or an exclusive tour to highlight your journey. The possibilities are endless with an experienced travel professional filling your stockings with precious ideas.

Contact a trusted travel agent today and you too can sing, Joy to the World!"

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