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5 Must-See Holiday Traditions Around the World

12/4/17 by Matt Wastradowski

There’s something undeniably magical about the holiday season. Whether it’s the prospect of fresh snowfall, mesmerizing light displays, or cozying up by the fire, it’s hard not to get swept up in the magic of the season.

But if you’re feeling vaguely Grinch-like as the holidays approach, your heart will grow three sizes this season by taking in some of the world’s most famous celebrations. There’s the otherwise sleepy town in the Pacific Northwest that hosts the largest Bavarian celebration on this side of the ocean, while centuries-old markets throughout Germany sell souvenirs and holiday cheer in equal measure. And then there’s Santa’s actual hometown in Finland, where you can visit Kris Kringle all year long!

Wherever you go, we found five unforgettable holiday traditions and celebrations worth a visit.

1. Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival (Harbin, China)

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The tallest sculptures here reach upwards of 150 feet. Tracy Hunter

Opening on Christmas Eve and running through February, this festival is known worldwide for its snow and ice sculptures and dazzling winter displays.

Sun Island, one of the festival’s many attractions, hosts the world’s largest indoor ice and snow art museum each year, while Ice and Snow World features massive natural sculptures inspired by the Great Wall of China, Egyptian Pyramids, Chinese fairy tales, and other legendary works.

Zhaolin Park, meanwhile, showcases one of the world’s most riveting holiday sights: Thousands of candle-lit ice lanterns and replica buildings light up the night with Technicolor displays that resemble a holiday tale coming to life.

2. German Christmas Markets (Germany)

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There’s no better place to celebrate the holiday season than at a German Christmas market. Rene Schwietzke

Other cities and countries may lay claim to more modern, flashier holiday displays, but few can match the centuries-old history of Germany’s Christkindlmarkts and Weihnachtsmarkts—or, as they’re commonly known, Christmas markets.

Every holiday season, whole towns are taken over by the open-air artisan markets, some of which host hundreds of stalls selling arts, crafts, seasonal beverages, food, Glühwein (mulled wine), and other delicacies.

Dortmund and Cologne host some of Germany’s most popular markets, each attracting millions of visitors each season, but others reflect storied histories with every item sold and drink poured. The Christkindlesmarkt in Nuremberg traces its roots to 1628, while the Striezelmarkt in Dresden is said to be Germany’s oldest such market. Dresden’s market dates back to 1434 and is famous for its giant stollen, a holiday cake that weighs in at more than 6,500 pounds.

3. Christmas Lighting Festival (Leavenworth, Washington, USA)

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Leavenworth gets into the holiday spirit with an impressive light display. Jonathan James

You’d be forgiven for associating the Pacific Northwest with flannel and craft beer rather than lederhosen and overflowing steins. But every winter, the tiny Bavarian town of Leavenworth, Washington—roughly 120 miles east of Seattle in the Cascade Mountains—comes alive for a holiday celebration unlike anything else you’ll find in the United States.

Naturally, Leavenworth is among the region’s most popular Oktoberfest destinations every fall. But as the temperatures drop and the snow falls, the town of 2,000 puts up more than a half a million lights as part of its annual Christmas Lighting Festival.

Each weekend throughout the holiday season, the town stops to welcome Saint Nicholas, who arrives and tells stories to children in attendance. Santa Claus and other characters appear as well, and the rest of the festivities include handbell choirs, live music, carolers strolling around town, dogsled rides, alpine skiing and snowboarding, snowshoeing, sledding, and more.

4. Santa Claus Village (Rovaniemi, Finland)

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Cross the Arctic Circle underground at the Santa Claus Village. Timo Newton-Syms

Have you ever wanted to visit Santa Claus’ hometown? No, we’re not talking about the North Pole—the city of Rovaniemi, Finland calls itself the "Official Hometown of Santa Claus."

Situated in northern Finland, the city of 58,000 might be more accurately described as Santa’s "home away from home." As the city’s official websiteexplains it, Santa’s actual home lies in Finnish Lapland. But since the exact location is a closely-guarded secret, Santa has worked out of Rovaniemi since 1985.

Stroll through Santa Claus Village and you’ll see why Santa set up shop in Rovaniemi. The resort village hosts a variety of shops, restaurants, and attractions that include husky rides, reindeer farm tours, snowmobile rides, an igloo hotel, and more. And if you’d like to send a letter to Father Christmas himself, you can do so from the Santa Claus Main Post Office, which offers an Arctic Circle postmark unavailable anywhere else on Earth.

5. Melbourne Christmas Festival (Australia)

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In the Southern Hemisphere, the holidays aren’t all about the snow. Matt Davis

While those of us in the Northern Hemisphere are shivering through winter, thousands of Australians are shedding layers and heading to the beach for balmy winter vacations.

This holiday season, don’t seethe with jealousy: Join them at the world-famous Melbourne Christmas Festival.

Running from November 27 to December 25 each year, the festival’s main attraction is a series of colorful animations and images projected onto the Melbourne Town Hall building every evening. At times, the building may resemble a wrapped present, appear as if it’s decorated in thousands of strands of lights, or showcase other classic holiday scenes.

Meanwhile, Melbourne's City Square transforms into Christmas Square throughout the festival, featuring nutcracker soldiers, a giant Christmas tree, Santa's house, sound and light displays, and other dazzling family-friendly attractions.

For many of us, the holiday season is one of the happiest times of the year. Whether you decide to travel across the country to visit family or across the world to see something new, you’re sure to have a good time when you’re with loved ones.

Originally written by RootsRated for ExOfficio.