7 Great Places to Celebrate Christmas Overseas

An expatriate’s Christmas often differs considerably from U.S. celebrations.

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Each country has its own unique holiday traditions. Christmas celebrations overseas are often very different from the experience in the U.S. Here are seven exciting places to celebrate Christmas abroad:

Ireland. During our seven Christmases in Ireland, we could never bring ourselves to participate in one of Ireland's quirkiest seasonal traditions: the Christmas Day swim.

On Christmas morning, from beaches, piers, and coves around the country, people of all ages gather to immerse themselves in 50-degree waters. "Swim” is a bit of a misnomer. There is no particular distance that you need to cover, nor any agreed-upon duration you must stay in the water. You simply join the crowd of people running toward and then into the water, cheered on by well wrapped-up spectators, screaming as their bodies hit the ice-cold sea. A quick splash of the arms and legs, then back in to shore to dry off, wrap up, and enjoy a hot drink or a shot of whiskey.

France. Our four Christmases in Paris were all about the lights. Each year, starting in November, Boulevard St. Germain, just a few blocks from our apartment, is strung with tiny white lights. Each morning and again each evening as I’d walk Jackson, aged 4 through 8 at the time, to and from school, we’d linger at the intersection of rue du Bac and Boulevard St. Germain as long as possible, looking up and down, and working to fix that magical view in our memories. “It’s a fairy land,” 4-year-old Jack declared it one morning. I see it still.

Panama. Our first Christmas in Panama City, we bought our tree from the Super 99 grocery store near our apartment. We chose it from among the 4- and 5-foot trees leaning against the front of the store, baking day after day in the hot sun. We then took it home, and watched as our little tree lost nearly all its needles well before the 25th rolled around.

Our second Christmas in Panama City, we asked for help. We wanted a big fresh tree and were directed to a shop called Tzanetatos, on Via Brazil. It’s a warehouse with pallets of hams, wine, olives, and other holiday fixings, and, in a giant refrigerated area, fresh Christmas trees, delivered directly from Canada. This is more like it, we thought as we stood in the refrigerated unit in our short sleeves and sandals, shivering and rubbing our hands together for warmth. In early December, we stopped by to see if the place had received its annual tree delivery yet. We learned that they receive one shipment each year. When those trees are gone, that's it.  "Come back Monday," the shop advised us.

We've been living in Panama long enough to know to confirm these kinds of things, so, on Monday, we called the shop. "Yes, the trees are here," the lady on the phone told us. "They've arrived today." Great. We drove straight over. "Where are the Christmas trees?" we asked when we walked in. "Oh, they're not here yet," the woman said. "But we called. We confirmed. The lady on the phone said the trees arrived today." It turned out they had arrived in the country that day, but were still on the dock. Customs hadn't released them. The next day, we called again. "Yes, the trees are here," the lady on the phone told us. "The trees are there in the store?" we asked. Fool us once but not twice, we thought to ourselves. "Yes, they're here. They're in the store." We drove over. No trees in sight. "Where are the Christmas trees?" we asked again, dejectedly. "They're on the loading dock out back. Not inside yet. You should come back tomorrow." The next morning, my husband Lief drove back over. "I knew right away this time that the trees were finally, fully in residence," Lief reported. "The place smelled like a pine forest."

Thailand. Expat friends Vicki and Paul Terhorst are spending Christmas this year in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, near where Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand form the so-called Golden Triangle. Small numbers of Christians and Moslems live in the area, but most local Thais are Buddhists.

“Thai Buddhists seem to love to celebrate Christmas. I doubt they understand much about the holiday, but what they lack in knowledge they make up in enthusiasm. Some shops, restaurants, and guest houses leave up their ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘Happy New Year’ signs all year long,” says Terhorst. “This is peak season in this part of the world with snowbirds from northern Europe filling the guest houses. The hospitable Thais probably celebrate Christmas partly to make all their foreign visitors feel at home.”

A Thai friend, Billy, owns an Italian restaurant here and has been advertising his ‘Christmas dinner menu.’ He plans to offer this menu on both Dec. 24 and 25: a glass of sparkling wine, Parma ham and melon, prawns in champagne sauce, roasted Butterball turkey with gravy, mushrooms in cream sauce, and cranberry sauce. For dessert there's panettone with amaretto vanilla sauce, all for 650 baht, or just over $20. This Christmas option is a turkey dinner in an Italian restaurant cooked by a Thai chef.

Ecuador. The highlight of the season in Cuenca, Ecuador, is the Christmas Eve Pase del Niño parade, or Passing of the Child. It’s a colorful, often bizarre mixture of the sacred and the profane. The eight-hour-plus procession features floats and decorated cars, many festooned with flowers, fruits and vegetables, empty beer cans and liquor bottles, and roasted pigs and chickens. There are also bands, dancers, street performers, stilt-walkers, and various Biblical characters. In recent years, the Three Wise Men have made an appearance on Harley Davidsons and Mary and Joseph have cart-wheeled the length of Calle Simon Bolivar. Everywhere there are children dressed in colorful homemade costumes.

Introduced to Latin America by the Spanish almost 500 years ago, the Pase del Niño is a Christmas celebration in which likenesses of the infant Jesus are carried through towns and villages. In Ecuador, the tradition remains strongest in the Andean region. Organizers of the Cuenca parade claim that theirs is the largest Pase del Niño in all of Latin America. As many as 50,000 people participate in the procession, with about 200,000 more watching from sidewalks, balconies, and rooftops.

Malaysia. Christmas in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia is kicked off by big Christmas Eve buffets offered at hotels around the city. These elaborate feasts often include turkey, roast beef, and all the trimmings, plus local specialties, and a fantastic selection of desserts. "What is unexpected are the party favors and the New Year's Eve-style countdown to midnight and the official start of Christmas Day. There are dances, visits by Santa, and Christmas skits,” writes Wendy Justice, a longtime expat in this part of the world. “At midnight, fireworks erupt. Malaysians love their fireworks, and almost every holiday is celebrated by a display of them, but we had never before considered Christmas a fireworks kind of day."

Belize. Belize offers a unique collection of blended Christmas traditions. More than 70 percent of Belizeans are Christian, so the majority of residents celebrate the birth of Christ. However, the country is also home to more than ten different ethnic groups, resulting in many multicultural holiday celebrations. Government offices, banks, and most non-tourism-oriented businesses shut down for the week surrounding Christmas Day.

“One important Christmas tradition, remembered throughout Belize, is to spiff up the interior of your home. This is a Belizean's way of inviting the Christmas spirit,” writes expat Ann Kuffner. “And, in preparation for all the holiday visiting, Belizeans don't just decorate the insides of their homes this time of year; they give them a facelift, too. They repaint the walls, hang new drapes, even replace the linoleum. This is the Belizean version of spring cleaning, and the entire family pitches in.”

In San Pedro Town, on Ambergris Caye, the Christmas season kicks off with the San Pedro Christmas Boat Parade. Each team decks out its boat with twinkling Christmas creations. Some are fun Caribbean take-offs on traditional Christmas themes. “For those of us who grew up in snow country, it seems odd to be walking around in T-shirts and flip flops on Christmas Day,” says Kuffner.

Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter. Her book, How To Retire Overseas—Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.