Gap Year

Best Holiday Celebrations to Experience Abroad

Everybody loves the holidays, right? But what exactly are, “the holidays”? While here in the States, we have our own specific ideas of what constitutes them – usually Christmas, Hannukkah, Kwanzaa, and maybe Thanksgiving if we’re getting impatient – the rest of the world has their own ideas. And you know what? Their ideas are awesome.

We’re going on holiday here at Go Overseas, and we’re taking you with us! Grab your noise makers, your costumes, and your favorite moon cakes (say what?), as we take a trip around the globe to find the Best Holiday Celebrations Around the World.

Diwali - India

Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, occurs in the middle of autumn during the darkest new moon of Kartik, the Hindu month. I like what Diwali is all about. It’s a festival celebrating the victory of good over evil, light over darkness, and hope over despair. And it uses light, family, food and fireworks to show that yeah, things are pretty darn good here on Earth, after all.

Diwali is nothing else, if not happy. It is one big casting-off of the chains and shackles that bind us to malaise and sadness, a slap across the face to humbuggery, and a collective scream that we as human beings flatly refuse to be defeated, unhappy, or unloved. Friends and relatives shower each other in gifts and tokens of love, strangers sing and dance and pray arm-in-arm, and brightly colored flowers and fireworks spice up the world like pixie dust.

While Diwali is celebrated by Hindus all over the world, India is really the place to experience this festival at its epicenter. Large cities like Mumbai are practically overrun and shutdown by the celebration, with most shops closed so owners can clean their homes and prepare. Large retail stores will be open leading up to the festival for shopping opportunities, but by nighttime expect business to be closed, the rivers lined with candles, and the city ablaze in the fervor of the human spirit exulting.

Why not volunteer in India next year?

Carnival - Brazil

There ain’t no party like a Carnival party cause a Carnival party don’t stop. Carnival, or the Catholic celebration that takes place the week before the start of the somber season of Lent, is the undisputed heavyweight champion of the Party World. Imagine Mardi Gras in New Orleans (the two actually celebrate the same occasion) on steroids, and stretched out for five days.

Carnival, like Diwali, is another celebration of the goodness of life and the passion of the human spirit. In anticipation of the forty days and forty nights of Lent, during which the faithful pray, somberly reflect, and usually sacrifice or abstain from partaking in certain beloved pleasures, those same worldly pleasures are given one last joyous hurrah!

Before such a period, the masses celebrate with a week of loud music, jubilant dancing, flamboyant costumes, and a celebration of the carnal delights – hence, Carnival.

Local Samba Schools – nearby rivals that construct elaborate floats and choreographed dances, parade through the streets as throngs of citizens line the route, singing, dancing, drinking, cheering, and generally having the time of their lives. I was in Rio de Janeiro during Carnival several years ago, and my friend and I joked that whenever we grew tired from doing something, they were sapping our strength to power Carnival. How else could such a party go on for so long?

Why not teach English in Brazil next year?

Christmas - Germany

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum, wie true sind deine Blätter! I mean, duh, right? Christmas is perhaps the most beloved of the Western holidays, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. And when you think of Israel and Three Kings from the Orient, what do you think of? Germany, of course!

Okay, maybe not. But many of the Christmas traditions we hold most dear, not the lore, come from Germany. The tannenbaum, for instance, is our modern Christmas tree. The tradition of chopping down a wild fir tree to drag inside, hang shiny things from and stand in your corner (sounds weird now, doesn’t it?) originated in Deutschland in the Middle Ages. Garland, candles, lights, wreaths, and door-to-door carolers? Also German traditions, all of them! I think that what appeals to us about the observation of the Christmas holiday is the nostalgia, and the harkening back to simpler, older, perhaps purer times, whether imagined or real. Celebrating Christmas in Germany is the pinnacle of this nostalgia, where bundled-up Europeans sip hot drinks, sing joyful songs in foreign tongues, and picturesque little cottages with twists of chimney smoke dot the square.

And speaking of that square, Germany is famous for its Christmas markets. These quaint, charming public markets pop up in German city squares leading up to Christmas. Local merchants sell homemade pastries and confections, hot ciders and brews, handmade original decorations and figurines, and yes – even gifts for the loved ones on your list. They are a perfect manifestation of the Christmas spirit, and if you want to soak it up, Germany is the place for you.

Why not do an internship in Germany next year?

Dia de los Muertos - Mexico

Everybody loves Halloween, right? The costumes, the light-hearted scares, the dead relatives… wait, the what? That’s right, the Mexican “Day of the Dead” that occurs annually on Halloween is not just about skeletons; it’s about your skeletons.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Everyone loves Halloween, but not everybody loves the murderous, vengeful, evil side of it. Diá de Muertos is a holiday for children and adults alike, for these skeletons are not meant to scare or frighten, but to remind living loved ones that their family has not left them; they are just simply dead.

There is a tenderness to the Diá that is touching. Families visit cemeteries and have picnics on the graves of dead friends and family, enjoying one more meal with their long-lost friend. Songs are sung and invitations are made – the living want their dead family to feel welcome and to visit them. After all, if blood is thicker than water, it’s sure as heck thicker than the dirt of a grave.

Talented writers and orators write short poems to their dead loved ones, usually funny stories or off-color anecdotes about them, usually designed to recount tales that made the departed loved on laugh. City squares are decorated in oddly-positive skulls and skeletons. Imagine Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, but real, Mexican, and filled with even more heart. That’s Diá de Muertos, and it’s a beautiful tradition.

Why not volunteer in Mexico next year?

Mid-Autumn Festival - China

Based off of the lunar calendar, the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated each year during the full moon that occurs closest to the autumnal equinox. The Festival originally celebrated the bounty of the annual harvest, but now it is a chance for friends and family to travel from near and far to be together. It’s also an excuse to eat moon cakes, make lanterns, and light firecrackers.

“Moon cakes?” you might ask, deservedly. Yes! Unlike those “magic” cakes that the scruffy hippie down the street tries to sell you, moon cakes are palm-sized little pastries filled with delicious centers, ranging from savory pork to the popular sweet lotus paste. Different bakeries stamp these cakes with their own crests or unique Chinese sayings or artwork, and department stores are filled with hundreds of different varieties weeks in advance. They are a fun, unique Chinese treat, and only come around once a year.

Chinese lanterns are well-known, and are my favorite part of the Mid-Autumn festival. Children and adults alike write their hopes and dreams for the coming year on the paper lanterns, light their wax wicks and the heat given off sends them into the sky. There is something profoundly moving about standing there on a cold autumn night and watching hundreds of beautiful, glowing lanterns rise into the sky, bearing the hopes and dreams of hundreds of souls along with them into the night.

Chinese firecrackers, on the other hand, are monsters. Remember your crazy old uncle who would scoff at your stand-bought fireworks, spit out his chewing tobacco and growl, “The good stuff comes from China”? Well, that uncle was right. Chinese firecrackers are loud as gunshots, come in easy-to-light strings of hundreds, and are ubiquitous around the holiday. My school in Guilin was rocked from dawn to dusk during the Festival with the concussive POWPOWPPOW…POW…POWPOWPOWPOWPOWPOW of the firecrackers set off the by local boys in the alley. When the eldest family member arrived, they were treated to the longest, most honorific firecracker string of the night, which lasted twenty minutes. My ears, however, rang for hours.

Why not study in China next year?

So there you go, fellow holiday-ers! From India to Brazil, from Germany to China, “the holidays” has a lot of different meaning all over the world. And just because the ones we have here in the States are great, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get out and go a-wassailing with the rest of the globe! Try to sync up your frequent flyer miles with your calendar for the best time possible, and remember – it’s not just where you go, but when! Happy Holidays!