If you dream of spending your winter holiday languishing on a gorgeous beach sipping a fresh coconut rather than cozying up by the fire with a cup of hot cocoa, then Christmas in Rio is for you!

Granted, due to the exotic tropical atmosphere and the scantily dressed locals, it may not look like ‘tis the season. You won’t see real snow or woolen-clad Christmas carolers, but don’t be surprised if you spot a jolly round-bellied Santa on the beach, his long white beard blowing in the breeze, wearing nothing more than his traditional red felt cap trimmed in fur, a teeny red sunga (Brazil’s answer to a Speedo), sunglasses and Havaianas.

Being the fun-loving, friendly, and gracious people that they are, cariocas love to throw a party, and Christmas is no exception. (It helps that Christmas and New Year’s usher in the Brazilian summer and Carnaval.) Indeed, regardless of the summer heat, Christmas in Rio is very much like those celebrated in the northern hemisphere (but, as mentioned, with palm trees and no snow).

Cariocas adore Christmas decorations, so you will find plenty of yuletide spirit to keep the nostalgia of “snow falling gently outside your window” at bay. Enormous fake Christmas trees of electric lights can be seen against the night skies, nativity scenes shine in town plazas, avenues along the beaches are lined with luminous reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh, and traditional Christmas carols, often improvised to the beat of the samba or the Bossa Nova, can be heard blaring in the markets.

The holidays also give the locals another excuse to do what they love most: eat, drink, shop, and socialize! Festivities begin on Christmas Eve when family and friends come together for the Ceia de Natal (Christmas Dinner). Following Brazil’s Iberian heritage, the Ceia de Natal is the focal point of festivities and is traditionally eaten around midnight either before or after the Missa do Galo (Mass of the Rooster), named after the rooster that announces the coming of Christmas day.

Bobó de Camarão

Literally a feast, the Ceia is not complete without a Chester (a super bird hybrid, smaller than a turkey but larger than a chicken), Bobó de Camarão (a Bahiana shrimp and seafood stew), Bolinhos de Bacalhau (codfish salted and rolled into balls) and Rabanada (bread soaked in milk, fried and dusted with cinnamon sugar akin to French toast). Rather than eggnog or hot mulled cider, nothing better than a cool typically-Brazilian caipirinha to enhance the Christmas cheer.

And what would Christmas be without the presents! Depending on the ages of the children and how pious the family and friends may be, gifts are exchanged around midnight either before or after the Missa do Galo.

For the most part, carioca children don’t expect to be showered with gifts, and they may get one or two that Papai Noel (Brazil’s version of Santa Claus) will leave under the tree or hidden in their homes. As for the adults, cariocas often adhere to a common tradition among friends and family called amigo oculto (secret Santa) where each person is randomly assigned another person to whom they anonymously give a gift. Maneiro…

Ready to break away to warmer climes? A Christmas in Rio will reward you with an exotic winter holiday you’ll never forget, plus a great tan that will be the envy of your buddies when you get back home. Feliz Natal e um Próspero Ano Novo!