Like Christians all over the world, Caribbean residents regard Christmas as a joyful time of faith and put their own unique spin on the celebration of Christ's birth in December. Given that there are more than 7,000 islands across the Caribbean Sea and a variety of destinations, you can spend the holiday anywhere from an elegant popular resort to an off the beaten path locale. And every island has its own way of celebrating Christmas through traditions, music, and special foods. For a memorable holiday, swap your mittens and snow shovels for suntan lotion and palm trees and head to the islands this Christmas.
Book your trip to the Caribbean for the holidays way in advance as airfare and hotel rates tend to be expensive (or sold out, if you wait too long).
During the annual Crucian Christmas Festival on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the festival parades must be held on the first Friday and Saturday of the New Year, but in late December the Festival Village Opening Night and Fireworks take place. Like traditional Caribbean carnivals, this event on the Atlantic features J'ouvert (daybreak) parties, the crowning of a Queen and King, and calypso contests, among other fun activities. In early to mid-December, folks gather along the Christiansted boardwalk to enjoy the annual St. Croix Christmas Boat Parade, an evening procession of watercraft of all shapes and sizes ablaze with lights and accompanied by music and fireworks.
Catch Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Piet in the Dutch Caribbean
The Netherlands Antilles, part of the chain of Lesser Antilles islands, have a unique Christmas celebration that comes straight from Holland, with visits from Sinterklaas and his mysterious minions, the Zwarte Piet (Black Petes). In Aruba, Curaçao, Bonaire, St. Maarten, St. Eustatius, and Saba, children receive their holiday gifts not only on Christmas morning but also on December 6, the birthday of St. Nicholas. In Curaçao, for example, Sinterklass, the taller and thinner equivalent of Santa Claus, arrives by boat in the capital Willemstad in mid-November to give candy to children. Island children welcome Sinterklaas with carrots for his white horse and shoes in which to place gifts.
If you are in the British island territory of Bermuda for the holidays, joy reigns as The Bermuda Christmas Boat Parade cruises through Hamilton Harbour each year in early December. Boats adorned with Christmas lights and depicting various holiday characters float by. The event ends with a bang—spectacular fireworks display to kick off the Christmas season in Bermuda. Some favorite places from which to watch the parade are along Hamilton's Front Street, Paget Parish's harbor road, and Pitts Bay Road, but smart travelers will book a table at a harbor-front restaurant or resorts like the Hamilton Princess & Beach Club.
On Christmas Day, Elbow Beach in Paget's Parish is a popular spot for locals and tourists to see the sunrise from a pink sand beach and swim in the warm north part of the Atlantic.
If you dream of a Caribbean holiday getaway but pine for a "White Christmas," head for the Cayman Islands in the western Caribbean—Grand Cayman, Little Cayman, and Cayman Brac—where tradition calls for "backing sand" from local beaches on moonlit nights and spreading it around yards and homes to stand in for a snowy welcome for Santa. Many old Caymanian houses in the British Overseas Territory are ringed with white sand yards for the holidays starting on Christmas Eve, and "first tracks" are forbidden until Christmas Day. As with holiday lights and decorations up north, Cayman residents compete to have the whitest and most beautiful sand yard on Christmas morning. The Christmas Bus Tour of Lights given by the National Trust for the Cayman Islands also stops by the most decorated homes.
St. Kitts, the "Island of Smiles," is known for its warm people in the Eastern Caribbean and is a fun option for Carnival celebrations, most of which focus on Easter. But the St. Kitts National Carnival kicks off the day after Christmas—known as Boxing Day in many parts of the world—with a traditional J'ouvert party. The event runs through New Year's Day. The Kittsian carnival celebrates local folklore and traditions through song, dance, drama, and poetry, and like other Caribbean carnivals, there are street parties, performances, and musical competitions.
Trinidad & Tobago, a nation of dual-islands between the Caribbean and the Atlantic, is one of the Caribbean's most diverse areas—and one of the few places in the region, for example, that has a sizable Muslim population. Still, Christianity is the dominant faith, and the annual Parang Festival celebrates the holiday season through song. At Christmas concerts and parties, especially in the eastern Trinidad towns of Paramin and Arima, costumed bands perform traditional folk songs in Spanish Creole, accompanied by instruments such as mandolin, cuatro, and box bass.
Montserrat in the Lesser Antilles has a culture that's a unique mix of Irish and African traditions, and the latter take precedence during the annual celebration known as Festival, which runs from mid-December to early January. Highlights of the Caribbean’s Emerald Isle's annual carnival celebration include a Soca Monarch music competition, the "Night of Pan" party, the crowning of a pageant queen, calypso contest, and a street party and parade on January 1, New Year's Day.
You might be jumping in the ocean to cool off in December, but it's still the holiday season in Barbados, so you might hear festive Christmas songs when you are out exploring. And the eastern Caribbean's Barbados is decorated in a gorgeous way in honor of Christmas, including shops, homes, and hotels; Father Christmas makes appearances at several hotels. You'll also find craft fairs, festivals, and huge feasts typically serving baked hams and Black Cake (also known as Great Cake), consisting of dried fruits, spices, and some rum and red wine.
For Christmas, the unincorporated U.S. territory of Puerto Rico is full of life and celebrated beyond the month of December: Traditions start in November and can continue into the middle of January. Every day at dawn from December 15 to 24, churches hold masses featuring aguinaldos, a folk genre of Christmas music sung in several Latin American countries, including Puerto Rico. Go to San Juan, the capital, to see some salsa dancing or catch beautiful colonial buildings and holiday trees decorated in sparkling lights. Or check out Parranda (carolers) traveling around neighborhoods singing Afro-Indigenous Christmas aguinaldos. A Nochebuena typical dinner is served on Christmas eve—more significant to most locals than Christmas Day—consisting of lechón (roast pork), pasteles (patties), and arroz con gandules (rice and beans), and tembleque, like a coconut custard.
If you are spending Christmas in the archipelago of Turks and Caicos, a British Overseas Territory, head to Grace Bay Beach for a different and scenic way to spend your holiday. This 12-mile-long Atlantic Ocean beach with coconut palms on the main island of Providenciales is often dubbed the most beautiful beach in the world. Each resort along Grace Bay Beach creates gorgeous Christmas displays. There's also an annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the Seven Stars Resort and Spa. Stick around the day after Christmas when the Maskanoo parade rooted in African traditions begins: It's a masquerade festival displaying bright costumes and masks, with rhythmic drum beats and traditional foods.
Belize on Central America's east coast is known for amazing wildlife, jungles, and beaches, and there are plenty of activities to enjoy during a vacation. But if you are going for Christmas, the holiday is so loved in Belize that it's celebrated all of December. Check out the Christmas Bram Belize Kriol cultural tradition of people dancing, singing, and playing instruments as they walk around neighborhoods. Or try some local foods for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day: Rice and beans, potato salad, black fruitcake, or white relleno soup (with pork-stuffed chicken and raisins).