This is an excerpt from Lonely Planet's A Year of Festivals.
Festivals are a living, dancing museum of cultures and traditions in an increasingly globalised world. There is no better place for travellers to understand a country than an event where it proudly celebrates its individuality, whether through music, camel races or monumental food fights.
The top festivities for December are listed below.
National Finals Rodeo
Location: Thomas and Mack Center, Las Vegas, USA
Dates: Starts in the first full week of December
It could be argued that Las Vegas is a never-ending festival, a glorified fairground where the lights never go down. But there are moments when even Vegas outshines itself, and the 10-day National Finals Rodeo (NFR) is prime among them. Read more.
Quema del Diablo (Burning of the Devil)
Location: Guatemala City and Antigua, Guatemala
Date: 7 December
If you want some brownie points ahead of Christmas, there are few better ways than to help the Guatemalans burn the devil. In local traditions, the devil lurks in the corners of homes, beneath beds and among garbage. Each year, as a prelude to Christmas, homes are cleaned and on 7 December the rubbish is collected in the streets. Often, an effigy of the devil is thrown on top, just to really sort him out. Read more.
Location: Newtown, Wales
Date: First or second Sunday in December
What better way to start the silly season than doing something really stupid in a Santa suit while trying to earn a place in Guinness Book of Records. On the Santarun, thousands of people slap on a jolly-red Santa suit and run a 7.2km course around the Powys town. Read more.
Klausjagen (Chasing the Claus)
Location: Küssnacht, Switzerland
Date: 5 December
Cast aside any preconceptions about the restrained nature of the Swiss as you watch them beat up on a fellow named Santa Claus. On the eve of St Nicholas Day, the good folk of Küssnacht, on the northern shores of Lake Lucerne, drag out their whips and cow bells for one of the country’s more unusual parades. Read more.
Mevlâna Festival (Whirling Dervishes Festival)
Location: Sports stadium, Konya, Turkey
Dates: 10–17 December
In the Islamic world the 13th-century Sufipoet Celaleddin Rumi, or Mevlâna (Our Guide), is all but considered a saint. One of the world’s great mystic philosophers, his poetry and religious writings are among the most beloved and respected in Islam and beyond. Read more.
Location: Geneva, Switzerland
Date: 11 December
If you want a decent excuse to eat chocolate before Christmas, Geneva has come up with it. At l’Escalade, the city’s largest festival, marzipan-filled marmites en chocolat (chocolate cauldrons) are smashed and the sweet pieces are gathered up and devoured. Read more.
Día de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe)
Location: Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, Mexico City, Mexico
Date: 12 December
Our Lady of Guadalupe (or the Virgin Mary) is no ordinary heavenly being. In 1531 she appeared four times to an indigenous Christian convert, Juan Diego, on Cerro del Tepeyac (Tepeyac Hill). Over the centuries she’s been credited with all manner of miracles, and has become Mexico’s patron saint. Read more.
Location: Kalasha valleys, Pakistan
Dates: 10 days around the winter solstice
By the middle of December in the three Kalasha valleys of Rumbur, Bumboret and Birir, the crops have been stored for the winter and it’s time to celebrate. The largest festival for the Kalasha people, who stubbornly resist the Islamic religion that surrounds them, it’s a time of visiting, feasting and dancing. Read more.
Chriskindlesmarkt (Christmas Market)
Location: Hauptmarkt, Nuremberg, Bavaria, Germany
Dates: Friday before Advent Sunday to 24 December
In Germany ’tis the season to be shopping. Across the country, Christmas markets spring up throughout the month leading up to the big day. Most famous among them is the Nuremberg market, filling the city’s main square with almost 200 stalls and drawing in around two million people. Read more.
Procession de San Lázaro (Procession of St Lazarus)
Location: Santuario de San Lázaro, El Rincón, Cuba
Date: 17 December
For a pilgrimage worth bloodying your knees to see, head for El Rincón on the outskirts of Havana to watch (or join) up to 50,000 faithful descend en masse on the venerated shrine of Lazarus, a saint known for his ministrations to lepers and the poor. Read more.
Dewgal (Crossing of the Cattle)
Location: Diafarabé, Mali
Dates: Late December or early January; dates aren’t set until November
All across central Mali from November, visitors will see Fula herders and their vast herds closing in on the Niger River, readying themselves for one of West Africa’s most picturesque annual rituals. When the river levels are just right, the town of Diafarabé is transformed into a hive of activity, as hundreds of thousands of cows are driven southwards and across the Niger River to greener pastures. Read more.
Fiesta de Santo Tomás (Feast of St Thomas)
Location: Town plaza, Chichicastenango, Guatemala
Dates: 13–21 December
The highland city of Chichicastenango (Chichi) celebrates its patron saint in a rather death-defying way. For a week festivities are limited to typical festival events – parades, traditional dances, fireworks – but on 21 December (St Thomas’ Day) things look up, literally. On this day, wooden poles as high as 30m are raised in the plaza beside the Iglesia de Santo Tomás and the dance of the palo volador (flying pole) begins. Read more.
Hogmanay (New Year)
Location: Edinburgh, Scotland
Dates: 29 December–1 January
For Scots, the New Year has always been a more important celebration than Christmas, and largely they’ve managed to convince the world of the same through the enormous Hogmanay celebrations that engulf Edinburgh. Read more.
Festival of the Sahara
Location: Douz, Tunisia
Dates: 23–27 December
While the Christian world is occupied with snowy, Christmasy scenes, Saharan nomads flock to Douz, Tunisia’s gateway to the mighty desert, for a celebration of their culture. The sandy town hosts camel races, hunting for rabbits with greyhound-like Saluki dogs, and fantasias. Read more.
Reveillon (New Year’s Eve)
Location: Copacabana beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Date: 31 December
The second best way to see in the New Year is to join the party on Rio’s mighty Copacabana beach, where the spiritual and the secular come together for one amazing night. Rio’s biggest holiday after its spectacular and rowdy Carnaval sees around two million people pack the sands to welcome in the New Year – you won’t be laying out a towel and throwing a Frisbee on Copacabana beach this night. Read more.
Need more festivals? Here's a list of further events in December:
Chichibu Yomatsuri (Chichibu, Japan; 2–3 December) Float festival that sees 20-tonne floats paraded up a steep slope.
Konark Festival (Konark, India; 1–5 December) Traditional music and dance with the awesome Sun Temple as a backdrop.
King’s Birthday (Bangkok, Thailand; 5 December) To celebrate King Bhumibol’s birthday, Bangkok is festooned with lights and an enormous fireworks display is held near the Grand Palace.
Fête des Lumières (Lyon, France; several days around 8 December) France’s third city glows with sound-and-light shows to mark the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
Boston Tea Party Re-enactment (Boston, USA; the Sunday before 16 December) Relive the 1773 moment when colonists protested tea taxes by throwing bricks of tea into Boston’s harbour.
Gishi-Sai (Tokyo, Japan; 14 December) Discover your inner samurai at this commemoration of the ritual suicide of 47 ronin (masterless samurai), complete with a parade of warriors to Sengaku-ji, the ronin’s burial place.
Giant Lantern Festival (San Fernando, Philippines; the Saturday before Christmas) A parade of 5m-high lanterns takes place in the so-called ‘Christmas Capital of the Philippines’.
Dong Zhi Festival (Hong Kong; 21 Or 22 December) Chinese thanksgiving festival to mark the onset of winter; it’s a day of family reunion.
Noche de los Rábanos (Night of the Radishes; Oaxaca, Mexico; 23 December) Amazing figures carved out of radishes are displayed in the zócalo (square).
Incwala (Swaziland; over the summer solstice, culminating on the fourth day after the full moon) www.sntc.org.sz The Swazi kingship ceremony includes collecting foam from the Indian Ocean and the slaughter of bulls.
Fiesta de la Virgen del Rosario (Andacollo, Chile; 24–26 December) Pilgrims celebrate the Virgin of the Rosary, with horse racing, cockfights and Asian-inspired dance.
Kaiserball (Vienna, Austria; 31 December) Kick off Vienna’s ball season and see in the New Year in pure elegance.
See festivals in other months of the year here.