Brazilian newlyweds Júlia and Marcos Muniz found what they were looking for when they picked Gramado for their honeymoon: peace, quiet and a refreshing break from the heat and humidity back home in Rio de Janeiro. And quite by accident, the couple’s late-October visit coincided with the opening ceremony of Natal Luz, or “Christmas Light”—a pull-out-the-stops festival of traditional Christmas cheer that lasts nearly three months and is often referred to as the biggest in the world.
“Christmas is in December,” said Júlia Muniz, standing in a plaza beside the Catholic church, where a large nativity scene had already gone up. Of course she didn’t expect this to be going on in October.
“Unexpected” is probably as good a word as any to describe Gramado, population about 35,000, a mountain town in far southern Brazil, where alpine ski-lodge architecture dominates and there’s a fondue restaurant on practically every corner. The climate does its best to play along: It sometimes gets legitimately cold in June and July, when winter comes to the Southern Hemisphere and, every few years or so, dusts Gramado with snow.
In October, though, spring is in full, glorious bloom, with summer just around the corner. Not that this does anything to deter Santa Claus from jingling into town each evening in full red-robed finery or stop the choir on opening night from singing “White Christmas.” There are flowers, there are chirping birds, there are giant nutcracker dolls and there are lights festooning the streets, where tunes such as “I Saw Three Ships” emanate from cleverly hidden speakers and tourist hordes snap selfies by the terabyte. (The selfie has come to rival soccer as Brazil’s national mania.)
Imagine a Christmas of the most traditional, Hallmark sort, translated into Portuguese and stretched out over 81 days on either side of the summer solstice in a little Brazilian town channeling serious Swiss vibes. Depending on your holiday proclivities, the overall effect might either be irredeemably kitschy or simply enchanting.
“When people arrive here, they often feel like they’ve left Brazil,” said Edson Erdmann, the artistic director of Natal Luz. “You arrive here and you feel like everything’s possible. . . . You feel like you’re in a magical world.”
Natal Luz has been a winning idea for Gramado. By the time it wraps up on Jan. 14, an estimated 2.5 million visitors will have come, the vast majority from elsewhere in Brazil, rounded out by a steady stream from Argentina and other Spanish-speaking countries in the neighborhood. All told, Natal Luz pumps well over $200 million into the local economy—a pile of cash that Gramado uses to subsidize a number of other major events that keep people coming all year long. (Total annual visitation: 6 million.)
“It ends up driving the local economy all year,” said Edson Néspolo, president of GramadoTur, the city agency that puts on Natal Luz.
The usual tensions that haunt any spot regularly overrun by vacationers are present here too, however. “I try to avoid going into town” during Natal Luz, said Rogério Zanon, who lives nearby and lists traffic congestion among his chief complaints.
The most elaborate aspects of the whole affair are the four lavishly produced shows rotating throughout the week: a nightly lighting ceremony, a parade and two scripted Christmas productions—one performed on a floating stage.
To pull it off, Erdmann oversees a cast of about 600, including a few professionals and a bunch of regular Gramadoans who dress up night after night to entertain the masses. Anchoring it all is Júlio Cézar Rodrigues, 62, sporting a jolly white beard. He is back this year for his 11th season in what must be, given that attendance figure of 2.5 million, one of the world’s highest-profile Santa Claus gigs.
“I don’t just do this for the money,” said Rodrigues, a retired bus driver who started Clausing at family events back in the 1980s and worked his way up through the shopping-mall scene before landing the role in Gramado. “I love kids. This makes me feel like a kid again. I play along with them. They adore me.”
By day, when he wanders around town in civilian clothes, Rodrigues’s beard often gives him away. Lots of people want to touch it, doubting that it’s real. (Indeed, it is.) The beard takes about six months to reach Santa proportions; come mid-January, he’ll shave it off and go back to his offseason routine of spending time with his five grandchildren—whom, owing to his Santa duties, he rarely sees over the holidays—and fishing trips to Uruguay with friends.
He has no idea how many thousands of kids have sat in his lap over the years, but he has never become tired of it. The only thing that really wears him down is the seemingly endless stretch from January to October when he isn’t Santa Claus.
“I get tired of waiting for Christmas to get here,” he said.
After darkness falls on the first night of Natal Luz, the Gramado Symphonic Orchestra takes the stage for the season’s opening ceremony, yo-yoing from classical classics (Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony) to Christmas classics (“Carol of the Bells”) to a certain beloved Leonard Cohen classic—with the crowd joining in on the “hallelujah” part.
Next, as hundreds of cellphone cameras roll, Rodrigues debuts as Santa Claus, ho-ho-hoing down the aisle with an escort of elves.
The mayor hands him a key to the city and wishes one and all a merry Christmas and happy new year. The choir sings “Jingle Bell Rock.”
Then everyone spills into the street for the first of 81 lighting ceremonies. They go wild when the lights flick on, illuminating squalls of authentic-looking fake snow swirling above them in the 60-some degree night air.
Christmas has begun in Brazil.