The small town of Gramado, Brazil, is a huge tourism destination, with most of its 6 million annual visitors coming from elsewhere in Brazil. Picture: Andrew Jenner/The Washington Post
Brazilian newly weds 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. Quite by accident, the couple’s late-October visit coincided with the opening ceremony of Natal Luz (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.

Unexpected is probably as good a word as any to describe Gramado, a mountain town in far southern Brazil with a population of about 35 000, where alpine ski-lodge architecture dominates and there’s a fondue restaurant on practically every corner. 

The nightly lighting ceremony at Natal Luz de Gramado draws crowds into the streets in the heart of the city. Picture: Cleiton Thiele/SerraPress

In October, spring is in full 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. 

“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 January 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 area. Natal Luz pumps well over $200million (R2.7bn) into the local economy, a pile of cash that Gramado uses to subsidise a number of other major events that keep 6 million people coming every year.

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.

This will be Júlio Cézar Rodrigues’s 11th season as Santa Claus.

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 one of the world’s highest-profile Santa Claus gigs, with an attendance figure of 2.5million.

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.

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.

The small town of Gramado, Brazil, is a huge tourism destination, with most of its 6 million annual visitors coming from elsewhere in Brazil. Picture: Andrew Jenner/The Washington Post

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 spring night air.

Christmas has begun in Brazil. - The Washington Post