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What's Aruba like during the holidays?

Swap snow for sand this Christmas.

If the only ice you would like to experience this Christmas is in your drink, then it’s time to celebrate the holiday in warmer climates.

“Christmas in Paradise” may have been a forgettable holiday film, but the concept of families escaping the gray, winter doldrums for a Caribbean beach is spot on. Think of Aunt Sally, who’d much rather be relaxing under a cabana with a rum cocktail than cooking that Christmas bird in a sweaty kitchen. Trading your idea of a white Christmas for sand instead of snow is as easy as flying (Newark from $884) to Aruba, the island where winter never comes — but holiday traditions do.

It all starts when you enter Hyatt Regency Aruba Resort Spa and Casino (from $925 a night), where eggnog and a beach bag set the tone at check-in. The hotel puts you at the center of the action, whether that’s walking to the beach or the city center, where you might run into a familiar figure.

Aruba belongs to the Kingdom of the Netherlands, so expect to see Sintkerklass, the Dutch equivalent of ol’ St. Nick. He’s known to appear on Christmas Day — and who can blame the jolly old soul for starting his vacation after a very long night of delivering gifts around the world? Pose for a photo with Santa/Sintkerklass by the island’s signature divi-divi tree.

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If you’re partial to the traditional turkey dinner, feast on a holiday meal with all the trimmings at Palms Restaurant. But if you’re game enough to try something completely different, the can’t-miss experience is Keshi Yena. The Aruban dish, which translates to “stuffed cheese,” is made by filling the leftover rind of an Edam or Gouda cheese wheel with tangy spiced meat, onion, tomato, green pepper, olives, capers, raisins and piccalilli. It’s baked until the wheel is hot and bubbly. And some bubbly, as in champagne, goes hand-in-hand with the unique island treat.

Aruba is just 18 miles from the coast of Venezuela, where the tradition of making ayacas comes from. The holiday treat is comprised of plantains, chicken, pork, ham and spices, plus a potpourri of raisins, olives, pickles and cashews. The seasonal treat served in a variety of restaurants during the week of Christmas.

The sounds of the season are provided by Gaita bands. Arubans have adopted this Venezuelan Christmas music and turned it into their own holiday tradition, typically made up of a line of female singers accompanied by musicians playing the furuku, cuarta, bass and conga. Catch their festive rhythms during the holidays at shopping malls and business districts.

The party continues until New Year’s Eve, which is a big deal in the Southern Caribbean. Arubans celebrate Dande, which literally means “to carouse.” Locals throughout the country wish each other success and happiness via song. The upbeat and rhythmic Dande tunes are delivered on the beach and in town.

The tradition of fireworks to ring in the New Year has made it to the island, but the pyrotechnic shows are different in Aruba. Called pagara, these long string of Chinese firecrackers end in large, dramatic displays are set off throughout the days leading up to New Year’s Eve to ward off evil spirits for the coming year. The largest pagara is set off mid-afternoon on New Year’s Eve in the heart of downtown Oranjestad on the main boulevard, with the climactic ending in front of the Renaissance Mall.

Spending Christmas week in balmy Aruba is certainly a tempting alternative to chilling out in the Northeastern corridor. You may not be able to make a snowman, but that means no one has to de-ice the car or shovel snow, either.

 
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