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.
Jenner is a writer based in Brazil. Find him on Twitter: @_Andrew_Jenner_
Hotel Serra Azul
Rua Garibaldi 152
Featuring a rustic vibe and a special area dedicated to regional traditions, this hotel is located in the heart of the city's Natal Luz action. Rooms from about $185.
Hotel Quero Quero
Rua Dartagnan de Oliveira 200
Lodging options include both traditional rooms and cabins, centered around a colorful flower garden at the center of the grounds. Rooms from about $90.
Estalagem St. Hubertus
Rua Carrieri 974
A luxury option overlooking Gramado's picturesque Lago Negro, or Black Lake, this hotel was named among the World's Top 25 Hotels in the 2017 Trip Advisor Traveler's Choice Awards. Rooms from about $220.
Rua Leopoldo Rosenfeldt 67
This award-winning hotel on large, scenic grounds features an on-site spa and plenty of child-friendly amenities. Rooms from about $170.
Trattoria del Corso
Avenida Borges de Medeiros 2345
This Italian restaurant, located in a 1920s mansion, is a great choice for the requisite fondue experience in Gramado, with outdoor, balcony and inside seating. Multicourse fondue meal for two from about $25.
Restaurante e Pizzaria Scur
Rua Sao Pedro 660
A restaurant that puts some class into the all-you-can-eat pizza buffet, open from 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Pizza buffet, which includes salad, for around $15.
Rua Euzebio Balzaretti 798
Open only for a lunch buffet, which is typical for the region, this downtown establishment serves traditional southern Brazilian food, which is heavily influenced by Italian and German cuisine. All-you-can-eat buffet for about $8, or, by weight, for about $7 a pound.
Vila de Natal (Christmas Village)
Praca das Etnias, Avenido Borges de Medeiros 1848
Open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. during Natal Luz, the city's Christmas village is a place to find food, art, souvenirs and entertainment for the young and old. No visit is complete without stopping by Santa's house. Free admission.
Rua Coberta (Covered Street)
Avenido Borges de Medeiros 2759
This one-block street in the heart of downtown Gramado is covered with a glass roof, creating an all-weather, open-air mall where everything from shoes to handicrafts to books to the region's famous chocolate is to be found, along with a variety of restaurants and cafes. Free music shows are held here each night at 7:30 p.m. during Natal Luz.
Natal Luz shows:
Show de Acendimento (Lighting Ceremony)
Avenido Borges de Medeiros 2697
Every night at 8:30, the elves sing and dance as they try their best to turn on the city's Christmas lights. To make it work, though, they need Santa's help — and plenty of audience participation! Free admission.
Reencontros de Natal (Christmas Reunions)
Rua Leopoldo Rosenfeld 919
This musical celebration of family, love and Christmas is performed on a spectacular stage floating on a small lake. Fireworks add some extra pizazz. Show begins at 9:30 p.m. every Saturday and Wednesday during Natal Luz. Tickets begin at about $50.
Natal Pelo Mundo (Christmas Around the World)
Expogramado, Rua Ermelinda Barbacovi 210
Sofia and her friends explore Christmas traditions all over the world. Show starts at 9 p.m. every Tuesday and Friday during Natal Luz. Tickets start at about $50.
Grande Desfile de Natal (Grand Christmas Parade)
Expogramado Rua Ermelinda Barbacovi 201
From the stands at the city's exhibition hall, watch acrobats, dancers, skaters and other festive characters and floats come streaming by. Parade begins at 9:30 p.m. every Monday, Thursday and Sunday in December, and at 9:30 p.m. on Thursdays and Sundays in January. Tickets start at about $50.