It’s estimated that almost 40 percent of New York’s population was born outside the United States, so it’s little wonder that the city is home to a wide array of celebrations from all corners of the globe, each with its own unique customs. Here are 10 international holidays that are observed in the Big Apple, and where to go to make sure you’re at the heart of the action.
Chinese Lunar New Year at Sara D Roosevelt Park
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New York City public schools first closed for Chinese Lunar New Year in 2016. City dwellers and their children can head to the Lower East Side’s Sara D Roosevelt Park for Chinatown’s Lunar New Year parade and festival, which honors Chinese deities and ancestors. Little ones will marvel at the colorful costumes and masks representing the 12 animals of the Chinese calendar. There are also dancers, singers, food, and an impressive firecracker finale.
The word “carnival” comes from the Medieval Latin carne vale (meaning “flesh, farewell”), and once referred to a period of merrymaking before the pre-Easter period known by Catholics as Lent. Whereas some Catholics lament the start of this 40-day observance early Spring, Brazilians celebrate Carnival with a five-day party that puts even New Orleans’ Fat Tuesday to shame. Carnival celebrations in New York City are tamer than those in Latin America, but you can still enjoy a taste of Brazil at Manhattan’s Churrascaria Plataforma, considered to be one of the best rodízio-style restaurants in the US. Choosing from a selection of fish, chicken, pork and lamb, you can prepare for Lent with a carnivorous feast to end all feasts. Accompany it with a glass of Brazil’s national cocktail, the caipirinha.
March 25 commemorates both the start of the Greek War of Independence in 1821 and the Greek Orthodox Church’s celebration of the Annunciation – the day Mary received word from the angel Gabriel that she would become pregnant with the Son of God. Each year in Athens, Greek schoolchildren dress in traditional blue and white garb and parade through the streets, a custom that’s followed by a ceremony of the Greek Armed Forces. Since 1938, New York’s Greeks have been following suit, albeit on a much smaller scale, via The Greek Independence Parade on Fifth Avenue. If parades aren’t your thing, consider seeing a show at the Greek Cultural Center, which promotes the artistic achievements of Greek-Americans.
Bloomsday at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre at Symphony Space
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An Irish holiday in New York conjures thoughts of thousands of step dancers, bagpipers and beer drinkers gathering on Fifth Avenue for the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade. A more modest celebration is “Bloomsday”, the June 16 holiday dedicated to the life and works of James Joyce, when Dubliners participate in a series of readings, dramatizations, and costume parties. June 16 was chosen because it was the day in 1904 Joyce met his future wife wife, Nora Barnacle, and the day on which his magnus opus Ulysses takes place; “Bloomsday” was named for Ulysses’ protagonist Leopold Bloom. If you want to pay homage to Joyce in New York City on this day, head to the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre at Symphony Space, where stage and screen stars perform selections from Ulysses.
For 18th-century French revolutionaries, the Bastille was more than just a towering Parisian prison – it was a symbol of the oppressive monarchy, and therefore, it had to go. Every July 14, the French celebrate that fateful day in 1789 when the Bastille met its demise, effectively beginning the Revolution. Every summer, you can do the same in Manhattan. Bastille Day on 60th Street, hosted by the French Institute Alliance Française, offers performances by can-can dancers, delectable treats like crêpes and macarons, and even chances to win trips to Paris and Bordeaux.
The origins of Oktoberfest are disputed, but many believe that the festival began in 1810 when Crown Prince Ludwig I of Bavaria married Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. The reception lasted a full week, culminating in a horse race that featured singing, drinking, and dancing, and included the entire population of Munich. Nowadays, Oktoberfest is largely about beer, brats, and pretzels, but you don’t need to to take a trip to Europe to have a similar experience. The East Village’s Zum Schneider is the place to go for an authentically Bavarian celebration of Oktoberfest, complete with German beer in steins, wiener schnitzel, and delicious soft-baked pretzels. Despite its misleading name, Oktoberfest takes place on the third Saturday in September.
Started by the Italian immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island in the early 20th century, the Feast of San Gennaro is a true celebration of Italy’s rich influence on New York. Originally a small festival for immigrant families on Mulberry Street that honored Saint Januarius (the patron saint of Naples), the event has evolved into an enormous Little Italy street fair since it started in 1926. St. Januarius’ feast day on the liturgical calendar is September 19, but this vibrant affair typically spans the last two weeks of September. That gives patrons plenty of time to enjoy live music, hot sausages, zeppolis, and more.
Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) – which is celebrated mostly in central and southern Mexico from October 31 to November 2 – is a holiday that serves as a time for the living to reflect on friends and family members who have died and to help them on their journey to the spiritual realm. El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem helps debunk myths about this often misunderstood tradition each year during Super Sábado, when patrons can add their own offerings to the museum’s altar and enjoy face painting, storytelling and dance performances.
Occurring on December 26, Boxing Day is rumored to have begun in 17th- or 18th-century England, when postmen, servants, and tradespeople collected “Christmas boxes” of money or gifts as tokens of appreciation for their hard work. Nowadays, Boxing Day celebrations closely mirror the United States’ Black Friday, with citizens of Canada, the United Kingdom, and the other Commonwealth nations heading out to shop for post-Christmas bargains. Celebrate Boxing Day in style on Fashion Avenue, where you can find last-minute deals on everything from fabric to jewelry.
Enjoy a hearty meal of fish and chips at Cock & Bull | Image courtesy of Cock & Bull
Guy Fawkes Night, also known as Bonfire Night, commemorates the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, in which a group of English Catholic conspirators, including Fawkes, were thwarted in their efforts to blow up the House of Lords and assassinate King James I. While Anglophiles in New York might not have the same celebrations as the British, when effigies of Fawkes are burned on bonfires and fireworks are lit in people’s gardens, they can “remember, remember the 5th of November” at Cock & Bull. Tasty shepherd’s pie, British draft beers, and fish and chips are on the menu.