Christmas has become a global festival, regardless of religion or location. Here’s 10 ultimate experiences to add to your bucket list of ‘best places in the world’ to experience the yuletide spirit.
BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK
With today’s emphasis on present grabbing and overindulging, it’s hard to deny that the real meaning of Christmas often seems forgotten. For a refresher, nothing compares to a pilgrimage to Jesus’ birthplace. The energy on Manger Square and in the Old City on Christmas Eve could light a forest of Christmas trees. The place to be as the clock strikes 12 is St Catherine’s Church, for the Midnight Mass service.
SANTA CLAUS VILLAGE, FINLAND
When too much Santa is never enough, rug up and head north to Finland’s Arctic Circle. The jolly man in the red suit is this neighbourhood’s most famous resident, and round these parts they milk him for all he’s worth. Still, the deep wintertime snow and reindeer-dotted forests go a long way toward off setting the touristy atmosphere, though there’s an amusement park called Santa Park not far from the village. You’ll need deep pockets, but you’d have to be pretty Grinch-like to leave without a smile.
NEW YORK CITY, USA
Surely you know what Christmas in the Big Apple looks like, thanks to countless movies: Christmas lights, cheesy muzak, preferable a light dusting of snow. The world’s tallest Christmas tree is lit at the Rockefeller Centre in early December. Ice Skating below it is a must and checking out the window displays in New York’s largest department stores.
BONDI BEACH, AUSTRALIA
Hit the beach to talk turkey with fellow travellers. Bondi is the antithesis of northern-hemisphere Christmas clichés: sun, sand and surf replace snow and fairy lights. Bands and DJs rock the Pavilion and a festive atmosphere prevails. Items you may not normally take to Christmas dinner: swimsuit, sunscreen, sunhat!
MIDNIGHT MASS, THE VATICAN, ITALY
You can rest assured that the spiritual heart of Catholicism knows how to do Christmas. The Eternal City is magical at any time of year, but December has an extra frisson, with roasted chestnuts sold on every corner and the city awash with nativity scenes – check them out on St Peter’s Square, Piazza Navona, and in the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli on the Capiotline Hill.
With a cracking sense of humour, the staunchly Catholic Irish have a few novel ways to honour Christmas. The most eyebrow-raising is a morning swim on the 25th at the Forty-Foot sea-water pool. There’s the 12 Days of Christmas Market at the Docklands, cheesy pantos, Christmas lights, ice skating and markets and seasonal cheer in Temple Bar.
If present buying makes you think of heaving department stores, maybe you should experience the magical Christkindlesmarkt (Christmas Market), in Nuremberg’s Hauptmarkt. Here, 180 stalls proffer toys, trinkets, candles, gingerbread and sweets to shoppers warmed by sizzling bratwurst and mulled wine.
All those famed chocolate box attractions—mountains, snow, cobbled streets—mark Switzerland extra appealing come Christmas. Zurich has oodles of Christmas markets (don’t miss the one inside the train station), guided Christmas themed city strolls, and the enchanting all singing Christmas tree that come alive on Werdmuhleplatz.
Christmas in Tokyo is a fairy lit, religion free sight to behold. Traditionally, celebrating the New Year is more important in Japan than Christmas, but this is what happens when non-Christmas embrace Christmas, and with gusto: spectacularly over the top decorations and lights. While the lead up is dazzling, Christmas Day itself is a fizzer as it’s not a holiday.
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO
A small island with a big personality, Puerto Rico serves up a sunny Christmas with a salsa beat and a side dish of spit-roasted pig. Festivities last from early December to Three Kings Day on 6 January. For season-setting decorations, head to City Hall on the Plaza de Armas and the fairy-lit promenade Paseo de la Princesa.