© Britain on View
’Tis the season
The top 10 places to sample Yuletide traditions — from the most old school to the most unusual
1 London, England
Definitely not a city for Scrooges, this birthplace of Yuletide tradition celebrates the holiday in grand style. Linger under Trafalgar Square’s 30-metre tree or hum to carols at St. Paul’s Cathedral, then head to the lights of the West End, one of the world’s great festive spectacles. Or try wandering the foggy Dickensian streets to sample seasonal fare like Father Christmas grottoes, goose dinners and oh-so-English “pantomimes” (Christmas family theatre). London has a North Pole-sized toy store, patronized by the Queen (Hamley’s Toy Shop; www.hamleys.com), as well as a bar where everything — from furnishings to glassware — is made of ice (Absolut Ice Bar; www.belowzerolondon.com; thermal wear provided).
2 Munich, Germany
The holidays here are all about decorations and doodads, which is why Germany’s famous Christmas markets have been going strong since the 15th century. Situated in Munich’s central square, Marienplatz, Christkindlmarkt is the biggest and best of the lot. Stroll amidst the aromas of sizzling sausage, roasted chestnuts and fresh gingerbread, as you check out endless stalls piled with ornate glass, wood ornaments, traditional toys and “Christmas pyramids.” Just don’t drink too much of the glühwein (hot spiced wine), or you may wake up in a hotel room strewn with knick-knacks made from straw and pig’s bladders.
3 New York, NY
It’s the ultimate big city Christmas: skate at Rockefeller Center, taste snowflakes from the tops of skyscrapers and walk blocks gaping at the holiday displays Manhattan stores are famous for. Times Square has the tallest tree anywhere, and Broadway has seasonally themed productions waiting in the wings. In the look-but-don’t-touch department, F.A.O. Schwarz (www.fao.com) is a mind-boggling toy store meant for child millionaires (think apartment-scaled tree houses, life-size elephant plush toys). If they wish, adults can recover at the Nutcracker Rated R (www.nutcrackerratedr.com), a popular “mature” ballet that mixes cabaret and Tchaikovsky (Theatre of the New City, 155 1st Ave). Shopping discounts are knee-deep this year, as retailers dig their way out of a wintry economy.
4 Rovaniemi, Finland
This hamlet in Lapland, just south of the Arctic Circle, is for true believers with air miles; it’s about as Santa-realistic as it gets. Kids can visit the big man at the North Pole Village (where Finland’s jolliest public servant holds court in his Gift Hall) or hide out until adolescence in the toy and candy “workshops” dotting the tundra. Other attractions include friendly, free-range reindeer everywhere, as well as arctic safaris, dogsleds, sleigh rides and Northern Lights. Most people stay in farmhouses; the fanciest lodgings are the Sokos Hotel (www.sokoshotels.fi), where rates start at €130.
5 Gubbio, Italy
Certified by Guinness World Records as the home of earth’s “largest Christmas tree,” this town, just north of Rome, is easy to find — the star on its treetop can be seen from 50 kilometres away! While there’s no manger on arrival, you’ll be sure to notice Mount Ingino, merrily festooned with 12,000 metres of cable and 5000 coloured neon lights. Every night after December 7, the mountain’s slopes are transformed into the silhouette of an 800-metre tall tree (over twice the height of the Empire State Building). Elsewhere in Italy, Cortina d’Ampezzo, in the Alps, competes with a brandy festival and Christmas Eve parade in which revellers pour out of bistros to ski a local peak while holding torches and snifters.
6 Mexico City, Mx
To make up for lack of snow, Mexicans ensure Christmas lasts the entire month. There are poinsettias galore and La Posada, nightly processions of children in biblical garb going house to house to reenact the nativity. In the midst of a holiday festival that sees whole buildings wrapped like presents, Mexico City’s enormous central plaza, the Zócalo, turns into the world’s biggest skating rink. Watch a million holiday goers escape the tropics as they learn to skate backwards!
7 Noel, NS
Edmonton, Alberta may have Canada’s tallest Christmas tree, a 20-metre spruce, but small communities in the Maritimes, like Noel, have something else — a transplanted seasonal custom so old it predates Christmas itself. Long before Christianity, Europe’s Celtic peoples celebrated December 21, the arrival of the winter solstice. Their conquerors, the Romans, had their own festival, Saturnalia, held on December 25. Both events were rowdy carnivals involving pranks and disguises, a tradition that continued during Christmas in the Middle Ages, particularly among the English (where participants were called mummers) and the Germans (home of the Pelznichol, who took their name from a fierce early prototype of Santa Claus). Once in the New World, these customs produced the holiday partiers known in Nova Scotia as Belsnickers, who still tipsily don costumes today to tease the neighbours at Christmas.
8 Madrid, Spain
In Spain, December 22 is as popular as the 25th — it’s the day of the Christmas lottery draw, a 250-year institution with a current total of $1.85 billion in prizes. There are dozens of jackpots and intricate ticket combinations, but the one to win is the bonanza El Gordo, “the Fat One.” Ever since 1771, children selected from Madrid’s San Ildefons School, formerly an orphanage, have tunefully sung out its winning numbers in a special musical ceremony. Today, their singing is televised on every channel: the sound of tiny voices warbling numbers immediately rivets Spaniards to the nearest TV set. By days end, the streets are thronged with wine-splashing lottery winners: last year, the 50,000 inhabitants of just one town, Segovia, shared $300 million.
9 Santa Claus, IN
Municipal Christmas displays in the US tend to shut down entire power grids (Wheeling, West Virginia strews two million lights over a 10-kilometre drive), but this town close to Chicago makes our list simply because it’s more northerly than either Santa Claus, Arizona, or Santa Claus, Georgia. Indiana’s Santa Claus gets the most out of a name minted back in 1872, and variously boasts a Santa Post Office, Santa Candy Castle and Santa Nightmare Golf Tourney. Spend your Christmas Eve looking for golf balls in snow traps, but just watch out for the impish “elves” on the town payroll!
Apart from being next door to Santa, Greenlanders savour the most exotic Christmas dinner we know of. The traditional repast is kiviak: the raw flesh of a bird called an auk that is wrapped in seal fat and buried under a rock during summer. Uncovered Christmas morning in an advanced stage of decomposition, it can only be eaten on the run or with the windows open — the reason why Greenlanders are such outdoorsy people (there’s also the world’s most spectacular winter scenery and a two-kilometre toboggan slide near Nuuk’s downtown).
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