Much has been written extolling the virtues of visiting Europe at Christmas time: the picturesque Christmas markets, the warming effect of glühwein, perhaps even a visit to Santa’s fantasy abode. But maybe you’ve already been there, done that. Or maybe you’re looking to return home with slightly different tales of festive yuletide.
If you’re visiting London in December, join the crowds thronging the footpaths of Oxford Street and Regent Street to catch a serious case of Christmas fever. The usual touts promoting “golf sales” are joined by cheery sorts selling roasted nuts, often coated in sticky, hot toffee and served in a paper cone. Finish them before you reach Hyde Park though, or you’re sure to be hit on by hordes of hopeful squirrels.
Many of the big department stores in London do Christmas spectacularly well, with opulent decorations, piped carol music and gift ideas galore. The young and young-at-heart will find a particularly happy place at Hamleys Toy Store on Regent Street. Established at its current site in 1881, it boasts seven floors with over 50,000 toys, and at Christmas time it’s open until 10pm most nights.
Across the Channel in France, the locals take the tradition of the Christmas nativity crib to a new level. Their version of the “crèche” is decorated with not just the usual cast of characters, but also a vast range of extras known as “Santons” including chestnut sellers, bakers and lots more. You might like to pick up a few of these endearing characters to add to your own nativity scene back home.
In Sweden, the Christmas season kicks off with the feast of St Lucy, or “Santa Lucia”. The festival takes place on the Sicilian saint’s day on December 13, and no-one is entirely certain as to why it’s such a big deal in Sweden. The day is usually celebrated with a procession of girls in white dresses bearing candles and most cities elect an official “Lucia” each year to lead the procession.
If you happen to be in Rome for Christmas, visit the huge Christmas tree that stands in front of St Peter’s Cathedral in Vatican City. If you really want to experience a Catholic celebration of Christmas on a grand scale, you may also be able to get your hands on a ticket to the midnight mass held by the Pope.
Foodies will consider themselves close to heaven at Christmas time, and every country has its own traditional delicacies to mark the occasion. Whether your preference is for a rich, decadent Büche de Noël in France, savoury roast duck or goose in Denmark or (horror of horrors!) roast reindeer in Iceland, you’re bound to find something to tempt even the fussiest eater.
One final word of advice though: Christmas is celebrated on Christmas Eve in many European countries, with the actual day being more akin to Boxing Day down under, so factor this into your travel plans. You may even decide to build an entire itinerary around Christmas festivities – something with which your personal travel manager will be happy to assist