Sometimes, Australia just doesn’t cut it at Christmastime. Don’t give us that look – yes, the beaches are stunning, the endless smorgasbord of prawns a small taster of heaven, and the endless sunshine a delightful, happy reminder of what we’ve been waiting for since the depths of winter. However, we’re also in a country that really doesn’t warrant a baked ham as our Christmas meal, and our Christmas carols just don’t apply. (Baby, It’s Cold Outside? Frosty the Snowman? Winter Wonderland? You know you’re Australian when you’re singing this wearing a too-hot polyester hat in 40 degree heat.)
If you’re wanting a new Christmas escape, get on that plane and book an escape overseas. It’s time to see how the rest of the world does it.
1. You want: something out of the ordinary
Visit: Tokyo, Japan
Your soundtrack: All I Want for Christmas Is You, Mariah Carey
Without a religious underpinning, Tokyoans use Christmas as a chance to take their gloriously kawaii aesthetic to new levels – it’s all about OTT antics and a heaping of romance. Think of it almost like Valentine’s Day, but with the added certainty of snow, and you’re getting close to a Tokyo Christmas. Christmas Eve is where you’ll celebrate most, feasting on a variety of delicacies under festoons of fairy lights. Christmas Day might be a bit of a let-down, but use the day to recuperate, see the sights, and get yourself prepared for the spectacle that is New Year. As you’ll be there in winter, you’ll catch a glimpse of the famed Tokyo winter illuminations, where the city is lit up in such a manner to put our own Christmas lights utterly to shame. Shiodome, running from late November until early February, is a pretty exquisite display, while Ginza (November until January) boasts a Christmas-inspired light show that’ll get you feeling rather festive indeed.
2. You want: something rich in history
Visit: Bethlehem, West Bank
Your soundtrack: Away in a Manger
If you ever heard the Christmas story as a child (or even as an adult), you’ll recognise Bethlehem as the birthplace of Christ. Naturally, pilgrims and travellers flock here to get away from commercialised festivities and experience a bit of soul-searching, getting back to basics for a truly heartwarming Christmas. While some of the decorations mimic the Western-style designs we’re accustomed to, the Bethlehem celebrations focus a lot more on the reason for Christmas, with major Christian denominations getting their shine on for one of the biggest days on the calendar. Manger Square, outside of the Basilica of the Nativity, sits on the traditional site of Jesus’ birth, while midnight masses take place in St Catherine’s Church; if you’re a Protestant, you’ll want to attend the services at Shepherd’s Fields. And, given the diversity of pilgrims and locals in the town on a good day, you’ll be spending Christmas with those you might never have exchanged pleasantries with otherwise. What better gift could you ask for?
3. You want: bright city lights
Visit: New York City, USA
Your soundtrack: Fairytale of New York, The Pogues feat. Kirsty MacColl
Miracle on 34th Street, anyone? While you might not see Santa in the flesh – volunteer doppelgängers aside – you will get to experience all the bells and whistles of a New York Christmas, which uses the hustle and bustle of this thriving locale to its absolute advantage. Go to Macy’s if you want to experience an in-store winter wonderland, complete with elves, trees and snow (off-peak times, such as early in the morning or just before closing, means you’re not having a two hour wait to catch a glimpse). Rockefeller Center Plaza still has its iconic ice skating, but before you strap on a pair of skates, bring a pile of snacks: it’s a long wait. It’s worth it for a look, but for a faster (and cheaper) option, there are plenty of other skating rinks nearby – Central Park has Wollman Rink, which is also a lot bigger. Catch a show on Broadway or at Radio City Music Hall, wander around the midtown shops with your credit card tucked away (the price ranges here mean window shopping is best), and tuck into some freshly-roasted chestnuts. Snow might melt the moment it hits the city pavement or take on a decidedly smoky hue, but you’ll find that once the sounds of jingle bells hit your ears, you honestly won’t care.
4. You want: the traditional religious experience
Visit: Rome, Italy
Your soundtrack: Angels We Have Heard on High
There’s a haunting buzz in Rome at Christmastime, one that certainly adds to the sacred festivities of the season. The centuries-old sights are lit up with twinkling fairy lights, cobblestone alleyways teem with tourists and locals, and the atmosphere is simply addictive – the Romans know a thing or two about celebrations, but know just as much about tradition and faith. Piazza Navona gets all decked out for Christmas, with sugary treats on standby to keep that festive high lingering. For a something a little more spiritual, the churches around Rome are filled with Nativity scenes and Advent masses; the Vatican City, Catholicism’s hub, gets the papal treatment as the Pope blesses the pilgrims sardined into St Peter’s Square. You can also get into midnight mass, but you’ll need to have faxed a ticket request over to the Vatican a few months in advance to get this. Don’t stress, though – you’ve just got an excuse to go back next year.
5. You want: fun, and lots of it
Visit: Lapland, Finland
Your soundtrack: All Alone on Christmas, Darlene Love (because who can resist those vocals?)
Kids at heart, this one’s for you: Lapland is home to Santa Claus Village, where Santa Claus is reported to actually reside (sorry, New York). Inside Santa Park, you’ll be able to see the elves helping Santa craft the presents, go on a magical sleigh ride, even grab a bite of authentic Finnish gingerbread from Mrs Claus herself. When you’ve exhausted yourself at the park, experience the Finnish take on Christmas. Lapland’s locale, right in the Arctic Circle, means the landscape is shrouded in darkness with only starlight shining; indoors, loved ones gather for sweet treats, ales and a delicious pork roast before singing carols and relaxing the night away in a toasty wooden sauna. Yes. Yes please.