Decked Out for the Holidays: Festive Destinations
Christmas in Rome, Italy. Photo: Richard I'Anson / Getty Images
Here, some of the best places to celebrate the festive season abroad.
1. Athens, Greece
Is the North American Christmas getting too commercial for your liking? Try Greece where the solemn holiday still focuses on religious celebrations and spending time with loved ones. Some areas still observe a period of fasting leading up to the holiday celebrations, and it’s customary to go door to door singing kalandas (traditional carols) on Christmas Eve.
Christmas Day is a full day celebration which includes as many loved ones as possible. Greeks typically share the major meal with their family in the early afternoon. However, when the feast is over families split up and head out for an evening of coffee, drinks and a late dinner with their friends. Staying in for the evening is unusual, especially for young people.
In Athens, the city gets decked out for the holidays with celebrations and displays lasting from the Feast of Saint Nicholas (December 6) to Epiphany on January 6. This year’s events focus on lights and culture, and include holiday displays in renowned Syntagma Square and music as well as dancing events throughout the city. (See the City of Athens website for details).
But be sure to mind your saints: Saint Basil, not Saint Nicholas, fills the role of “Father Christmas” in the Orthodox Church. That means you’ll have to wait until New Year’s — the day when the church honours the saint — to open your presents.
2. Rome, Italy
How is Natale celebrated in the seat of the Catholic Church? Here the holidays are packed full of tradition and culture, but the sites aren’t packed with tourists. Many travel guides say the holidays are the best time to visit Rome (if you don’t mind the cold, that is).
3. Moscow, Russia
Want to celebrate Christmas twice? It’s possible if you head to Russia in January. While we’re celebrating on December 25, people in Russia are still observing the six-week fast leading up to the Russian Orthodox Christmas on January 7 — and they have to wait to have their parties, gatherings and feasts.
A lot has changed over the past couple of decades since the end of Soviet Rule and Christmas continues its comeback. Traditions which were suppressed or adapted are now on the rise. For example, Saint Nicholas has returned to his role of bringing gifts at Christmas rather than Grandfather Frost at New Year’s, and Christmas trees (instead of New Year’s trees) now adorn homes. Babouschka, the Russian version of La Befana, has also returned as the traditional bringer of gifts. Other traditions include going door to door singing koldyaki (traditional pastoral carols).
In Moscow, the celebrations get underway following a televised speech from the president on Christmas Eve (January 6). Families gather for a Christmas Eve meal — but this one has no meat (and certainly no turkey). Instead, the main dish is kutya, a porridge made of berries, wheat and other grains, honey and poppy seeds. The ingredients are thought to bring happiness, success, hope and immortality. After dinner, gifts are opened before people attend a midnight mass. If you’re looking for somewhere to go, try Christ the Saviour Cathedral (near the Kremlin) where one of the main services is held.
Christmas Day is spent visiting friends, family and neighbours — and naturally there’s plenty of eating, drinking and singing involved.
4. Brasilia, Brazil
Christmas in the summer? That’s what you’ll find in Brazil, along with a mix of local and imported traditions — many of which are a nod to the country’s Portuguese heritage. Instead of the typical Christmas tree as we know it, you’ll find flowers fresh from the garden adorning homes. Instead of familiar evergreens, large trees made up of lights or ornaments decorate public places. Nativity scenes or Presépio are a common sight in stores, homes and churches throughout the month of December.
While it’s not a capital city, it’s the traditional birthplace of Jesus and a popular destination for travellers this time of year.
In Bethlehem, many of the celebrations are similar to those in Europe and North America, complete with Christmas lights, markets and plays. There isn’t “one” thing for travellers to see or experience over the holidays. With all the different church denominations holding processionals and services, the town is a hub of activity well into January.
Thousands of people will visit a few key places as part of the pilgrimage and celebrations. The Church of the Nativity is one of the main holy sites and is located at the place of Christ’s birth. There’s even a star marking the exact birthplace, and a place to pray at the site of the manger. Also, many Protestants will make the trip a couple of kilometres out of town to the Shepherd’s Fields in Beit Sahour where it’s believed the angel appeared to the shepherds in the Christmas story. Catholic services are also held at St. Catherine’s Church and the Tomb of Rachel.
If you’re planning on a pilgrimage, you’ll have to plan well in advance as there’s no room at the inn this year with hotels usually booked solid until February.
Did you know …
– In Ireland, mince pies and a bottle of Guinness are Santa’s favourite snack.
– In Ethiopia, gift-giving is a very small part of the Christmas celebrations. Children often receive clothes.
– Wooden shoes, not stockings, are left out to be filled with gifts in many European countries including France and Spain.
– Armenians in the Holy Land celebrate Christmas the latest in the season on January 18. (The feast days are calculated differently than in Armenia, which celebrates on January 6.)
– Celebrations often take to the streets in Southern hemisphere where it’s summertime in December. Parties, dances and fireworks are common.