The aroma of chestnuts fills the air as snowflakes drift down and vendors peer out from behind their gingerbread-style stalls filled with handmade toys and ornaments.
Come December, Germany is transformed into a winter wonderland with outdoor markets in many cities and towns that capture the spirit of the season.
Christmas markets are a tradition that began in the German-speaking regions of Europe and has continued for centuries — the oldest Christmas market in Germany dates to the mid-14th century.
Even though the holiday season is one of the most hectic times to travel, there are a few places in the world that are truly worth braving crowded airports and unpredictable weather to experience — at least once anyway. If you are pondering the merits of a holiday getaway, here are some suggestions for this season’s holiday hotspots.
European Christmas markets
There’s nothing like a “Christkindlmarkt,” or Christmas Market to get you in the holiday spirit.
These outdoor markets were originally held during the four weeks of Advent in the German-speaking regions of Europe (Germany, Austria and Alsace), but today are found in other European cities as well.
For many travellers, the originals are still the best and most German cities offer discount packages and free guided tours for visitors who wish to see their famous markets.
Top picks for pre-Christmas travel include the 400-year-old Nuremberg Christkindlmarkt, which has about 200 stalls and is held in the main square of the city’s Old Town, which is decorated for the occasion.
There’s also a Kinderweihnacht, or children’s Christmas, which features a steam train, carousel, and hands-on activities for younger visitors.
Frankfurt’s Christmas Market is also one of the most important holiday markets in Germany, because of its size, the large numbers of visitors, and convenient location. Decorations are elaborate and include an enormous Christmas tree, live musical performances, the chiming of church bells and specific times each day, visits by Santa, and an historical steam train.
Munich has several Christmas markets, but the oldest one takes place in the Marienplatz in the heart of the city. There is a Heavenly Workshop in the Town Hall with arts, crafts, and baking activities for children.
At the Rindermarkt you’ll find a dedicated manger market where you can purchase all the elements required to make a Nativity scene. A 30-metre Christmas tree, song and dance performances, handicrafts and cuisine from around the world round out the experience.
New Year’s in New York
No spot on the planet is more associated with the ringing in of the New Year than New York City’s Time Square. On New Year’s Eve, one million revellers will fill the square and one billion viewers worldwide will watch the famous ball descend and count down the seconds to 2012 – a 104 year-old tradition. This year, Lady Gaga and Canada’s Justin Bieber will perform live in Times Square as part of Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest.
The holiday season officially begins with the Macy`s Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 24 and the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree on November 30. Indoor and Outdoor holiday markets and extravagant holiday-themed window displays are also part of the NYC holiday tradition. Numerous artistic performances will also take place throughout the season, but Radio City Music Hall`s Christmas Spectacular featuring the Rockettes and the New York City Ballet`s performance of the Nutcracker are definite highlights.
More Info: www.nycgo.com.
The Bahamian Junkanoo
Junkanoo is a Bahamian Festival that takes place in the dark hours of the morning on December 26 and again on January 1. Its history dates back to the 16th or 17th century when slaves celebrated a temporary freedom from slavery, because they were given three days off at Christmas time. The traditional festival involved the slaves donning scary masks, playing homemade instruments and cavorting through the streets. After slavery was abolished, the festival nearly died out, but in modern times it has been revived to a type of Mardis Gras that has become a joyous celebration of freedom.
You can experience Junkanoo on many of the islands of the Bahamas, but the largest celebration takes place on Nassau where thousands of people dance their way along Bay Street in colourful costumes. Parade participants are organized in separate groups of 1000 individuals and each group represents a particular theme in their costumes, dance, and music and prizes are awarded for the best costumes, best music, and best overall group presentation. It is an energetic, colourful parade that can only be experienced in the Bahamas.
More Info: www.bahamas.com/en-ca.
New Year’s in Rio
Known as Reveillon, the New Year’s party in Rio de Janeiro is a gathering of about 2 million people on the beach in Copacabana. To celebrate properly, one should plan ahead to wear revealing white clothing as a symbol of light, purity, and kindness with new underwear that reflects your wish for the New Year. Red or pink underwear indicates you are hoping for romance in the New Year, white for peace, yellow for prosperity, and green for harmony. It’s a good idea to purchase some lilies to sacrifice to the Yemanja, or Goddess of the Sea. Such a sacrifice is said to obligate the Goddess to granting you three wishes. The samba music begins at about 8 pm and goes until well after the fireworks show at midnight.
More Info: www.braziltour.com.
Christmas in Iceland
In December, daylight lasts for only 4 hours in Reykjavík and the Aurora borealis illuminates the night sky, but what makes Iceland a great place to visit during the holidays is its unique holiday customs. In Iceland, there are 13 Santa Clauses or Yuletide lads who arrive bearing gifts and candy (and pulling pranks) on the 13 days before Christmas. Children put a shoe on the window sill each evening beginning on December 12 and one of the Santas leaves a gift or a potato depending on whether the child was good or bad. Thorláksmessa (mass day of St Þorlákur) is celebrated on December 23rd, and gifts are exchanged on December 24th. On New Year’s Eve, people attend community bonfires and then watch a fireworks show and set off their own fireworks. The season ends on January 6 with a special Twelfth Night Celebration, where elves and trolls come out to celebrate with Icelanders.
More Info: www.goiceland.org.
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.