IT’S A special time of the year, and not just for Christians. Christmas conveys celebration, fairy lights, presents, carols, special food and drink, as well as spreading goodwill and cheer. For those who want to partake of the special Christmas spirit, there are a few places where it is truly a magical experience.
Rovaneimi, Lapland: Pranab Mukherjee became the first Indian President to visit Santa Claus’ official workplace in Rovaneimi during his recent visit to Finland. Like the half million annual visitors to Santa’s official hometown, Mukherjee had what he described as a ‘fairytale’ day with a host of activities, including a meeting with Santa and his elves, crossing the Arctic Circle and watching reindeer in action. Crossing the Arctic Circle is a highly popular ritual among tourists visiting the Santa Claus Village. Rovaniemi is situated directly on the Arctic Circle at 66.5 degrees north latitude, the southern boundary of the Arctic region, known for its nightless summer nights and sunless winter days. All visitors to Rovaneini receive a certificate for crossing the Arctic circle. In the village, one can watch reindeer at a farm, known in folklore for Santa Claus’ sleigh, which is pulled by flying reindeer, a popular element of Christmas. The ones at the village are wild reindeer which are semi-domesticated for meat, hides, antlers, milk and transportation. Of course, this is Lapland, so in winter, everything will be blanketed in snow, but there’s still plenty to do and see, including the giant pendulum called ‘Earth’s Rotational Speed Regulator’, the wishlists received by Santa Claus every December—the longest one has 75,954 wishes—and the clock that strikes only at midnight of Christmas and New Year. Santa operates from his office housed in the village where visitors can meet him throughout the year and ask him to grant their wishes. Santa’s post office is where letters and parcels for Santa arrive round the year, mostly from children asking for specific presents. The elves send replies to them stamped with a special Arctic Circle postmark. A total of 80 million letters and cards have been received at the post office in the past 20 years. There’s plenty of accommodation, including an ice hotel. There are also restaurants, snowmobile rides, sleigh rides, reindeer rides, ice sculptures, quaint shops and a chance to sample local Lapland dishes.
New York: It’s a place to visit any time, but Christmas makes the Big Apple a magical place. The glittering tree at Rockefeller Center is the world’s most famous Christmas tree, but the entire city becomes one gigantic Christmas display, offset by the snow falling and the sound of carols and Church music. It’s the perfect time to take that carriage ride through Central Park with a blanket and a hipflask handy. The department store displays are stunning; bringing in New Year in Times Square is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Amsterdam: The Dutch celebrate Christmas differently, with Sinterklaas on December 5 which is when the gifts are exchanged under the tree and actual Christmas on December 25 when families gather for feasting and drinking. Being in the city is quite an experience, as Amsterdam turns into a twinkling fairyland with lights strung up everywhere you look, reflecting from the city’s canals and creating a magical mirror effect.
San Juan, Puerto Rico: Not a place one would associate with Christmas, but Christmas here is a two-week party, fuelled with coquito, a rum- and coconut-based drink, and seasonal Puerto Rican holiday food, such as meat- and spice-filled pastries known as pasteles, or pernil, a seasoned, baked pork shoulder. The festivities don’t stop until January 6, Three Kings Day, where families get together for one last Christmas party.
Edinburgh: This is another extended affair that starts from November 30 and continues till Hogmanay, the last day of the year, with a range of treats and entertainment: world-class attractions, fabulous Christmas markets, food and drink with music, marching bands, theatre and cultural events add to the festivities. Stretching across two locations in the heart of the city centre, St Andrews Square and East Princes Street Gardens, there’s something for everyone, from the Big Wheel, Star Flyer, the ice rink and the much loved Christmas markets at Santa Land which feature a toy train and a grotto. The piece de resistance is the spectacular Light Night on George Street.