December is dominated by dark nights, damp mornings, and dreary afternoons. Christmas and New Year are the main events of the month to brighten things up a bit, so here are five destinations to take the festivities to the next level.
An idea propagated by the American film industry is that New York is like real life, but bigger and better than you can live it, and on your visit to the Big Apple you’ll find this concept hard to refute. The buildings are even taller than you imagined, the winter is colder than you might expect, and the Christmas lights are as beautifully elaborate as they are sickeningly blinding. If there’s ever a place to fill up your holiday cheer, the Americans have got you covered. The cold weather increases your chances of a white Christmas to further add to the atmosphere, and the tree outside the Rockefeller Centre is likely to be the biggest you’ll see. Why not partake in a little bit of ice skating while you take in the backdrop? It’s difficult not to run around the city with the enthusiasm of Kevin McCallister, minus the fear of two pesky burglars with a vendetta against you. Don’t leave the tourism all to yourself though, combine your love of Christmas and movies by hopping onto the Christmas movie walking tour on a pay-as-you-like basis.
After morning mass, a big meal, and the exchanging of presents, it’s time to look forward to the next event: New Years. The decorations are still up in Times Square and the streets are rammed with people eagerly awaiting the dropping of the ball. Make sure your bladder is empty before venturing out onto the streets, as a toilet break will find you at the back of the line when the time to recite Robbie Burns finally arrives. If you’re not fussed about Times Square, head to Brooklyn for a view of the fireworks over the city, or New Jersey for a display with the Statue of Liberty offering a decent backdrop.
Sydney is a well-established destination on any New Year’s list, but what about the rest of December? The coastal city offers a twist on the traditional festive holiday, principally because you’ll be heading there in the summer heat. With that in mind, spend the run up to the big day lazing on the beach, sparing few thoughts for your friends at home in their coats and scarfs as they lament their decision not to follow you to the Southern Hemisphere. Get an early night on the 22nd: the next morning you’ll be filling up with coffee and heading down to Sydney Fish market at 5am for the Seafood Marathon lasting all the way through to 5pm on Christmas Eve.
Of course, the main event of this trip is the world renowned New Year’s fireworks. Get in amongst the other 1.5 million or so other people down at the harbour. As one of the first places in the world to ring in the year, The Aussie’s have an obligation to set the standard for the rest of us, and they do it ‘pretty bloody well, mate’! The fireworks are synchronised to music as they explode off the harbour bridge and surrounding areas, including the Opera House. The lights soar into the sky and cascade from the bridge into the water for twelve full minutes to signify the twelve months of the year. After it’s all done, high on your list of resolutions will be to return again next year.
If you’re anything like me, you like to embrace the seasons in all their glory. This means heading to the beach in the summer, and finding somewhere cold and preferably with snow in the winter. Here there clue is in the title; Iceland inherently promises a higher probability of a snowy Jól (Icelandic for the Christmas holiday season). Interestingly, Icelanders don’t care much for Santa Claus, instead they have the ‘Yule Lads’ – thirteen little rascals each with their own naughty personality, who only come out of their caves around Christmas time. If you see a cartoon image of a scruffy old boy projected on a city wall, it’s likely one of the Lads.
Similar to New York, a square in the city centre is set aside for ice skating, or if you have your own skates with you (for some reason), you can head over to the frozen pond and zip around to your heart’s content. Other novelty methods of transport are available in this part of the world. Renting a snowmobile or taking a ride in an off road buggy will get your heart rate up a bit in an attempt to keep you warm, or opt for a more tranquil day out by riding a little Icelandic horse. Whichever you choose, you’re going to have a Jól-ly good time. There are also some Christmas markets to mill around with you mulled wine, the most popular being in Hafnarfjörður (try and say that after an eggnog), complete with small wooden houses and handmade crafts.
The best part of the New Year celebrations in Reykjavik is the firework display. Unlike the government-funded (about $7 million) display in Sydney, The locals here in Iceland like to take matters into their own hands by stocking up with an exuberant supply of gunpowder filled rockets and attempt light up the night sky. Who needs the sun? One of the best places to observe the spectacle is Víghóll, with near 360 degree views of what seems like the entire population’s own personal display, creating a truly unique worldly experience. Fireworks not your thing? No worries, you’re in Iceland, and Mother Nature has her own light display on offer. Nip on a bus or drive out of the city into the countryside in an attempt to catch the famed northern lights for a natural New Year light show.
This might seem like a wildcard, but stay with me. It seems like the people of Hong Kong also have their own Christmas characters, although Santa is big here too, as they seem to opt for just dressing up a bit funny with a red jacket. Maybe like a Christmas duck or chicken. Aside from the visual aspect (every shopping centre heavily decorated, multimedia symphony of lights etc.) there are a bunch of Christmassy things to get involved in. The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra puts on a Christmas special, as does the Honk Kong ballet. You could even pop into the Winner Building and try your hand at crafting your own wreath and other seasonal arrangements. Disneyland achieves an impressive feat of making your visit to the park even more cheerful than usual. If you find yourself in Sha Tin surrounded by a herd of runners in red suits and long grey beards, it’s not the end. You’ve stumbled across the Great Santa Run – quite the sight. With all these activities, many people choose to partake in what Hong Kong is famous for, shopping. You can get lost for days and weeks on end with the plethora of sprawling shopping centres selling all the gifts you can fit in your stocking and more.
A big part of Christmas over here, like anywhere, is the food. If you can stretch your budget to visit a posh hotel you’ll be reward with a two million course meal which serves everything remotely edible. There’s also a place called The Pulse, which tries to recreate where Santa might be enjoying his feast by erecting ‘igloos’ in which you can dine. Novel. And Christmas markets. Oh the Christmas markets. Of course you can find the tradition German market here, but you can also find markets from other nationalities such as Italy or Finland.
Although Chinese New Year is the bigger event in this part of the world, the display on December 31st is nothing to turn your nose up at. A street party on Tsim Sha Tsui Pier begins at ten o’clock, and an hour before midnight the display starts with explosions of light every fifteen minutes. When twelve o’clock rolls around, a stretch of the harbour over a kilometre long flares up. Even some of the boats in the harbour are equipped with fireworks to add to the depth of the display.
Sticking around Asia, another wildcard surfaces. Celebrating Christmas in a country where Christianity never really took off might not seem like the foundations of a great celebration. Christmas Day isn’t really a thing, with the main tradition being that families and couples go to KFC together and eat fried chicken (really). The overwhelming feeling over this period in Tokyo, aside from a meal based on an original Kentucky recipe, is one of romance. Each district has its own elaborate light decorations adorning the buildings, walls, floor, sky… everything. You’ll also stumble across the odd Christmas market dotted around the city, just to distinguish the decorations for your run-of-the-mill light festival. Notable sights are the wide boulevard of Takeshita Street in Harajuku and the Skytree in Sumida. No prizes for guessing what that is lit up to resemble. Of course, similar to Hong Kong, you could always visit Tokyo Disneyland, transformed to fit the occasion, if you can handle that much happiness.
New Year is one of the most important times of the year for the Japanese. The number one thing on their to do list is to get together on the 31st of December or 1st of January and have a good old fashioned feast. For this reason, either search out long lost friends who may be living there, or arrive a couple of weeks early and make some fast friends so you can get in on the action. After the food, follow the locals to a nearby temple to ring a big bell in order to bring you luck and prosperity for the coming year. Tradition dictates that the bell is to be rung one hundred and seven times on New Year’s Eve, then once more just as January 1st arrives, to represent each of the worldly desires in the teachings of Buddhism. Most temples will let everyone have a go on the bell though. If you’re more of a party-goer, head to the iconic Shibuya crossing for the countdown before heading out to one of the areas numerous bars.
There is one thing to take away from this whether you are religious or not. We should try to remember to spend the holiday period with the ones we love, be it friends or family, instead of succumbing to making the holiday about feeding the insatiable spectre of consumerism that lies ever present in us all. Happy Holidays!