Christmas has become a global festival, regardless of religion or location. Lonely Planet’s 1000 Ultimate Experiences lists the best places in the world to experience the yuletide spirit.
1. BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK
With today’s emphasis on present grabbing and overindulging, it’s hard to deny that the real meaning of Christmas often seems forgotten. For a refresher, nothing compares to a pilgrimage to Jesus’ birthplace. The energy on Manger Square and in the Old City on Christmas Eve could light a forest of Christmas trees. The place to be as the clock strikes 12 is St Catherine’s Church, for the Midnight Mass service.
2. SANTA CLAUS VILLAGE, FINLAND
When too much Santa is never enough, rug up and head north to Finland’s Arctic Circle. The jolly man in the red suit is this neighborhood’s most famous resident, and round these parts they milk him for all he’s worth. Still, the deep wintertime snow and reindeer-dotted forests go a long way toward off setting the touristy atmosphere, though there’s an amusement park called Santa Park not far from the village. You’ll need deep pockets, but you’d have to be pretty Grinch-like to leave without a smile.
3. NEW YORK CITY, USA
Surely you know what Christmas in the Big Apple looks like, thanks to countless movies: Christmas lights, cheesy muzak, preferably a light dusting of snow. The world’s tallest Christmas tree is lit at the Rockefeller Center in early December. Ice skating below it is a must for wintertime visitors, as is checking out the window displays in New York’s largest department stores. Finish with a New York Ballet performance of “The Nutcracker” for a Christmas straight out of central casting.
4. BONDI BEACH, AUSTRALIA
Hit the beach to talk turkey with fellow travellers. Bondi is the antithesis of northern-hemisphere Christmas cliches: sun, sand and surf replace snow and fairy lights. Come 25 December the beach acts as a magnet for backpackers a long way from home, who celebrate alongside other “Christmas orphans.” Bands and DJs rock the Pavilion, everyone checks out everyone else, and a festive atmosphere prevails. Items you may not normally take to Christmas dinner: swimsuit, sunscreen, sunhat.
5. MIDNIGHT MASS, THE VATICAN, ITALY
You can rest assured that the spiritual heart of Catholicism knows how to do Christmas. The Eternal City is magical at any time of year, but December has an extra frisson, with roasted chestnuts sold on every corner and the city awash with presepi (nativity scenes) – check them out on St Peter’s Square, Piazza Navona, and in the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli on the Capitoline Hill. It’s the Vatican that pulls the most pilgrims. Midnight Mass in St Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Eve, or at noon on Christmas Day, is an affair to remember.