I will always remember waking up on Christmas morning full of anticipation about what gifts Santa Claus had left for us under the tree. Full of wonder, I could never figure out how he made it to children’s houses all over the world, making their holiday dreams come true with the exact presents they had wished for. It was magic, pure and simple. That was a fact I accepted without question as a child.
It became more magical still when we traveled for the holidays. We spent our Christmas vacation in different countries. When I was nine, we headed off to Jamaica, ditching our snowsuits for bathing suits, to experience tropical holiday festivities. The banana trees were aglow with tiny multi-colored lights, red hibiscus flowers stood in for poinsettias, white powdered sand blanketed beaches in summer “snow” and carolers were decked out in party attire – and sandals – as we joined our voices in song, traditional holiday favorites with a distinctive reggae beat, with the locals. Along with customs familiar to us children, we took special delight in the annual Jonkanoo (or John Canoe) celebration we experienced when island revelers paraded through the streets dressed in colorful masquerade costumes. And yes, Santa even rode his sleigh to this Caribbean island with treats for all of us children.
As you might imagine, December in Switzerland is the quintessential winter wonderland. Experiencing it, on skis, in the Alpine village of Grindelwald, a storybook town dressed in gingerbread chalets, with my entire family as a teenager was totally cool! Christmas dinner was a medley of regional specialties, with real Swiss fondue – cheese, meat, and chocolate – taking center stage at the festive harvest table we shared with our fellow hotel guests. Outside bells rang, each mountain village trying to outdo the other in melodious fashion. As I recall, the more bells we heard, the more our hearts beat with the spirit of the season. It seemed that the spirit of Santa had made it here as well, spreading holiday magic around the world.
Now, many Decembers later, these trips rank as two of the best Christmas presents I have ever received, in large part because they marry two of the most special gifts I could ever hope for: travel and family.
Gratefully I have had the good fortune of sharing my love of holiday travel with my own children, each time reliving the magic I felt as a child. In fact, we’ve made holiday travel a tradition at our house. In addition to dreaming of a Christmas luau on a tropical Hawaiian beach or ringing in the new year from an ultra-luxurious Oberoi hotel in India, here are a few of the places that made it to the top of our wish lists this year:
Spain. Christmas in Spain is a deeply religious holiday with traditions centuries old. The season officially begins on December 8 with the feast of the Immaculate Conception and a special dance ceremony performed by ten elaborately costumed boys that takes place in front of the Seville’s great Gothic cathedral. Homes throughout Spain boast nativity scenes that become the centerpiece for Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) feasts and celebrations and tiny oil lamps glow in windows to await the arrival of Navidad. After Midnight Mass and Christmas dinner, sweetened by an almond candy called turrón that makes its appearance at this time of year, holiday revelers dance the Jota to the sound of castanets and guitars in streets alive with annual festivities. Spanish children receive their gifts on the feast of the Epiphany, January 6, when the Magi are believed to travel through the countryside en route to Bethlehem. You’ll spy shoes filled with straw, carrots and barley on windowsills of private homes, hopeful offerings left by the children for the camels – or the donkey Balthazar – of the Three Wise Men who leave gifts for the children in their place.
Italy. There’s no place like Rome for the holidays. Can you imagine celebrating Christmas with a visit to the Vatican when the Pope delivers a Christmas Eve midnight mass reverently watched the world over? St. Peter’s Square is festooned with a huge Christmas tree and a life-sized Nativity Scene is set out in front of the Basilica. Over 100 Nativities line the Piazza del Popolo; colorful Christmas markets fill other city squares. Like in Spain, children can’t wait for the January Epiphany, but instead of the three gift-bearing Magi, they wait for the witch, La Befana, to bring them Christmastime sweets. Nativity scenes come alive in Sicily, literally, as the locals dress up and re-enact them daily from Christmas Eve through the Epiphany. Father Christmas glides into Venetian celebrations by gondola and in Florence, New Year’s Eve is celebrated with a party of art, Tuscan wines and culinary fare that lasts long into the New Year.
South America. December in Argentina means warm weather religious celebrations, trees dressed in cotton-ball snow, pan dulce, a sweet pastry stuffed with dried fruit and nuts, globos, candle-lit balloons, that soar skyward from homes across the county, and fireworks that light up the night sky with blazing colors. Old Man Christmas, Viejito Pascuero drops in Chilean homes through open windows bearing good tidings and gifts for the little ones and in Brazil’s beachfront city of Rio de Janeiro, when mid-summer is in full swing, New Year’s Eve entices with salsa dancing and champagne in street parties full of partygoers dressed in white for good luck in the New Year.
Africa. “Geseende Kersfees.” That’s Africkaans for “Merry Christmas.” Travel to Cape Town in December and you might hear that a lot when you meet the locals as you explore iconic places along the Victoria & Albert Waterfront and raise a toast to the holidays in Stellenbosch vineyards. Head off into the bush on safari and the language changes along with the landscapes. “Kuwa na Krismasi njema” means Merry Christmas in Swahili, spoken by tribal villagers in Tanzania. And the wild animals you’ll spy on game drives? Seeing the circle of life play out unrehearsed in the game reserves you explore, well that’s holiday pageantry at its most awesome!