When You're Dreaming of a White Christmas
The weather outside can be horrible; I think we can all agree on that. Nevertheless, winter in the northern hemisphere can be quite delightful. Would you like to try something rather than sun and beaches for Christmas?
Suddenly, you inhabit those Christmas Carols of your childhood, right down to sleigh bells in the snow and chestnuts roasting on open fires. Moreover, if you are dreaming of a white Christmas, snow decorates rooftops and muffles streets in a dream-like hush.
Anyone brave enough to endure the cold is in for a treat. Kids build snowmen in city parks and Santas ho-ho-ho- in hotel lobbies. Across America and Europe, cities come wrapped in ribbons and tinsel like giant holiday presents.
Add plenty of cozy cafes and restaurants, fascinating and well-heated museums, and a thousand shops decked in Christmas finery, and you may find the northern hemisphere a very engaging place to spend a White Christmas.
Here are some of my favourite places and things to do during the northern winter:
New York in winter is cold: there are miniature ice floes on the Hudson River and snowdrifts in Central Park. Still, the city has some of the best Christmas decorations anywhere- a superb display of lights giving the city a truly magical atmosphere.
Perhaps the most beautiful are those strung up on the Christmas trees lining Park Avenue. Fifth Avenue also puts on a fine show, capping it with a huge illuminated snowflake above the intersection of West 57th Street.
Even Bronx Zoo breaks out in illuminated animal sculptures and 12km of tree lighting.
A giant Christmas tree with 30,000 lights stands at the heart of the Rockefeller Center. The lighting of this tree kicks off the festive season in the Big Apple.
You can skate on the famous sunken ice rink right in the heart of the Rockefeller Center, overlooked by the golden statue of Prometheus. Lights twinkle and angels blow trumpets: the quintessential Christmas experience.
Shopping in central Europe
If you are tired of shopping malls and want a more traditional Christmas shopping experience, the winter markets of Eastern Europe have changed little since medieval times.
In Prague, puppets, candles and traditional Czech tree ornaments are the best buys, while mulled wine nicely warms your insides. In Budapest, Christmas cake and spicy sausages keep you going as carol singers and folk dancers entertain.
Perhaps the most beautiful is the Stuttgart market, which opens with a concert in the courtyard of its medieval castle. It features Advent singers and a wonderful open-air skating rink.
There are 200 stands. The antiques section of the fair is a great place to browse for old-fashioned Christmas decorations, such as hand-blown glass ornaments and nativity figures.
Snowscape in Switzerland
The Swiss Alps are beautiful in any season, but nothing surpasses winter for wonder and romance. Even if you are no skier, there is plenty of walking, snowshoeing and tobogganing to enjoy-or simply a sunny restaurant terrace with sweeping alpine views.
In mountain towns such as Zermatt and St Moritz, old wooden chalets hunker under caps of snow. Tree branches are encrusted with ice-like decorations by Swarovski.
Ancient festivals that hark back to the middle ages enliven dark evenings. In Lucerne, costumed musicians parade during Carnival, when masked balls last long into the night.
For one of the most splendid winter views in all Switzerland, take the little red train from Vitznau, near Lucerne, to the summit of the Rigi Frozen waves of snow-capped peaks jostle against the horizon, and lakes glint with ice below. There is good winter hiking on the Rigi a terrific way to enjoy the scenery and work up an appetite for a fondue dinner.
In 1999, Scotland's capital instituted a Christmas festival throughout December; it has since become firmly fixed on the calendar, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
Musical moments in Salzburg
The Christmas season in Salzburg means one thing: music. Wonderful holiday concerts through December showcase home town composer Mozart, as well as folk and Christmas music.
Some of the best concerts are performed by candlelight in the Hohensalzburg Fortress which dominates the medieval town. Gaze from the ramparts down over snow-covered roofs and sparkling lights to the snowy mountains in the background.
Recitals are also held in churches, where you can admire impressive traditional Nativity scenes assembled from carved wooden figures.
In town squares such as Domplatz and Mirabellplatz, Christmas markets bustle. You can buy delicate glass balls, tree decorations made of straw, and gingerbread biscuits layered with ham.
Even here music is heard: carol singers entertain the public, and buskers play Christmas jingles.
On Christmas Eve, a torch lit procession heads through the village of Obendort to the Memorial Chapel, where in 1818 the organist Fraz Gruber composed Silent Night to lyrics by local priest Josef Mohr. People gather to sing perhaps the most Famous of all carols in its original setting - a perfect way to welcome in Christmas.