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Best Places To Celebrate Christmas In Europe

From Christmas markets twinkling with fairy lights to the bucket list experience of meeting Santa and his reindeers in Lapland, Europe-based Aussie FLIP BYRNES reveals the best ways to enjoy the festive season across the continent with kids

Meet Santa in Lapland Image Juho Kuva Visit Finland
Meet Santa in Lapland. Image: Juho Kuva Visit Finland

Christmas adventures in Lapland

Deep in the forest in Lapland, a little red log cabin appears between snow laden trees. As we arrive by skidoo in the polar twilight, we see curl of smoke rising from the chimney. A faint light glows warmly in the window as our Elf (yes, Elf) turns to us and whispers: “I think he’s home. But we must call for him.” He cups his hands and calls, “Santa, are you here?”

This is the first time our elf ‘Poco’ has displayed any sanity. In the past hour, he has used one daughter as a human guitar while making gingerbread cookies, fallen asleep mid-marshmallow toasting as my eldest told a seemingly endless story, and at one point thrown himself against the window of the covered sleigh, sliding down in slow motion. But as he enlists the girls to lure Santa out, he’s feeling the gravitas of the moment.

Flip and family in sled
Flip and family in sled

Sounds are muffled by the blanket of snow, and Poco requests the help of my six- and seven-year-old daughters. “Santa!” they squeal enthusiastically. “Are you home?” There’s a moment of silence, the creak of a door and in the hazy gloom a figure shuffles out sporting an unmistakable red coat and long white beard. He pauses before announcing, “Lotte, Leni, finally, we meet.”  He stretches out his arms in welcome, and following a moment of pure shock, stunned that they are finally meeting the one and only Santa Claus in his (almost) North Pole home, my girls run in for an embrace.

At least, that’s what happens on the video. Overexcited, I slip on ice and fall face first, but in ultimate parent commitment never stop filming for family members. So this meeting takes place upside down, yet the poignancy of the moment remains unfiltered.

Northern Lights Village, Saariselka

Stay in a cabin at Aurora Lights Village in Finland
A beautiful wooden cabin at Aurora Lights Village in Finland

Watching alongside another couple on the three-hour Searching for Santa tour at the Northern Lights Village in Saariselka, we exchange loaded looks, aware we’re witnessing the creation of an unforgettable childhood memory. There’s almost a hint of something mystical in the moment, a once-on-a-lifetime aura that will make this Christmas one for family folklore.

This trip was delayed for three years by the COVID-19 pandemic, and with children on the cusp of ‘Santa belief’, it was a case of now or never. And while many go to Rovaniemi, the official ‘home of Santa’, Saariselka 250km north of the Arctic Circle offers something else. Quietness, in a town of 400 which swells to 18,000 in winter. But they come for more than just Santa. There are those hunting the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), ice fishing, husky sled riding and meeting reindeer.

Elves, reindeers and huskies

Flip and daughters with santa
Flip and daughters with Santa

But for us the focus is Santa (luckily, as the Aurora doesn’t make an appearance due to cloud cover). Our adventure includes baking gingerbread cookies with elves at the Elf Base Camp, travelling by reindeer sleigh to a cabin for marshmallow roasting and hot chocolate, then finally by skidoo to Santa’s house. Yes, Santa is tricky to find, and the fact only two to three families visit at a time makes it an intimate experience.

After an evening then spent with affectionate husky dogs vying for their attention, my daughters proclaim, “I can’t imagine how this day could get any better.” Apart from conjuring a flying reindeer and sleigh, it couldn’t.

The best Christmas markets in Europe

The entrance to Strasbourg Christmas market
The entrance to Strasbourg Christmas market

But a trip to the top of the world isn’t within reach for all families. In which case aim for the more of-this-world Christmas markets strung like sparkling baubles through Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Which country to focus on? Why not sample a smorgasbord on a country-crossing river cruise.

When asked which Christmas market is a stand-out, Chris Fundell of Avalon Waterways (which hosts children from eight years old) says, “Which isn’t!? They all have their special charm and one-of-a-kind atmosphere, but a couple of festive favourites include Strasbourg’s Christkindelsmärik, the oldest Christmas market in France, Vienna’s Christmas Village in front of the iconic Belvedere Palace, one of more than 20 official Advent markets in the city, and Basel, considered one of the most beautiful Christmas markets in Switzerland.”

Ice skating in Strasbourg Square Image Flip Byrnes
Ice skating in Strasbourg Square. Image: Flip Byrnes

Our family’s favourite larger market is French, a snowball toss across the German border in Strasbourg. A series of squares and markets are linked, bedecked in twinkling lights. It’s this sight combined with the heady scent of gluhwein and biting cold air that have become Christmas associations as much as the taste of a juicy mango on December 25 at home in Australia.

For a smaller market, we can’t go past the little local market in the town where we are currently based in Deidesheim, an hour south of Frankfurt. You’ll never see any tourist buses here. Rather, the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas markets can confusingly also be called Adventsmarkt, as they take place during Advent) is a vignette of hyper local German life – the gluhwein is made from a Dornfelder in a nearby field, the wares sold are not plastic Santas but artisanal made from wood carving and glass blowing. It’s also where the villagers gather after work to share a drink and eat their Christmas version of fast food, flammkuchen – a flat pizza with speck (cured pork products).

Other Christmas traditions in Europe

A Christmas market in Salzburg Image AdobeStock
A Christmas market in Salzburg. Image: AdobeStock

Along with the markets come scores of ancient Advent traditions. The Australian editor of online Swiss magazine Z’Nuni Kristin Reinhard explains, “In central Switzerland, where I call home, we have the tradition of Klausjagen – a way to chase away the evil spirits using bells.” In December, men and children form groups with one iffeln (lantern) carrier, dress in a hirtenhemd (a shepherd’s shirt), carry trycheln (bells) they ring around the village to eradicate evil spirits. The ultimate Klausjagen that welcomes spectators takes places in Küssnacht am Rigi, with a huge parade through the village.

Hansel and Gretel Kraut touches in France Image Flip Byrnes
Hansel and Gretel Kraut touches in France. Image: Flip Byrnes

Along with the markets come scores of ancient Advent traditions. The Australian editor of online Swiss magazine Z’Nuni Kristin Reinhard explains, “In central Switzerland, where I call home, we have the tradition of Klausjagen – a way to chase away the evil spirits using bells.” In December, men and children form groups with one iffeln (lantern) carrier, dress in a hirtenhemd (a shepherd’s shirt), carry trycheln (bells) they ring around the village to eradicate evil spirits. The ultimate Klausjagen that welcomes spectators takes places in Küssnacht am Rigi, with a huge parade through the village.

Flip Byrnes travelled as guest of Saariselka Northern Lights Village with support from Visit Finland.

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