Finland, the real home of Santa Claus

Promoting itself as the “real home of Santa Claus,” Finland celebrates Christmas with markets, festivities and traditions, all culminating on Christmas Eve with a taking of the sauna, enjoyment of Christmas treats and gatherings with friends and family, and a visit by Santa Claus.

Santa Claus, or Joulupukki in Finnish, is known to reside in northeastern Lapland, on the Korvatunturi Fell. Legend states that the Korvatunturi Fell is shaped like an ear, allowing Santa to hear the wishes of children from around the world. Korvatunturi is “home base” for Santa’s travels above the Arctic Circle.

Santa Claus’ Office is in Santa Claus’ Village on the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland. The nearest town, Rovaniemi, is 8 km away. (Highway 4 north of Rovaniemi).

Santa Claus Village, open throughout the year with free admission, is home to Santa Claus’s Office where visitors can meet Santa, visit his Main Post Office and observe the flurry of the festive season. Cards, letters and parcels sent from Santa Claus’ Main Post Office are stamped with a unique Arctic Circle postmark. Through the years Finland’s Santa Claus has received more than 18 million letters. Each year he receives more than 600,000 letters from more than 150 countries. More info at >

Santa’s Park is a fantasy world inside an underground cave where “elves” work all year in preparation for Christmas. Guests can bake and decorate gingerbread in the Gingerbread Kitchen, learn elf skills in Elf School, or make Christmas decorations in the Elf Workshop. Santa Park’s Sleigh Ride takes guests through four seasons of Finland to the elves’ toy factory where presents for Christmas are made. Entrance is 20 euro for children and 25 euro for adults through January 10. More info at >

According to the Finnish tradition, Christmas is brought to the homes by St. Thomas on December 21 (St. Thomas Day) and is taken away by St. Knut on January 13. St. Thomas markets prepare for the December 21 celebration, selling handmade Christmas decorations, ornaments, handicrafts, gifts, and treats such as gingerbread and hot mulled wine, Glögi, a warming combination of wine, spices and fruit. The St. Thomas Market in Helsinki, in Esplanade Park, is the largest Christmas market in Finland with approximately 150 vendors. On weekends, entertainment includes a Finnish Christmas pageant and a visit by Santa Claus. The market is open daily from December 7 to 20. In Turku the Christmas Fair is open on weekends through December 25. More info at >

Christmas shopping in Europe

There are many shopping possibilities around Europe to get travellers in the Christmas Spirit.

Many European cities are attracting guests with the lowest hotel rates of the year allowing travellers to get in some cheap last minute shopping before Christmas. In Milan, 110 euro, travellers save 14 percent in comparison to the previous month, in Venice, 115 euro, twelve percent. Prices have also decreased in Nice, 85 euro, eight percent less and Barcelona, 96 euro, nine percent less.

To prolong the festive season into 2010, travellers can visit the Three King’s celebration on the 6th January in Barcelona.

In comparison to the previous month, hotel prices have risen in European cities that offer Christmas markets throughout December. In the German city of Nuremberg travellers pay 108 euro for a standard double room over the Christmas period, twelve percent more than in November. The same can be seen in other German cities, such as Dresden, 86 euro, an increase of ten percent and Stuttgart, 108 euro, an increase of six percent.

The same trend can also be seen in popular cities in Austria and Switzerland. A standard double room in Vienna is 109 euro in December, five percent more than the previous month, while in Zurich prices have increased due to the Christmas market by three percent to 183 euro.

Although Christmas markets in Europe are mostly associated with Germany and Austria, many others can also be found in England, Estonia, Finland, France and other countries around Europe. However, my favorite one is in Berlin, Germany and that is not due to hot mulled wine only!

Take a look at the following links >

Two cities > one great Christmas experience

Combine the capital of Copenhagen with Sweden’s third largest city, Malmö, for a true Scandinavian pre-Christmas experience. Copenhagen is especially wonderful at Christmas time and the historic city of Malmö in Sweden is another great Yuletide attraction.

Thanks to the Öresund Bridge which majestically links the two countries, it’s never been easier to enjoy the delights of being part of a Danish and Swedish build up to Christmas. With a convenient rail-link the cities are just 35 minutes apart.

COPENHAGEN > In Copenhagen, serious shoppers head for Ströget, northern Europe’s longest pedestrian shopping street. From mid November onwards, shopkeepers try to outdo each other in creating the most attractive window displays. Many look for exclusive designs or perhaps special quality decorations for the Christmas tree, if so, head straight for Illums Bolighus, a centre for Danish and international design. Next door at Amagertorv Square stands the Royal Copenhagen flagship shore, a wonderful 17th century building filled with fine porcelain, crystal and collectable Christmas plates as well has Georg Jensen silverware.

Royal Copenhagen is also famous for its display of Christmas tables. They have a different theme each year and are decorated with the best of Royal Copenhagen finery. Be prepared to queue for this annual visual highlight!

Another must do, is a visit to the annual Christmas Market at Tivoli Gardens. Tivoli Gardens is the most popular attraction in Denmark, and this time of the year they put on a fabulous display of the best illuminated trees you will ever see in Europe. Some sixty stalls sell Danish handicrafts, seasonal foods and gifts. The market is this year will open on 16 November.

MALMÖ > Just over the Öresund Bridge, Malmö is another great place for shopping. The big department store, Hansakompaniet, is the place to go when in need of inspiration for last-minute Christmas gifts. Here you’ll find trendy clothes, restaurants, beauty products and household goods. Then move on to Saluhallen, at the picturesque Lilla Torg Square, a true mecca for gourmets with several small shops selling tea, chocolates and seasonal delicacies. There are several copy bars and restaurants surrounding Lilla Square, where locals and visitors alike meet up for a traditional warm ‘glogg’. From 25 November the City of Malmö puts on its Christmas market, attracting more and more visitors each year.

A good time to be in Malmö is on the 13th December for Lucia! This tradition takes place each year on the 13th of December, when Lucia, ‘The Queen of Light’ wearing candles in hair, together with her attendants, travel through the city in a horse drawn carriages up to the Stortorget Square where locals will have gathered to sing traditional carols and watch the official crowning of Lucia.

Getting there > With flight times around two hours you can be there in no time at all. SAS Scandinavian Airlines operate regular direct services out of London Heathrow and City airports, Dublin, Aberdeen, Manchester and Birmingham. For latest offers

For further information go to

Christmas Spirit in Geneva

International Christmas Market, Geneva, November – December 2007

Those looking to take a pre-Christmas break this year may wish to head to Geneva, home to a Christmas market throughout November and December.

Situated on the Place de la Fusterie, the market gives visitors the chance to find some unique and interesting gifts to take home to their loved ones. Locally-made arts and crafts are on display, while other quirky antiques and items from around the world will be available to buy. Food, drink and other entertainment stalls will line the streets, presenting tourists, some of whom will be staying in the Hotel d’Angleterre, with a variety of entertaining pursuits.

Another attraction in Geneva this festive season is the Christmas Tree Festival, an art event which celebrates the customs surrounding the traditional December decoration. This is an annual event and it perennially prompts a widespread bout of creativity, as local artists find new ways to express the spirit of Christmas.

Related Links >

The Christmas markets of Germany III

Getting around
GETTING THERE: Lufthansa offers nonstop service to Munich. Check with your local travel agents.

GETTING AROUND: Train tickets between the airport and Munich’s old-town hotels cost $12 one way. Pay-as-you-go train tickets within the state of Bayern (Bavaria) can cost as little as $11 one-way between Nuremberg and Rothenburg, or as much as $27 one-way between Munich and Nuremberg.

Taxi fares from city train stations to hotels vary. In Nuremberg, it’s about $10 one-way from the train station to hotels in the old town; in Rothenburg, $7; in Munich, $24.

ESCORTED TOURS: Many tour operators conduct European Christmas market tours. Here is a sampling of those with itineraries that include German cities.

Maupintour’s German Christmas Market Towns> trip departs Dec. 20 for two nights in Frankfurt, two nights in Rothenburg, two nights in Baden-Baden. Land-only rate is $2,770 and includes most meals and an excursion to Strasbourg, France.

Collette Vacations Europe’s Christmas Markets trip has several departures in late November and early December for three nights in Oberammergau, Germany; two nights in the Black Forest; and two nights in Bern, Switzerland. Land-only rate is $999 and includes most meals and excursions to Innsbruck, Austria; Strasbourg; and Bern and Lucerne in Switzerland.

Uniworld’s Rhine and Moselle Christmas Markets: Lucerne to Cologne is a cruise that departs Dec. 1 for two nights in Lucerne and seven nights aboard the River Queen in an outside stateroom. Cruise rates from $2,130 include air from New York or Boston. Among the port calls are stops at Cologne, Koblenz, Mainz and Heidelberg in Germany; Strasbourg; and Basel, Switzerland.

INFORMATION: German National Tourist Office;

NOTE > All prices are approximate. Check with your local travel agents for updates.

The Christmas markets of Germany II

Lighted tree graces the square of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a Christmas-card perfect village in Southern Germany.

The lowdown on the market towns >
Munich musts >
2006 dates: Nov. 25-Dec. 24.
Must do: Go upstairs to any cafe fronting Marienplatz opposite city hall, order coffee and enjoy the bird’s-eye view.
Must see: The Glockenspiel chime (free).
Must visit: The Hofbrauhaus, probably the most famous beer hall in the world, just to say you’ve been there.
Must eat: The first thing that catches your eye in the victuals market.
Must stay: Two or three nights in the old city, at Platzl Hotel (Sparkassenstrasse 10;; $196/night double), two blocks from the Marienplatz and one block from the Hofbrauhaus; the rooms come with free access to the hotel’s palatial Moorish Kiosk, a fitness oasis with sauna, aroma steam room, foot bath, experience showers, a heat bench and a solarium

Rothenburg musts >
2006 dates: Nov. 25-Dec. 23
Must do: Walk the ramparts of the old city walls (free).
Must see: The view from the town hall tower ($3.50).
Must visit: Kathe Wohlfahrt’s Christmas Village ($2) and German Christmas Museum ($5).
Must eat: A schneeball, or snowball ($2.50-$5).
Must stay: Three or four nights at the history-rich Eisenhut Hotel (Herrngasse 3-7;; $251/night double).

Nuremberg musts >
2006 dates: Nov. 25-Dec. 24
Must do: Stroll the riverfront.
Must see: The view of town from the castle (free).
Must visit: Albrecht Durer House ($6).
Must eat: Franconian potato soup, in the piano-cafe atmosphere at Landauer restaurant ($3), or at Goldenes Posthorn restaurant ($3), established 1498.
Must stay: Two or three nights inside the city walls, at Top Hotel Duerer, notable for its location at the foot of Nuremberg Castle and practically on the doorstep of the Albrecht Durer House (Neutormauer 32;; $204/night double).

The Christmas markets of Germany I

Posted On December 30, 2006

Filed under Travel Europe
Tags: ,

Comments Dropped 2 responses

Outside the train window, bare tree branches wore a rock-candy coating of ice. Field furrows curving into view were planted ankle deep in snow. Village whistle-stops took on passengers and the subfreezing chill of late December that hounded them into the compartment all the way to their seats.

Nothing sounded more comforting than the thought of a long soak in a hot bath once I got to town, after town, after town.

I was touring the Christmas markets of Germany. Not all 2,500 of them, you understand,  even the German National Tourist Office doesn’t recommend that, but as many as I could fit into a seven-day trip in December and still savor the atmosphere, sample the refreshments and maybe do a little shopping.

Germany’s 32-page English-language guide to the Christmas markets pares the list of towns to about 100 countrywide. I needed to cut that to seven or eight. Should I give up shopping the booths aboard a Cologne riverboat in favor of hearing the boys’ choir in Regensburg? Ought I forgo seeing the 9,225-square-foot Advent calendar in Leipzig in order to buy Christmas cards printed at the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz? Would the half-timbered houses in Hildesheim be more quaint than those in Quedlinburg?

If I had been going as part of an organized tour, that decision would have been made for me. On a guided motor-coach itinerary, I could have just about counted on visiting at least one of southern Germany’s most important Christmas markets, if not all three: Nuremberg, Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Munich. Mainstream American tour operators such as Collette, Gate 1, Globus, Insight Vacations, Maupintour, Trafalgar Tours and Uniworld offer escorted Christmas market tours, though few confine themselves to a single country, as I did. I studied their itineraries, however, to get an idea of what was doable in a day’s time, then struck out on my own, riding trains from town to town. Along the way I became a statistic: one of the 160 million visitors a year to Germany’s Christmas markets, doing my part to generate about $7.7 billion in annual Christmas sales.

Only a few time-honored market items can be bought for less than $10 or $12: things like small beeswax candles, tree ornaments made of straw and the ubiquitous and dearly beloved prune men (dolls made of fig bodies with prunes for arms and legs, and walnuts for heads).

The preponderance of market goods are of the highest craftsmanship and considerably more expensive: $70 and up for hand-painted nutcrackers and hand-painted glass ornaments; at least $135 for the nicer “pyramids,” candle-powered windmills that revolve angels or shepherds or reindeer ’round and ’round inside a multitiered, conical frame.

In contrast, a serving of three potato pancakes with applesauce costs $3 at one Nuremberg booth; the price was the same for potato pancakes in Heidelberg, with a choice of currants or garlic sauce. A mug of gluhwein, spiced wine served piping hot, goes for $3 to $4.

All the shopping and eating is most delightfully done in the evenings, from dark until 8:30 or 9, when you get the full effect of the lights and the camaraderie of local Germans who stop by after work. That leaves the days free for sightseeing and getting from town to town.

Rothenburg, the village > Europe doesn’t get any more village-y than this. Cobblestone lanes, medieval walls, turrets, towers and half-timber houses make tiny Rothenburg the Christmas market for those who believe life is an eat-dessert-first affair. Pass through the gates to the old city, and you enter a snow-globe world of jaunty rooflines and lights glowing opaquely behind bull’s-eye window panes.

The market here, called the Reiterlesmarkt, is small, filling only the narrow alleyway behind the town hall and the clearing, you couldn’t call it a plaza, between it and St. James’ Church.

The larger, and proper, market square is reserved for a giant Christmas tree in front of the Counselors’ Tavern, with lots of room for people to gather for walking tours such as those led by the medieval-era night watchman on his nightly English-speaking lantern route past houses that have stood since at least the 1500s.

Rothenburg is the hometown of Kathe Wohlfahrt’s Christmas Village and the adjacent German Christmas Museum. I don’t know how a complex that looks so small on the outside can be so cavernous and time-consuming on the inside, but you’ll need something to eat before tackling it. Now’s as good a time as any to have a schneeball, or snowball, a softball-size confection made from strips of sweetened dough formed into a ball, then fried and covered liberally with confectioners’ sugar, cinnamon or chocolate. No Rothenburg Christmas would be complete without making a mess trying to eat one.

Before the wave of pogroms that began in 1298, this also was the center of medieval Jewish scholarship. By 1511, the town council forced surviving Jews to wear a mark on their clothing. Ironically, Allied bombing in World War II destroyed much of the old Jewish ghetto, but a restoration project has[since transformed that into what some believe is Germany’s best preserved medieval Jewish quarter.

Orderly Nuremberg > You know you’ve got a successful market when the clergy start complaining. One of Nuremberg’s men of the cloth once lamented that he couldn’t hold afternoon church services on Christmas Eve because all his parishioners were out shopping, and that, so the story goes, was way back in 1616. These days, the market attracts some 2 million visitors each season.

Nuremberg has a knack for bringing glorious order to the chaos of Christmas.In what was once a Jewish ghetto until the pogroms of the mid-1300s, vendors in 190 booths cover 27,000 square feet of the Hauptmarkt, below the Gothic spires of the Frauenkirche, or the Church of Our Lady. Every booth is hung in red-and-white striped awnings, which may be the reason people have nicknamed this “the little town of wood and cloth.” But little it isn’t.

The old town has a craftsmen’s market at Kings Gate, literally in one of the gate houses in the city walls, and a separate children’s market, with modern amusement rides, on the back side of Frauenkirche in Hans Sachs Square. But what distinguishes Nuremberg’s market in the main square is its adherence to strictly traditional standards. Stalls are decorated with garlands of real fir boughs, not plastic ones. Cardboard boxes can’t be shown. Recorded background music is forbidden. Mulled wine must be served in ceramic cups. Only time-honored market items such as nutcrackers, prune men, candles, glass ornaments, nativity sets, cookies and sausages, make that regulation Nuremberg sausages may be sold.

The market, of course, is at the center of a Nuremberg rebuilt from the shambles of World War II, when 90 percent of the old town was destroyed. A stroll here brings you in contact with building facades restored to the high Middle Ages, yet occupied by comfortably modern shops, restaurants and hotels. It’s a place of strange-but-acceptable contrasts, where the riverside Starbucks on Hauptmarkt Street seems as much at home as the vast Imperial Castle perched high on the city walls.

Munich: It’s more than beer > They say Munich’s Christmas market goes back about as far as its breweries, which would date both enterprises to the 14th century. It’s safe to say the two grew up and came of age together, making Munich’s Christkindlmarkt in Marienplatz the place for people who like to wander aimlessly and feel they’ve made wonderful discoveries in the process.

Here, it’s natural to go with the flow of foot traffic, which seems to move counterclockwise through the Christmas stalls of Marienplatz, down to the nativity-set booths in Rindermarkt and swinging back around to finish among the butcher shops and bakeries of the Viktualienmarkt, or victuals market.

Historically, Munich’s central Christmas market, there are several elsewhere in the city, was held outside the Frauenkirche, whose twin towers define the city’s skyline. In the 1970s the market moved a couple of lanes over to the Marienplatz. The stalls here are neither as orderly as Nuremberg’s nor as cozy as Rothenburg’s. But Munich’s trump is the ornate neo-Gothic New City Hall: both backdrop and star attraction, at once imposing and comforting. With little interruption in their browsing, shoppers can crowd beneath City Hall at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. to watch the Glockenspiel mechanically recreate a 1568 jousting tournament. Choirs sing from its balcony at 5:30 p.m.; and there’s a seasonal post office in one of its courtyards, where letters get a special Christkindl postmark.

If you don’t let yourself be distracted by the windows of the big department stores, it’s easy to find yourself drawn from Marienplatz down pedestrian Rosenstrasse to the booths of Rindermarkt (the lane), aka Kripperlmarkt, where all the shops and booths sell wood manger pieces hand-carved in Bavaria and the Tirol.

Follow Rindermarkt (the street) on around, shift one street over to Sparkassentrasse, and your wandering will be rewarded with 140 stalls and shops stocking meat, fish, butter, honey, bread, cheese, flowers, vegetables, fruits and wine, all more enticingly displayed than any of the Christmas booths in Marienplatz.

More markets to explore > An hour west of Munich by train, Augsburg promises to lower 24 living angels once a week from the rooftop of City Hall, which is transformed into a giant Advent calendar for the season. That’s what I went there for. I must have arrived on the wrong day, because I never saw the angels or the Advent calendar, despite making several market runs during a two-night stay.

But if you’ve ever wondered what happened to Woolworth’s, the old dime-store chain, I can tell you that Augsburg has got one of those; and it sells the same kinds of stuff, place mats, greeting cards, aluminum cookware, shampoo, yarn, coloring books. It’s only a couple of lanes behind Augsburg’s Christmas market, which, now that I think of it, sells some Woolworth-worthy items in some of its booths, practical things such as socks, gloves and sweaters, along with Christmas stock. Augsburg’s specialty food seems to be a hamburger bun-size dumpling drizzled in plenty of steaming-hot vanilla sauce.

The university town of Heidelberg is more convenient to Frankfurt than Munich. I spent more time and money on the train ride than the trip deserved. Of its several markets, I was attracted to the one by the university: lots of bicycles, clock towers, church spires and good times, judging by the animation level of the shoppers. Maybe you could chalk that up to the multicultural university atmosphere that flaunted booths selling things like natural-bristle brushes, trinkets from Tibet and scarves from Tunisia. Or maybe the drinks were to blame. Heidelbergers apparently don’t mind spiking their hot chocolate with rum ($4) and their gluhwein with amaretto, Cointreau or vodka ($4).

I traveled too late in the season to catch the markets in Nordlingen and Dinkelsbuhl, both walled villages on the old Roman Road. Their markets closed a day before I arrived. The two have much in common with Rothenburg ob der Tauber, small population, medieval turrets and half-timber buildings intact, nice little bakeries to drink coffee and eat strudel in. But in contrast to the crowds elsewhere, they felt practically deserted. Any other time of year I’d have enjoyed that, but less than a week before Christmas, it seemed too lonely.

Next Page »