Ice palaces to Santa's ghetto

Article published on Jan. 5, 2006
community published
Article published on Jan. 5, 2006

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

You don’t always have to spend Christmas at home with your parents. Throughout Europe there are hundreds of wonderful destinations just waiting for you to visit.

Open your eyes at Christmas time and discover a world of markets, sculptures and all the other sights of the continent. From the traditional Christmas nativity to more modern art campaigns, café babel presents some of the best Christmas attractions in Europe.

Stockholm, Sweden: Lucia festival of lights

For centuries, 13 December has been one of most notable days in the Swedish calendar. Before the Gregorian calendar reform, the night of 13 December was the longest and darkest night of the year, known as the winter solstice. The Lucia festivities are held on this day to honour Saint Lucia, meaning ‘light’, who was killed for her Christian beliefs in the 4th century and was made a martyr. Every year, a young girl is chosen to be the Lucia Queen of Sweden and is clothed in the traditional garments of the Lucia Queen: a crown of candles and a red sash over a white dress. She leads a parade through the streets, accompanied by an escort of young boys and girls who are singing. The red sash is worn to remember the death of Lucia and the children carry candles to symbolise the light being brought back to the city.

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Vienna, Austria: The Christkindel market

Picture this festive scene: The grown ups are drinking mulled wine, served with a ladle from a steaming basin by a vendor in a wooden hut. This warms them up in no time. Meanwhile, their children nibble away at their little gingerbread biscuits, as happy as Larry, whilst examining the beeswax candles and wooden toys. Adoring couples share chocolate covered fruit on sticks as they stroll from hut to hut. This is a typical scene at the Christkindl (Jesus child) market in Vienna, which was established 700 years ago. Every year, 145 wooden huts stand on the site of the town hall in Vienna and offer everything from Christmas tree ornaments made of glass and fabric to roasted chestnuts. Each year, around 3 million visitors pour into the market in the Austrian capital, of which 500,000 have come from abroad. The market opens daily until 23 December from 9am to 9pm and on 24 December from 9am to 5pm.

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Naples, Italy: Nativity scenes in the Via San Gregorio Armeno

Every year in the Via San Gregorio Armeno, a small alley in Naples, from 8 December stand traditionally made Christmas nativity scenes. The Neapolitan nativity scenes do not just represent the birth of Jesus but also the daily life of the city’s inhabitants. So next to the holy Madonna is perhaps a Mamma cooking spaghetti or a barrel-shaped pizza baker, who just manages to balance a dough ball on his fingertip. There are even caricatures of modern-day celebrities. So it could be that a wooden Berlusconi (Prime Minister of Italy) is standing behind the three wise men, dressed as a shepherd. The first nativity scenes in Naples were constructed by monks and placed in churches. Later, noble people embellished their ceilings with biblical scenes. Since the 17th century, nativity scenes have been made with special tools. Today there are many shops in the Via San Gregorio Armeno where each year specialised artisans construct and sell Christmas nativity scenes.

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Brussels, Belgium: The ice palace

At the centre of the Belgium city of Brussels, inhabitants and tourists alike immerse themselves in a Christmas fairyland, wrapped in scarves and quilted jackets. This is because in Brussels, until 8 January this year, there is a palace made entirely from snow and ice, which is open daily from 10am to 7pm. Inside, young and old alike can search for the ice queen’s treasure - and this is all at a temperature of -5C. Visitors can ride on toboggans across the ice, passing deep blue or gleaming white sculptures. The ice festival has been held for some years now in December and this year ice sculptors from China, America and Sweden have helped to make the palace.

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London, England: Santa’s Ghetto

Not far from the consumer paradise of Oxford Street you can find another quite different shopping possibility, which is open every year. Here in “Santa’s Ghetto”, an anti-Christmas art extravaganza, you can find screenprints, sculptures and illustrations of some of the most significant street artists in London. From Banksy, the father of stencil art, there are works available to buy; and Jamie Hewlett, who designed the characters for the band Gorillaz, sells signed screenprints. In the doorway of the shop last year, a dummy of Santa Claus hung in some gallows. Inside, depicted in an oil painting, was Mary with Jesus holding an I-pod, and hanging from ceiling was a Christmas star constructed from traffic cones. For the third year running, this curious exhibition-come-market can be found in the centre of London from 1 to 24 December. This year it is at 9 Berwick St, Soho, London W1.

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