I'm dreaming of a meaningful Christmas

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Is winning a cracker duel or getting an oversized knitted cardi from your Gran your idea of a good Christmas?  It's not ours... Let us suggest some unforgettable yuletide alternatives.

Bethlehem, West Bank
With today's emphasis on present grabbing and overindulging, it's hard to deny that the real meaning of Christmas often seems forgotten. For a refresher, nothing compares to a pilgrimage to Jesus' birthplace. The energy on Manger Sq and in the Old City on Christmas Eve could light a forest of Christmas trees. The place to be as the clock strikes 12 is St Catherine's Church, for the Midnight Mass service. St Catherine's is part of the Church of the Nativity, commissioned in 326 by Emperor Constantine. Inside, in the Grotto of the Nativity, a silver star marks the spot that, it is believed, Jesus was born.

'No room at the inn' signs go up early, so book well ahead. 

Nuremberg, Germany
If your idea of present buying is elbowing other shoppers out of the way in a heaving department store, maybe you should fall under the spell of the magical Christkindlesmarkt (Christmas Market), sprawled across Nuremberg's Hauptmarkt (Main Sq) from late November to Christmas Eve. Here, 180 stalls proffer toys, trinkets, candles, gingerbread and sweets to spend-up shoppers warmed by sizzling bratwurst and mulled wine. The best time to visit is after dark, when the coloured lights create a fairy-tale spectacle. All hail Christmas shopping, which has never looked this enchanting (or this sparkly)!

Nuremburg dazzles in its Christmas cloak – the twinkliest highlight is the Lantern Procession, in which 2000 schoolchildren carry homemade lamps through the city.

Santa Claus Village, Finland
When too much Santa is never enough, rug up and head north, way north, to Finland's Arctic Circle. The jolly man in the red suit is this neighbourhood's most famous resident, and round these parts they milk him for all he's worth. Still, the deep wintertime snow and reindeer-dotted forests go a long way towards offsetting the touristy atmosphere (though, yes, there's a Christmas-themed amusement park called SantaPark not far from the village). You'll need deep pockets (a photo at Santa's village with the bearded present-giver is an astounding €25!) but you'd have to be pretty Grinchlike to leave without a smile on your face.

All Santa'd out? Ditch the chintz and learn the true story of Finland's Arctic north at Rovaniemi's excellent Arktikum museum.

New York, USA
Ah, surely you know what Christmas in the Big Apple looks like, thanks to countless movies: Christmas lights, cheesy muzak, preferably a light dusting of snow… The world's tallest Christmas tree is lit at the Rockefeller Center in early December, in a revered tree-lighting ceremony that marks the beginning of the holiday season for locals. Ice skating below it is a must for wintertime visitors, as is checking out the window displays in NYC's largest department stores (don't miss Macy's annual homage to the classic movie Miracle on 34th St). Finish with a New York Ballet performance of The Nutcracker at the Lincoln Center for a NYC Christmas straight out of central casting.

In the spirit of festive goodwill shun big-money shows and visit Unicef's giant snowflake on Fifth Avenue for cookies and hot chocolate (Fridays mid-November to mid-January).

Midnight mass, the Vatican, Rome
You can rest assured that the spiritual heart of Catholicism knows how to do Christmas. The Eternal City is magical at any time of year, but December has an extra frisson, with roasted chestnuts sold on every corner and the city awash with presepi (Nativity scenes) – check them out on St Peter's Square, Piazza Navona (life-sized!), and in the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli on the Capitoline Hill. Piazza Navona is Rome's Christmas Central, with a huge kitschy market set up specially, but it's the Vatican that pulls the most pilgrims. Midnight Mass in St Peter's Basilica on Christmas Eve, or at noon on Christmas Day, is an affair to remember.

Midnight Mass at the Vatican is always over-subscribed; apply in writing to the Prefettura della Casa Pontificia.


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This article was refreshed in June 2012