The Complete Guide To: The festive north

Yuletide and open sleighs?
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The Independent Travel

Yes, 'tis the season to be jolly - particularly so in Scandinavia and Finland, where you'll find a host of Christmas markets, a liberal smattering of Santa Clauses, happy herds of reindeer and a great deal more. Yule is an ancient festival: it originally took place around 21 December and was the midwinter solstice celebration of pre-Christian Germanic peoples. Like many other pagan rites, it was given a Christian makeover - and it then all but disappeared in Britain.

Yet in Scandinavia it was only in the 10th century that the Viking kings Hakon the Good of Norway and Harold Bluetooth of the Danes introduced Christianity to the region - and Yule was duly recast as the celebration of Christ's birth, complete with burning log and sacrificial pig. Yule is one of a number of northern celebrations at this time of year. From mid-December, the winter of Europe's northernmost countries is peppered with festivities - which, in essence, are all about mitigating long dark days with good cheer.

SAINTS ALIVE!

As daylight becomes increasingly sparse, the winter season of celebrations effectively kicks off with a festival of lights. Across Scandinavia, St Lucia's Day is celebrated on 13 December. A 4th-century virgin and martyr, Lucia was a wealthy Sicilian who refused to marry. She was duly persecuted and survived attempts to burn her alive, finally being dispatched with a sword.

Long after Lucia's death she developed into a sort of queen of light of the North. Her feast day is marked by a procession of girls in white wearing crowns of burning candles, lit to symbolise the fire that could not burn Lucia. Given the quantity of naked flames, in the past such ceremonies must have had an air of danger, but today safer (and more mundane) battery-driven candles are often used.

St Lucia is particularly iconic in Sweden, where her feast day is an essential part of the build-up to Christmas. Special songs are sung in her honour and public coronations performed. Head to Stockholm for the biggest ceremonies, which take place over several days. Each year, at Skansen open-air museum on Djurgarden island in the middle of Stockholm, a new St Lucia is chosen by popular vote and crowned with due ceremony. This year, the event takes place on 3 December. On the afternoon of 13 December she travels through the city in a horse-drawn carriage, ending her journey at Skansen, where an almighty firework display lights up the sky. Skansen is normally open 11am-5pm (admission SEK50/£3.75; 00 46 8 442 8000; www.skansen.se) but on 13 December these hours are extended to 10am-6pm. St Lucia concerts also take place around town, most notably at Stockholm's cathedral, Storkyrkan (on 12 December at 7pm and 13 December at 6pm; tickets from SEK70/£5.25; 00 46 8 723 3000; www.stockholmsdomkyrkoforsamling.se).

You can reach Stockholm from a wide range of UK airports on SAS (0870 60 727 727; www.flysas.com) and British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com). Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies to two variations on Stockholm: Vasteras from Luton and Skavsta from Stansted and Prestwick. Both airports are over an hour from the city by connecting bus.

SO WHERE'S SANTA?

The Finns maintain he and his cheerful band of elves live just north of the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland. In fact, they've built him an entire village conveniently near Rovaniemi airport ( www.santaclaus.fi). It has a busy post office - and, for visiting adults, it also contains discount Finnish designer shops stocked with the respected Marimekko and Arabia brands. You can visit Santa there all year round: Finnair (0870 441 2411; www.finnair.com) flies to Rovaniemi from Heathrow or Manchester via Helsinki while Blue1 (00 358 20 585 6000; www.blue1.com) flies there via Helsinki from Stansted.

During the Christmas season, a range of charter-flight packages operate, with direct services from the UK to Rovaniemi and also to Kittila in Lapland. On some packages you visit Santa's village, on others you'll find him out of town in a log cabin. Magic of Lapland (0870 351 1310; www.magicoflapland.net), for example, offers short breaks that include reindeer sleigh rides and other activities, as well as a visit to Santa's cabin. The holidays cost from £895 per adult and £795 per child, including flights from Gatwick or Manchester to Kittila or Rovaniemi (from Gatwick only), and two nights' full-board accommodation. First Choice (0870 750 0001; www.firstchoice.co.uk) offers short breaks plus a range of day trips, from airports such as Luton and Birmingham, typically £495 for adults and £100 less for children. A wide choice of similar trips from the UK to Finnish Lapland is presented by the consolidator Santatrips (0870 811 0018; www.santatrips.co.uk).

I THOUGHT HE LIVED IN GREENLAND

The Finns do not have a monopoly on the man with a red coat. The Danes are insistent that Father Christmas lives in Greenland - and comes over to more central areas of Denmark during November and December. They even have a Santa Claus Association, which since 1963 has held an annual convention of registered Santa Clauses from all over the world. Bizarrely, this takes place in July at the Bakken Amusement Park near Copenhagen. At this time of year, however, you can meet the Danish Santa at the many Christmas fairs that take place around the country.

For a particularly evocative Christmas market, make for Denmark's northern city of Aalborg, with its 17th-century houses and ancient castle. From today until 23 December its old square is covered with stalls and suffused with the aroma of mulled wine. Aalborg is served direct from Gatwick by Sterling Airlines (0870 787 8038; www.sterling.dk). Or head to Copenhagen's famous amusement park, Tivoli Gardens, which is filled with more than 70 Christmas booths from 15-30 December (see 48 Hours in Copenhagen on pages 14 and 15 for further details). You can reach Copenhagen from a wide range of UK airports. The city is served by SAS, British Airways, easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com); Sterling (formerly Maersk; 00 45 70 10 84 84; www.sterling.dk); and BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.com). For a full list of Denmark's Christmas markets see www.visitdenmark.com*.

* WHERE NEXT?

Sweden; most of its town centres feature festive stalls and booths in December. Gothenburg, its second city, captures the Christmas spirit with its lights and decorations, while a number of fairs are held at Liseberg Amusement Park (open 24-26 and 30 November, 1-3 and 6-23 December; 10am-6pm; adults SEK70/£5.25), where an ice gallery and bar have been added to a large array of arts and crafts stalls. Gothenburg's main airport, Save, is served by the Swedish low-cost airline FlyMe (00 46 770 790 790; www.flyme.com) from Stansted; SAS from Heathrow; and City Airline (0870 220 6835; www.cityairline.com) from Manchester and Birmingham. Ryanair flies from Prestwick and Stansted to the city's second airport at Hisingen Island about 15km north of the centre.

Over in Norway, Oslo's biggest Christmas market is held on the first and second weekends of December at the Norwegian Folk Museum (00 47 22 123 700; www.norskfolke.museum.no), a wonderful park where 155 historic buildings have been relocated. Some of them are dressed up for the fair, which also features around 100 craft stalls, folk dancing and services at 1.30pm in the museum's 13th-century stave church. The location is Museumsveien 10; open 11am-4pm, NOK70/£5.75. SAS, British Airways, Norwegian (00 47 21 49 00 15; www.norwegian.no), and Ryanair fly to Oslo from a wide range of UK airports.

From 1 December, in Norway's fjord country, Bergen's atmospheric Strandgaten will be transformed into a Christmas shopping street. You can reach this lovely old Hanseatic trading city by ferry from Newcastle on DFDS Seaways (08705 333000; www.dfdsseaways.co.uk). Alternatively, Wideroe Airlines (00 47 75 51 3500; www.wideroe.no) flies from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Manchester and Newcastle; Norwegian (00 47 21 49 00 15; www.norwegian.no) from Stansted and Manchester; SAS Braathens (00 47 915 05 400; www.sasbraathens.no) from Gatwick; and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com) from Newcastle.

In Finland, Helsinki's Esplanade Park holds the St Thomas Christmas Market from 7 to 19 December (weekdays 11am-6pm, weekends 10am-5pm). More than 100 stalls sell Christmas crafts and festive food and drink. And Santa calls in at the weekends. Helsinki is served from Heathrow and Manchester by British Airways and Finnair.

HOW ABOUT NEW YEAR?

For a spectacular, if somewhat surreal, New Year's Eve, head to Reykjavik. Iceland's capital has acquired a reputation as the North's new, if slightly mad, centre of cool. One reason is the town's somewhat manic party spirit; another is the fairly recent opening of a couple of boutique hotels. A minimalist haven, 101 (00 354 5800 101; www.101hotel.is - doubles from ISK27,900/£212) is set in the former headquarters of the Icelandic Democratic Party; while Hotel Holt (00 354 552 5700; www.holt.is - doubles from ISK 21,300/£162) is a less self-consciously chic establishment displaying a stunning collection of contemporary Icelandic art. Icelandair (0870 787 4020; www.icelandair.co.uk) flies to Reykjavik from Heathrow, Glasgow and Manchester. Iceland Express (0870 240 5600; www.icelandexpress.com) flies from Stansted and British Airways flies from Gatwick. In Reykjavik you "blow out" the old year Viking-style, singing around bonfires that are lit across the town. At midnight the sky seemingly explodes with fireworks after which the bars and clubs fill up for a serious night of partying. Scantours (020-7554 3530; www.scantours.co.uk) offers a five-day New Year's package to Reykjavik. The cost, from £685 per person, includes flights from Heathrow or Manchester, B&B at the Grand Hotel, New Year's Eve programme, and recuperation the next day with a snowmobile ride across a glacier and a visit to the therapeutic Blue Lagoon. For a quieter time, head for the dramatic highland region of Norway.

Inntravel (01653 617906; www.inntravel.co.uk) offers a New Year package at the Rustad Hotel in Sjusjoen above Lillehammer. The hotel is set by frozen lakes and silent moorland and there is superb cross-country skiing. A week's break costs from £865 per person, including dinner with music and fireworks, flights from Heathrow to Oslo, transfers, half-board accommodation, packed lunches, and use of the cross-country ski trails.

I WANT TO GET RIGHT AWAY FROM IT ALL

Aim for Swedish Lapland. Discover the World (0870 060 3288; www.discover-the-world.co.uk/sweden) arranges adventure breaks in the wilderness beyond Kiruna, with activities including snow mobiling and husky sledding. Accommodation is in a lodge set deep in snow-clad forest from where you may be able to see the northern lights, and also at the celebrated Ice Hotel. The four-night New Year trip costs from £1,362 per person, which covers a suitably festive dinner at the Ice Hotel, flights from Heathrow to Kiruna via Stockholm (with one night spent in the Swedish capital), accommodation with breakfast, and transfers.

I SEE THE LIGHT...

Above the Arctic Circle, from the end of November eerie half-light prevails during the day, with the sun never rising for two months or more. Its re-emergence is, of course, a very welcome event. In the Norwegian city of Tromso, about 400km north of the Arctic Circle, the first dawn of the year occurs towards the end of January and is celebrated with a lively music festival. In 2007, the Tromso Northern Lights Festival takes place from 22 to 27 January. From the UK you can fly to Tromso, via Oslo, on SAS and Norwegian.

Alternatively, Norway's charming coastal ferry service, the Hurtigruten, which delivers mail and picks up seafood cargo as well as operating as a cruise line, offers a Northern Lights Festival package on which you travel from Bergen to Tromso. The six-night holiday costs from £865 per person through the line's agent in the UK: Hurtigruten (020-8846 2666; www.hurtigruten.co.uk). The price includes flights from Heathrow to Bergen and back from Tromso, four nights' half-board accommodation onboard ship, and two nights' B&B accommodation in a Tromso hotel. Excursions such as dog sledding in the countryside around Tromso can be arranged.

AND FOR WHITE ARTS?

For the north's biggest and arguably most flamboyant ice festival, go to Kiruna in Swedish Lapland. In 2007 its annual celebration of winter takes place from 23 to 28 January with much dog sledding and reindeer sleigh racing. But the main focus is on snow-sculpting. Contesting teams are given four days to work on cubes of solid snow, with astonishing results. In the past, enormous white fish, boats and wolves have materialised among more abstract melting monuments. Kiruna is served via Stockholm on SAS from a range of UK airports.

Harriet O'Brien is the author of 'Queen Emma and the Vikings - the Woman who Shaped the Events of 1066', published by Bloomsbury (£8.99)

TO GET IN TO THE SWING OF THINGS - GO NORSE

Hogmanay in Scotland is believed to have its origins as a midwinter solstice celebration, which over time has relocated to New Year's Eve. "First footing" is thought to hark back to Viking times: if a tall dark male stranger is the "first foot" to cross your threshold after midnight he brings luck; the converse is that a tall blond male (read Viking) means trouble. Post-Reformation, the Kirk very much frowned on Christmas celebrations, which were considered too popish, so for some centuries Hogmanay was the principal winter festivity of Scotland.

Many would argue that it still is, especially so in Edinburgh, with its torchlit procession, concerts, fireworks and massive street party. To stand a chance of making this year's events you'll need to act quickly: at the time of writing, tickets were still available for the Edinburgh Hogmanay, although selling fast (0131 473 200; www.edinburghshogmanay.org). Admission to the Royal Bank Street Party is £5; the ceilidh in East Princes Street Gardens, £37.50; and Hogmanay concert in West Princes Street Gardens, with the Pet Shop Boys headlining, £35.

Further north, pure Viking tradition survives in Shetland. Up Helly Aa takes place in the island's capital, Lerwick, on the last Tuesday of January (in 2007, 30 January). Essentially, it is a crazy fire festival, originally held to celebrate the return of the sun. It principally revolves around a galley which is dragged through town and spectacularly set alight, the ritual being reminiscent of the funeral ceremonies Vikings held for their great chieftains. The burning is prefixed by the consumption of much alcohol and by a mad torch-lit procession of "Vikings".

Find out more from Visit Shetland (08701 999 440; www.visitshetland. com). Shetland's Sumburgh airport, about 25 miles south of Lerwick, is served by Loganair, operating on behalf of British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.loganair.co.uk) and flying from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness. Lerwick can also be reached on the Northlink ferry service from Aberdeen (0845 6000 449; www.northlinkferries.co.uk).

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