My favourite seasonal destination? Anywhere where Christmas is illegal

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The Independent Travel
Afraid of winter-induced gloom, stodge and fat? Well go away fast. The further away from home you are this Christmas, the less likely you are to idle away the darkest days of winter watching bad television and accumulating cholesterol.

Skiing in the Dolomites; trampling the snows of St Petersburg; ice-skating in Peking; bison-tracking in Poland. These are but a few of the activities which strike me as more appealing than sitting in an overheated living room watching repeats of Mr Bean and The Wizard of Oz.

Scuba diving in the Caymans or jogging on the Anse Source d'Argent in the Seychelles don't sound particularly awful either, but the best thing about Christmas abroad is that you don't necessarily have to go anywhere nice. In fact the best kind of Christmases are in places where Christmas doesn't actually exist.

A couple of years ago, the festive season happened to catch me in a backpackers' dormitory in Shanghai. The Chinese were just beginning to buy into the idea of Christmas (Christmas trees decorated the country's busiest shopping street, Nanjing Lu) but they sadly didn't have an official holiday for it.

They wished they did though. That Christmas Eve I went to church for the first time since graduating from infant school and found the aisles creaking under the crush of excited Shanghainese. The girls were dressed in silver miniskirts and thigh-high boots, just right for a pagan ceremony, while an old Communist woman who appeared to be in charge of affairs was shouting at everyone to stop talking and spit out their chewing gum immediately.

When we western tourists walked in, we were treated like beneficent Father Christmas figures, harbingers of festive joy. For the ensuing nativity play, the angels were dressed up improbably in Song Dynasty costumes and long droopy moustaches but I hadn't felt as Christmassy in years. That night I even got drunk with a rabble from my dormitory over a dinner of wriggling shrimps and prawn crackers which I could not distinguish from brussels sprouts. What joy that was.

But seasonal festivities are still more enjoyable in countries where any kind of Christian ritual is illegal. There are not many countries in the world where churches are forbidden, but I once had the pleasure of spending Christmas in one of them. This was the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where western expatriates are politely reminded by their employers not to inadvertently cause offence by wishing locals a merry Christmas and where cards (decorated with hot sunshine and desert scenes) strictly avoid any mention of the X word.

I chose to celebrate that year by dining out in an air-conditioned Pizza Hut where I dared to exchange coded seasons greetings in furtive undertones with Filipino waiters. I felt like a true participant in the faith. For the first and only time in my life, Christmas had the effect of reinforcing my identity as a Christian. If there had been any churches around I would have gone and had a damn good pray.

By the way, if you haven't already booked your festive break you'd better get a move on. I am informed by Thomson Holidays that they have been taking bookings since last February and have only "small pockets of availability" left. What is left over will be none too cheap either - a week half board in chilly Mallorca will cost you over pounds 400 per person.

British Airways Holidays tell me that you can still fly out for short breaks in Prague or Lisbon on Christmas Eve for just over pounds 400, which strikes me as a more tempting deal. As for skiing (which may be your best chance to avoid that seasonal flab) the Swiss Travel Service still have availability in some of their resorts over Christmas.

For some curious reason though Christmas breaks in Saudi Arabia are not available anywhere.

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