The complete guide to The Republic of Christmas

Happy holidays! Whether you're spending Christmas at home or abroad, you'll probably want to get in step with the locals and celebrate the (almost) global festive season in traditional fashion. And depending on where you are, that could mean anything from making holly wreaths to drinking gluhwein or playing golf in the snow. So here it is: Merry Christmas!


I'm dreaming of a White Christmas... It doesn't have to be a dream. Here's an offer only Scrooges can refuse. If you want to make sure you have snow at Christmas, head to the Arctic. You can sit in front of an open fire in the home of your host, Odd-Knut Thoresen, or spend the day dog-sledding across frozen lakes and fells, through forests and into the silent, white hills, listening to the muffled pad of dogs' paws and the sled runners slicing through snow. This traditional Norwegian Christmas in Dividalen, Norway is offered by Arcturus Expeditions (01389 830204), on an eight-day husky-sledding trip from 21-28 December. The price per person is £1,650, including flights.

I'm dreaming of a White Christmas... It doesn't have to be a dream. Here's an offer only Scrooges can refuse. If you want to make sure you have snow at Christmas, head to the Arctic. You can sit in front of an open fire in the home of your host, Odd-Knut Thoresen, or spend the day dog-sledding across frozen lakes and fells, through forests and into the silent, white hills, listening to the muffled pad of dogs' paws and the sled runners slicing through snow. This traditional Norwegian Christmas in Dividalen, Norway is offered by Arcturus Expeditions (01389 830204), on an eight-day husky-sledding trip from 21-28 December. The price per person is £1,650, including flights.

Is that where Father Christmas lives? Thereabouts. The Festive Republic of Lapland spans the area above the Arctic Circle in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, although it's Swedish and Finnish Lapland that lay claim to Santa. In Sweden you can visit Santa World on the banks of Lake Siljan in the Dalarna region, see toys being made in his workshop, take a ride in a sleigh and skate on a frozen lake in front of Santa's house (www.santa world.se). Finland's Santapark in Rovaniemi is underground, deep beneath the Syvasvenvaara fell on the Arctic Circle, with attractions including a magic sleigh ride, a mini-roller coaster reindeer ride and Northern Lights show. In the Santa business a lot of claims are made about authenticity; Norvista (020-7409 7334, www.norvista.co.uk) can organise an "authentic" trip to meet Santa in a log cabin in the forest, with a ride in a real reindeer sleigh thrown in, from £589 per person (£429 for children) for a two-day trip, including flights.

What about Rudolf? These days you'll probably find him on the golf course. After years of pulling Santa's sleigh, Rudolf has decided to try a change of career. At Arvidsjaur in Swedish Lapland you can play winter golf in the snow with a reindeer golf caddy (just in case you're wondering, the golf balls are painted red). The nine-hole course runs over two lakes and is surrounded by forest. For more information, contact the Swedish Travel and Tourism Council (020-7870 5600, www.visit-sweden.com).

And the christmas elves? In Iceland, Santa's little helpers have developed a sinister twist. The Yuletide Lads, sons of a female ogre, Gryla, were originally a year-round hazard for Icelanders. However, the roguishly named Sheep-Annoyer, Sausage-Snatcher and Door-Slammer, have now been consigned solely to the Christmas period to keep children in line. Thirteen days before Christmas, children place a shoe on their window ledge. If they've been good, one of the elves will fill it each night with a present. However, if they've been bad, they'll be thrown into Gryla's stew instead. Santa stays out of the Lads' way, skulking in the shopping malls, while the Yuletide Lads roam schools and the streets of Reykjavik. Arctic Experience (01737 214214, www.arctic-discover.co.uk) has a four-night "Festive Iceland", departing 23 December, for £498 per person. A one-week trip is also available, based in Reykjavik, with an optional trip to Lake Myvatn.

I can't wait that long Then head to Sweden for the feast of St Lucia, or Festival of Light, held on 13 December. All across the country, the figure of St Lucia, dressed in flowing white garments and with long, blond hair and a candle wreath on her head, leads a procession of singing and candle-carrying girls to banish the dark of winter. The national Lucia is crowned at Skansen in Stockholm, the world's oldest open-air museum, before a parade through the city's streets. Stalls sell seasonal glogg, traditional mulled wine with raisins and almonds, Lucia cats (saffron buns) and gingerbread biscuits. If you can't make it to Sweden, there will be a St Lucia procession and concert at St Paul's Cathedral in London on 15 December (contact the Swedish Travel and Tourism Council for details).

And closer to home? 'Tis the season to be merry, of course - and that also means watching people make fools of themselves. If you're in London today, head to Covent Garden Piazza where the 20th Great Christmas Pudding Race will take place at 11.30am (020-7404 8760). If you want to join in, bring a spoon and some brandy butter.

To learn how to deck your hall with holly boughs, book a garland-making course at Ken Turner's Flower School (www.kenturnerflowerschool.com; 020-7355 3880). On 5 December you can learn how to make Christmas door wreaths, on 6 December it's garlands and mantle decorations, and on 14 December, festive entertaining. All courses cost £195 and are held in country-house style surroundings in the heart of London.

For all you Scrooges out there, make your way to the house of Charles Dickens, Ebenezer's creator. Last year's festivities at the Dickens' House Museum, 48 Doughty Street, London (020-7405 2127) - with Christmas punch and mince pies - are not being repeated, but for a mere £4 (£2 for children) you can work your way around the museum from 10am-5pm, Monday to Saturday, except 24 and 25 December.

And outside london? English food comes into its own during the festive season. The National Trust is organising Christmas lunches, candle-lit dinners, children's tea parties and country-house parties in a number of historic properties. Entertainment is included in the form of Dickens' readings, 1920s tea dances, parlour games and wassailing.

Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire has lunchtime Elizabethan Yuletide Feasts with mulled mead in front of a blazing fire in the Great Hall. Rosemary syllabub, chestnut soup, spiced parsnip soup, Elizabethan salmon and Wise Man's Potage (hazelnut and Brussels sprout soup) are also on the menu (to book call 01260 272018). For a full list of Christmas meals and events throughout the country contact the National Trust (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/events; 0870 4584000).

I'll need to sleep all that off Sweden's oldest inn may well have room. The Gripsholm dates back to 1609 and is in Mariefred on Lake Malaren, 60km outside Stockholm. It's famous for its Christmas buffet or "Julbord". A two-day package through Norvista (020-7409 7334) costs from £174, including accommodation and Christmas dinner. Flights are extra.

If you were thinking of something a little more igloo-inspired, there's unfortunately no room at the inn at Sweden's Ice Hotel (00 46 980 66 800, www.icehotel.com) in Jukkasjarvi until 28 December. So you could book now for a post-Christmas break. Rebuilt from scratch every year using 3,000 tonnes of clear ice from the adjacent River Torne, the Ice Hotel boasts a cinema, art gallery, Absolut Ice Bar and even a chapel for weddings and christenings. Yes, even the beds are made of ice, and room temperatures of between -4 and -9C make sure they don't melt. But a wooden platform, a layer of reindeer skins and the most enormous collection of thermal gear you've ever seen will keep you toasty warm. Rooms cost from about £57 a night per person, including hot showers, a sauna and a delicious buffet breakfast. Scandinavian Airlines (0845 60 727727, www.scandinavian.net) will fly you to Kiruna, the hotel's nearest airport, from Heathrow, Stansted and Manchester. Prices start from around £330 per person.

Never mind sleeping - how about walking in a winter wonderland? Winter walking and snow-shoeing are becoming increasingly popular and villages in the Alps are starting to prepare designated paths for walkers, flattening the snow with special machines. Walking boots are generally all you'll need in the way of kit, but if you want to stride out from the beaten track then snow shoes will allow you to head deep into the wintry landscape.

Inntravel (01653 628811) organises trips to Lauenen in Switzerland, one of the best winter-walking destinations in the whole of the Alps. There are over 50km of paths, one heading up to a frozen lake. A seven-night trip, departing over the Christmas period, costs from £716 including flights.

And Silent Night, Holy Night and all that? It just wouldn't be Christmas without a good old singsong. For details of carol services and where to go to Midnight Mass around the country, contact the English Tourism Council (020-8563 3000, www.visitbritain.com). There are also special seasonal concerts at various English Heritage properties. Brodsworth Hall in South Yorkshire, for example, hosts Barnburgh Male Voice Choir, singing seasonal hymns and carols, today at 2.30pm. For ticket reservations call 01302 722598 (tickets cost just £2 or £1 for English Heritage members).

Or, you could experience a Medieval Christmas at Framlingham Castle (01728 724189) near Ipswich, this weekend, and learn how pagan festivities turned into "Christ's Mass". Medieval characters will reveal how the heathen Germanic festival of Yule, Roman Saturnalia and the Christian nativity all came together in one celebration. Admission costs £3.70 for adults and £1.80 for children. For other English Heritage events call 0870 3331181 or check the website (www.english-heritage.org.uk).

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