When I was a child, Christmas was a time of wonder. Sure, I enjoyed the wacky family gatherings where I could run amok with my mischievous cousins, while the adults chatted about boring things like work and who would win the mandatory mahjong game that night. However, even the family Christmas celebration held at a karaoke parlor (in our own private room as is common in Asia) palled behind viewing the Christmas lights on Orchard Road each year.
Orchard Road is in the Central Business District of Singapore, and is pretty much lined from one end to the other with mall after shopping centre after mall. And every year, each one would deck itself out in fantastic lights and Christmas trappings. Sure, the boring ones would just have coloured lights and a ginormous Christmas tree decked out with massive decorations, but other, more ambitious, shopping centres would have actual themed decorations. There were winter wonderland themes, with snowmen and snowflakes, wrapped in scarves and woolly hats. There were reindeer themed ones, with Rudolph prancing off up into the night sky. All of them were amazing.
Every year, sometime in the beginning or middle of December, my parents would take my sister and I out to Orchard Road at night, specifically just to walk around and see the lights. And every year, we would argue over which shopping centre had the better decorations. Was it the one with all the Christmas trees? Or the one that had presents piled everywhere? Clearly, the Santa display was the best this year, and wasn’t the blue-coloured lightshow just utterly tacky?
Then, we moved to the US.
You have to understand, I never wanted to move to the US in the first place, because I’d be leaving all my friends and cousins behind. The first Christmas was particularly difficult, because none of my cousins were there. It was just my parents, my sister and I. Despite the lack of extended family, we were able to enjoy other more traditional parts of Christmas that is more-or-less impossible in a tropical country: cold weather, snow, and real Christmas trees. They almost (not quite) made up for the lack of presents.
By our third year in the US, I had a marked apathy for the Christmas season. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked the cold weather and the snow. But snow was wet. Nobody tells you these things when you’re used to 85 degree weather during Christmastime. Imagining getting in a snowball fight and actually being in one are totally different things! Real Christmas trees shed needles, and need to be watered properly throughout the Christmas season. Winter days are lamentably short, and really when the world gets dark at 4pm (!!) that’s pretty depressing.
I suppose I could’ve probably overlooked all those downsides, but the thing that pushed my apathy into active dislike and almost borderline disgust, was the constant, unabated commercialism of a holiday I had almost exclusively associated with family. It’s not that Christmas wasn’t commercialised in Singapore. It most assuredly was. It’s just that American commercialism took it a step further, starting Christmas preparations a full three months before the actual day itself rolled around.
Now, I took piano lessons for over ten years. Heck, I used to go caroling with a bona fide children’s choir. Christmas music practice starts in October. (To this day, I have a burning hatred for Jingle Bells, no matter how much Batman smells.) However, after music practice, I could avoid all Christmas references until December, when the anticipation would start to build.
Unfortunately, that is not the case in the US. When I worked part-time at a drug store, I started stocking shelves for Christmas at the same time as Hallowe’en! That was crazy to me. It still is. The three month build-up to a holiday that was a mere shadow of its former self was pretty jarring for me, and I quickly turned into a Christmas grinch. Everything about Christmas, I despised, and refused to have anything to do with it.
That state of affairs lasted for many years, until I spent Christmas in Switzerland one year, and was introduced to the magic of the Weihnachtsmarkt, or Christmas market. Now, Weihnachtsmarkt (as evidenced by the name) is mostly a German thing, though it’s slowly spreading its nefariously awesome influence throughout the rest of Europe. However, this means that the best (and biggest) Weihnachtsmarkts are in cities with a strong German influence, and the best one or so I hear, is actually in Vienna, where the entire city is basically turned into a massive Christmas lollapalooza for a month.
My first Christmas market experience (and I use the words “Christmas market” quite loosely here) was in Geneva, because that was where I was based. It was… dismal. So dismal, I didn’t even notice it until it was pointed out to me. The Geneva version was a sad collection of 5 little clapboard stalls slapped haphazardly together outside the main train station. However, my landlady told me that I should head off to Germanic Switzerland for a better Weihnachtsmarkt experience. Geneva, being in the French part, lacked quite a bit in that arena. So I headed off to Basel one weekend, to have the full Weihnachtsmarkt experience.
The entire city was decked out with Christmas decorations of all sorts, but not in the Americanized commercialist fashion. All of it was tradition and celebration. The wreaths and garlands and Christmas displays in shop windows were festive and gay. Furthermore, the Weihnachtsmarkt in Basel was no measly five-stall set up. No, this Weihnachtsmarkt was so massive it had half of it in one open square, and the other half a ways away in another plaza in front of the cathedral.
Of course, the ubiquitous glühwein (mulled wine) stands were there, but there was so much more. There were handcarved wooden toys, the kind that Gepetto would’ve carved in the fairy tale; there were hand-dipped, hand-made candles of all kinds; there were knitted caps, knitted scarves, hand-made crafts of all sorts. There were fantastic Christmas ornaments. Standing there in the middle of December, amidst the German-speaking crowds, I felt the barest stirring of the Christmas spirit once again.
As darkness fell, each of the stalls started lighting up one by one, and turned into a magical Christmas fairy land. If I thought the daytime Weihnachtsmarkt was crowded, I was quickly having that idea turned upside down, because more and more people seemed to cram into the lanes between the booths. Lines at all the food stalls snaked all the way through the market. Entire families piled into small stands, picking out gifts and Christmas decorations. It was brilliant and awesome and so much fun. And for the first time in a long, long time, I could feel myself getting back into the Christmas spirit.
If you ever get the opportunity to travel through central Europe around Christmas time, you should totally check out the Weihnachtsmarkts there. They’re mostly found in central Europe in German-influenced countries. Most of them last for a month, but the length of the markets differ from town to town. Some of them start in mid-November and end just before Christmas. Others begin in early December and end on Twelfth Night. If you’re in Western Europe, though, it’s really quite a crapshoot. You might not find these at all, or it might suck, or it might be nice. Barcelona didn’t have anything of the kind when I was there in early December, and of course, the one in Geneva was pretty crap. However, I went to Lausanne, a town in French Switzerland, one day, and found a thriving Weihnachtsmarkt there with vin chaud (the French version of mulled wine) and poutine, of all things. Whatever the case, these Weihnachtsmarkts are amazing and so much fun.
One of my bucket list travel wishes is to be in Vienna for Christmas one year. It’s not just that Vienna is one of those cities I’ve always wanted to return to, but it’s also specifically because I want to see the Viennese Weihnachtsmarkts. I’ve heard that it takes over the entire city, and I just can’t imagine how amazing that must be, to have an entire city overwhelmed with the genuine, unmanufactured joy and gaiety of the Christmas season.