We’re brought up believing that Christmas is intrinsically about spending time with family, relaxing, and eating as much food as possible. I count myself lucky that I have memories of such Christmases to look back on. There’s home videos of me age four leaving out mince pies and whisky for Santa, too young to wonder why he demanded my dad’s favourite Talisker, and I can still almost feel the salty sea air of a family Boxing Day walk along my local beach. However, since the death of my mum, my dad and I realised that Christmas would never be the same again – largely because it was my mum who perfectly wrapped the mounds of presents, decorated the tree, and put up the Christmas lights – without her, the event really ceased to come into being, and simply reminded us of the intrinsic part of our family that was missing.
The first Christmas after her death we decided to come up with a new routine for how to spend the holidays: travel. We swapped greetings cards for train tickets, Christmas films for Swiss castles and took the opportunity to explore European cities we’d always wanted to visit in the off-peak season.
Our first destination was the picturesque city of Geneva. For most travellers, Geneva in winter is simply the starting point for ski trips. Yet Geneva has its own peaceful charm that makes it perfect for a city break at Christmas time. We took the Eurostar to Paris, and from there continued by train through the idyllic French countryside to our destination. On Christmas morning, we boarded the regular boat to cross the lake surrounding the city, admiring the Jet d’Eau on our journey, and walked up to the Cathedral where we could overhear the choir practising for the Christmas service. The streets of the city are adorned from top to bottom with Christmas decorations and festive window displays, from the clothes shops and upmarket watch outlets of Rue du Mont-Blanc to the traditional antique shops in the Old town; even if you’re a complete scrooge, the wreaths, trees, and traditional decorations here are guaranteed to give you a real festive feeling.
The next year, we decided to continue the tradition of going away, and headed to the Dutch capital of Amsterdam. The city has an exciting mix of modern Christmas lights and traditional majestic trees adorned in brightly coloured baubles. Here a chaotic hustle and bustle as bikes zoom through the streets, Christmas shoppers laden with heavy bags hurry to and fro, and ice skaters collide outside the Rijksmuseum, is married with a sense of cosy tranquility. Only a 30 minute flight from my hometown of Norwich, it is a relatively stress free trip; the train from Schiphol to Amsterdam Central is regular, efficient and reasonably priced, and the city is small enough that you can walk everywhere else.
Yet for all its cosiness, perhaps my favourite aspect of this city is its energy, for on Christmas Day many museums and art galleries remain open. After having a luxurious breakfast at our hotel, complete with mulled wine, we spent Christmas day browsing the surprisingly busy Van Gogh Museum. The exhibits take you on a journey through Van Gogh’s life, showcasing his paintings and a rare collection of his letters and writings. We then had a stroll along the famous canals, picking up Oliebollen, Dutch doughnuts typically eaten during the festive period, before heading back to the hotel for our Christmas dinner. One of my favourite aspects of spending Christmas abroad is the opportunity to try new foods, but also not miss out on the familiar roast dinner that I would have had at home.
As I was studying German, we chose the metropolitan city of Berlin as our next Christmas destination. On Christmas Eve we walked out to the East Side Gallery, a section of the old Berlin Wall that has been painted with brightly coloured murals depicting the political changes of 1989, as well as much more: Dmitri Vrubel’s painting of Honecker and Brezhnev in a brotherly socialist kiss is very well known, along with Birgit Kinders’ striking depiction of a Trabant breaking through the wall. Christmas Day itself was full of yet more adventures: after having Christmas lunch in our hotel overlooking the Brandenburg Gate, we spent the evening exploring the Reichstag, the home of the German Parliament. Whilst an ostensibly boring visit to someone unfamiliar with the building, it could not have been further from it. At the centre is a conical pillar decorated with a circular walkway and mosaic of mirrored glass, with a glass window beneath allowing you to see exactly where the political decisions of tomorrow are being made. The building also offers an amazing panorama of the city. Still time at the end of the day, we visited one of the the world famous Berlin Christmas Markets for probably the best chips I’ve ever had, washed down with yet more mulled wine.
With the country split into tiers and travel bans imposed across Europe, Christmas is going to look a little different for us this year. Nevertheless, our travels have taught me that just because shops and restaurants are closed in the UK, Christmas does not have to be limited to mince pies and napping in front of the television: a walk in part of the local countryside that you’ve never been to, or even making a new exotic recipe can be an adventure in itself – if you are willing to make it into one.
Images: Gracie Linthwaite