If you’re hoping the Grinch will steal Christmas this year, it may pay to be a bit more proactive.
There are innumerable reasons why Christmas is far from the most wonderful time of the year for many and just as many reasons to escape it. Whether you’re looking for an antidote to the soul-less materialism that marks the season in many parts of the world or to avoid it entirely, we bring you glad tidings: there is somewhere to suit.
A DOC hut
You don’t have to flee the country to evade the worst trappings of Christmas: the crowds in the malls, the annoying jingles that get stuck in your head for days, the obligatory spending of money you don’t have on people you don’t like and actually having to spend an extended amount of time with those people. If you’d rather devote your precious holiday time to R&R, the Department of Conservation could be your Christmas saviour. DOC manages more than 950 huts nationwide, from rustic-yet-comfortable abodes along the Great Walks with mattresses, running water, toilets and heating (some also feature solar lighting and cooking facilities) to basic bivvies, which offer little more than a roof over your head.
Those along New Zealand’s 10 Great Walks arguably boast some of the best accommodation deals around. Yes, you have to rough it, but you get to wake up to some of the country’s most stunningly unspoilt landscapes for as little as $22 a night – or free if you’re a kid (although you do have to be organised and book well in advance). If you’ve only realised last minute that you can’t face Christmas with the whānau or are flat broke, fear not. Many standard huts and bivvies, which range from free to $5 a night, are first-come, first-served and so far from civilisation, you need a decent level of fitness and off-track tramping experience to get there (meaning no need to worry about fat uncle Fred following you).
Ironically, Christmas Village Hut in Stewart Island’s Rakiura National Park is one of the best places to escape the silly season. Despite the name, the 12-bunk standard hut is nowhere near a village, or any other kind of settlement for that matter. At 1683 square kilometres, the park is larger than Hong Kong and, usually, blissfully free of people. You’re more likely to encounter seals, penguins and native birds than other humans on the white sand beaches and in the sheltered bays and coastal forest. If you’re into fishing, you’re in luck. Nothing like freshly caught blue cod on the portable barbie for Christmas dinner.
If you think Christmas would be tolerable if it was about spending time with your loved one (with an emphasis on the one), Japan could be your place.
There, Christmas eve is the major day of celebration and a typically romantic affair – couples exchange gifts and enjoy a night on the town (or festive bucket of KFC). With a minuscule Christian population, the emphasis is on reminding your special someone just how much they mean to you and getting into party mode ahead of the biggest celebration of the season – New Year.
Book a table for two at an upscale restaurant, stroll hand in hand past dazzling LED light displays (Inokashira and Roppongi Sakurazaka are particularly popular in Tokyo) and browse the European-style Christmas markets. Tokyo Disney, another hot yuletide date spot, puts a surreal spin on the traditional Christmas parade – you can trust the home of Harajuku to deliver on the kooky costume front.
For a truly authentic Japanese Christmas experience though, you can’t go past KFC. According to the BBC, an estimated 3.6 million Japanese families chow down on fried chicken from the American fast-food chain over the festive period in what has become a nationwide tradition. Some book special Christmas dinner packages – premium versions which come with cake and wine – weeks in advance, while others endure hours in queues for their finger-lickin’ good festive feast. Since you’ll probably have a food baby to rival Santa’s (or Colonel Sanders’) afterward, you may as well follow it up with a slice of Japanese Christmas cake – strawberry shortcake to the rest of us. If all this is just the kind of commercialism you’re trying to avoid, skip the cities and head to a mountain resort such as Hoshinoya Karuizawa, where hot springs and hiking provide a head-clearing antidote to silly season hijinks.
Christmas traditions have spread throughout Southeast Asia in what could be described as a virus-like manner. Laos, however, remains largely unaffected. While you might spot splashes of tinsel in the biggest cities, for the most part December 25 is just an ordinary day. If you can call watching saffron-robed monks glide through pagoda-lined streets and exploring emerald rice paddies and thick tropical rainforest ordinary.
If you’re looking to slow down or are in search of spiritual or cultural or enlightenment, Unesco-protected Luang Prabang is an ideal base. Set on a peninsula formed by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and encircled by forested mountain ranges, it is a city of traditional Lao architecture, French-accented villas and richly decorated pagodas (vat). While a flood of investment over the past two decades means there are now boutique hotels and top-rated restaurants aplenty, it retains a relaxed and friendly vibe.
The presence of the Buddhist monks, who form orderly lines outside the temples each morning, enhances the sense of it being a kind of sanctum from the rat race so many of us run in our regular lives. But adventurous souls are also likely to find nirvana. A leader in ecotourism, Laos offers top hiking and mountain bike trails with excellent wildlife spotting opportunities, kayaking trips, river cruises, underwater caving and jungle ziplines. Your squeals of delight as you hurtle across virgin rainforest in a harness are bound to rival those of even the most excited six-year-old on Christmas morning.
Austria and Germany
If it’s the sickly sweet sentimentalism of Christmas that irks you, try taking a trip to Austria, Germany or one of the other central and eastern European countries in which Krampusnacht is celebrated.
On the night of December 5, men dressed as snarling horned beasts race through the streets, swatting naughty children with birch sticks (although adults certainly aren’t immune). Krampus, the name of the half-goat, half-demon creature said to emerge at yuletide, makes Bad Santa look good: he’ll stuff you into a wicker basket and drag you down to the underworld if he decides you’ve been badly behaved.
According to the centuries-old tradition, Krampus and St Nicholas worked as a team, travelling from door to door doling out their unique brand of justice. In a kind of good cop, bad cop scenario, St Nicholas would reward good children with sweets, while Krampus would beat the bad and take them back to his lair. Attempts to ban the festival over the years have failed spectacularly: it’s experiencing a resurgence in some countries and is catching on in parts of the US. In recent years, the hair devil has sparked a comic book series and movie starring Adam Scott and Toni Collette. If your tastes run to the macabre, this could deliver your biggest Christmas thrills in years.