Life
William Ham Bevan 5 Dec 2017 01:49pm

10 alternative ways to spend Christmas

Commercialisation, objectionable relatives and gluttony? It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. For those who think Ebenezer Scrooge was too soft, William Ham Bevan cooks up 10 alternative ways to mark the season

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Caption: Photography: Rex features

Travel afar

Last year, the National Trust estimated that 43 million Britons went on a Christmas Day stroll. But if you fancy a more serious walking experience than a quick turn in the park to work off the roast potatoes, consider a trekking holiday.

Many outfits offer guided itineraries over Christmas week. KE Adventure Travel, for example, has a seven-night trek in Jordan from £1,799, including return flights (keadventure.com). You’ll make your way across desert and mountain terrain from Dana to the ancient city of Petra, with its buildings carved out of the red rock. At nights, you’ll camp like the Bedouin under clear skies.

It makes for a great antidote to Christmas: you’ll be expending calories rather than absorbing them, and even the most insistent relatives will find it impossible to track you down.

Cape escape

A grey Christmas is far more likely than a white one in the UK, so why not fly south to a warmer climate? The Canary Islands are the classic winter-sun destination but another hour of flying can take you to Cape Verde, 350 miles off the coast of Senegal, a nation of 10 volcanic islands where the temperature seldom dips below the mid-20s.

Each island has its own character. Sal is a good bet for a poolside “fly and flop” break and is a magnet for surfers and sailboarders; Santa Maria, on the southern shore, has surf shops and a pretty square lined with cafés. Santo Antão is a walker’s paradise, with paths that meander through steep valleys of cane and banana plantations; while São Vicente’s music clubs and festivals mark it out as the party island. To find the ideal itinerary, contact a specialist tour operator or travel agency first.

Change the channel

Going through the double edition of the Radio Times with a highlighting pen is a modern Christmas tradition. But perhaps it’s time for a more appropriate viewing schedule.

Raise the spirits with two black crime comedies on a festive theme. Ted Demme’s The Ref is a cult classic, featuring Denis Leary as a burglar who takes a bickering couple hostage on Christmas Eve. If you’re not offended by relentless vulgarity, you could follow it with the father of all anti-Christmas films, Bad Santa, in which Billy Bob Thornton plays a drunken thief who doubles as a shopping-mall Santa. Both are available to stream at amazon.co.uk.

Round off the day with the Star Wars Holiday Special – disowned by George Lucas and widely considered the worst Christmas programme ever made. Though broadcast only once, it’s usually lurking on YouTube.

Hit the slopes

A skiing holiday is a great way to avoid all the pomp and fuss of Christmas. The 25th is just a normal day on the slopes: lifts and mountain restaurants are open as usual. What’s more, you’re unlikely to encounter crowded pistes or lift-queue bottlenecks this early in the ski season.

There is one big proviso. December can also mean patchy snow conditions, so it pays to choose somewhere at high altitude. With its main villages at 2,100m, one of the most snow-sure resorts is Tignes – part of France’s giant Espace Killy ski area, along with nearby Val d’Isere. Crystal is currently offering a week, half board, at Hotel Diva from £774pp, including London flights and transfers (crystalski.co.uk).

Tignes was built in the 1960s, so there’s a refreshing lack of chocolate-box Alpine architecture to make you come over all Christmassy.

You may see one or two jokers – inevitably British – sashaying downhill in a Santa suit; fortunately, this makes them easy to avoid on chair lifts.

Spread some cheer

For some people, getting away from Christmas is a blessed relief; for others, there’s little prospect of festivity in the first place. The homelessness charity Shelter reports that rough sleeping has more than doubled since 2010. Every December, it mounts an operation to provide warmth, companionship, hot meals and vital services to homeless people across the UK – so why not pledge some time to help them out?

The charity relies on an army of more than 11,000 seasonal volunteers in London, Birmingham, Newcastle, Coventry and Edinburgh. Volunteers are asked to commit to a minimum of two shifts across Christmas week, and are expected to attend one or more training sessions a few weeks beforehand. See crisis.org.uk/volunteer – and for further volunteering opportunities at Christmas, visit communitychristmas.org.uk

Elf and fitness

On returning to work after the holidays, you’ll hear plenty of grumbling about expanding waistlines and seasonal lethargy.

So why not rub it in by bounding into the office buffed, toned and glowing with health, after spending Christmas at a fitness resort?

A good option for the winter months is Shanti-Som, in Andalucia’s Sierra de Las Nuevas Nature Park, around 45 minutes from Málaga Airport. Run on holistic principles, it offers a six-night “fitness high-intensity” retreat (shantisom.com; from £1,860, not including travel). The package includes yoga and pilates sessions, training classes, guided walks, spa treatments and use of the sauna, pool and gym.

Nutrition is taken seriously, with healthy meals and dietary advice included; and there’s the option of a special weight-loss menu for those intent on the full cold-turkey treatment. The variety of activities stops the programme from ever getting dull or too gruelling. Check out a specialist tour operator for ideas.

Silent Night (and Day)

It’s something of a cliché that Christmas starts earlier every year. By the time the big day comes round, there is often a sense that Slade, Shakin’ Stevens and Fairytale of New York have been stuck on repeat play since around Easter time.

A meditation retreat offers the chance to escape the noise and reconnect with nature. Sharpham Trust (sharphamtrust.org) offers five-night stays over Christmas at Sharpham House (left), a Grade I-listed mansion near Totnes in Devon, from £495. The programme includes three daily meditation sessions, plus ample time to discover beautiful parkland designed by Capability Brown. The whole of Christmas Day is spent in silence.

If you’re keen to find a meditation retreat outside the UK or want to keep up your daily routine during the holidays you could try the Healthy Holiday Company for ideas.

Christmas coral

Somewhat ironically, few places are more remote than Christmas Island – or “Kiritimati” (pronounced “Kirismas”). Located around 1,300 miles south of Hawaii, it’s the world’s biggest coral atoll and forms part of the Pacific nation of Kiribati.

You’ll need to go via Honolulu and then take the weekly three-hour flight to Cassidy Airport with Fiji Airways. You’ll be rewarded by paradisiacal scenes. You can spend Christmas Day scuba diving or snorkelling around pristine reef, or go fly fishing: from big bonefish to three different species of trevally, there is something new for everyone to check off their list. Alternatively, break out the binoculars to spot the abundant bird life – no robins, but breeding populations of petrels and the endemic Christmas Island warbler. And you’ll be among the first to see in the new year: in 1995, the Kiribati government shifted the International Date Line to make it the easternmost nation on earth. 

Come All Ye Hateful

If you’re a fan of Seinfeld, you’ll have heard of Festivus – the satirical alternative to Christmas. It’s more than just a plot device: it was invented in real life by the father of scriptwriter Dan O’Keefe (as detailed in his book The Real Festivus) and is now marked all over the world on 23 December.

The most famous ingredient is the Festivus pole, a bare, unadorned aluminium rod that takes the place of a Christmas tree. Festivus dinner is a highlight, featuring “the Airing of Grievances” when those present relate how they have been disappointed with each other over the past year. Proceedings are concluded with the “Feats of Strength”, when an attempt is made to wrestle the host to the ground.

Or you could simply binge on Seinfeld. We can all relate to Frank Costanza’s pronouncement: “I got a lot of problems with you people, and now you’re gonna hear about it!”

Wonton merrily

In many parts of the US, it’s a Jewish tradition to go out for Chinese food on Christmas Day. The custom is thought to date back to the early 20th century in New York’s Lower East Side, where the two communities lived side by side for many years.

If the words “turkey”, “sprouts” and “pudding” have you instinctively reaching for the Gaviscon, it may be an idea that appeals. Many restaurants in London’s Chinatown are open as usual on the 25th and likewise in Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool Chinatowns – though some places will restrict you to a special menu.

If you want to go back to where the tradition started for your crispy wontons, lo mein and General Tso’s chicken, bag a late bargain on a New York city break (try any of the travel discounter sites).
Time Out NY has a comprehensive guide to Manhattan Chinatown that includes restaurant reviews and contact details: it’s a good idea to book ahead for Christmas Day.
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