8 Places to Escape Christmas
The Christmas spirit has been infiltrating our homes for several weeks now, although we've only just finished digesting Thanksgiving dinner. Stores have been decking their halls with plastic Santas since October's end, and you can't avoid the endless "Jingle Bells"-inspired commercials airing on every TV channel. Not to sound like Scrooge, but when did the 12 Days of Christmas stretch out to 60 days? By the time you reach Dec. 25, you can hardly look at another holly sprig without becoming Grinch-like. So this year, plan to escape the onslaught of commercialism before "Silent Night" starts to feel like a not-so-silent eternity. Pack your bags and leave Santa a note: We're sure he'll understand.
You won't hear any bells a-jingling over in Marrakech, at least not the Christmas kind. Morocco's population is predominantly Muslim, so Dec. 25 passes as just another day. But don't expect a bland getaway: You won't be bombarded by twinkle lights and carol singers, but you will be enveloped by brightly colored lanterns and the echoing notes of the adhan (the Muslim call to prayer), seeping into the streets from one of the majestically domed mosques. Spend your Christmas sipping mint tea and sampling spiced lamb as you peruse the souvenirs in Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakech's main square. It's the perfect place to pick up some belated holiday gifts.
Bangkok makes an excellent holly-jolly escape for several reasons. First of all, you shouldn't expect mangers and mistletoe. The majority of Thailand's population is Buddhist, and despite the fair number of Christians living in the city, Christmas is not a major holiday. Secondly, Bangkok is a cultural smorgasbord, where ornate temples rub elbows with shimmering skyscrapers and traditional canal markets compete with towering shopping malls. And last but certainly not least, Bangkok's warm southern locale and proximity to sandy respites, like the waterfront town of Pattaya (only a two-hour drive south), makes it easy to spend Christmas day on the beach.
If you're dreaming of a "White Christmas" but can't stand the chintz, then grab your coziest clothes and head to St. Petersburg. Many of the city's residents are Russian Orthodox and don't celebrate Christmas until Jan. 7, so you'll still have two weeks before the onset of holiday cheer. In the meantime, get a feel for the good life by touring Catherine the Great's famous Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace or marveling at the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood's colorful domes. And when you need to warm up, pop in to one of the local restaurants along the Nevsky Prospekt. Russia's traditional holiday cuisine -- such as the traditional holiday dish, sauerkraut -- is sure to help you thaw.
Go ahead: Have a giggle at the irony of avoiding holiday traditions in Turkey. Still, you won't be feeling the Christmas spirit in this country. Like Marrakech, the city of Istanbul is largely Muslim. And although there are a number of thriving Christian communities, they don't deck their halls as enthusiastically as we do. Don't worry: You'll probably be too busy admiring Istanbul's stunning sites (like the Hagia Sophia) or exploring its vibrant neighborhoods (like Taksim Square) to notice the lack of Christmas spirit. If you can't quite overcome the need for festive lights, then make your way to the Grand Bazaar, where vendors sell a wide variety of traditional -- and very colorful -- lanterns, along with other fun and funky souvenirs.
You're bound to bump into a bit of the Christmas spirit in the Bahamas; Christianity has flourished on those islands since it was introduced by European colonialists several centuries ago. However, familiar holiday traditions are overshadowed by preparation for Junkanoo, a colorful festival and night parade that takes place every year on Dec. 26 and again on Jan. 1. Seventeenth-century slaves created the fete to celebrate the days off they were given at Christmastime. Today, during Junkanoo, the streets of Nassau fill with extravagantly costumed dancers and blare with foot-stomping Bahamian music -- a big change from the Santa sweaters and Christmas carols you might be used to seeing and hearing at this time of year.
Although only 1 percent of the Japanese population is Christian, Christmas is a holiday that people in Tokyo love to celebrate. You can't stroll the streets of Tokyo without running into Rudolph. But while it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas in the capital, you won't find a red-nosed reindeer if you travel several 100 miles southwest to Kyoto. Lonely Planet describes the city as "the storehouse of Japan's traditional culture," housing more than 2,000 monuments to Buddhism and Shinto, the country's dominant religions. Let Dec. 25 pass by as you explore Kyoto's 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites and find peace and quiet in its bamboo gardens. You're bound to bump into a geisha or two.
Christmas doesn't even come once a year to the Maldives. More than 99 percent of the population is Muslim on this Indian Ocean archipelago. If you choose to visit, you'll trade in your white Christmas for stretches of white sand, plus endless azure skies to match the miles of cerulean waves. If you start to long for the colorful atmosphere of twinkling holiday lights, you won't have to look far: Just grab some scuba gear and head below sea level to the vibrant pinks and oranges of the Maldives' vast coral reefs. And while you may be sacrificing chestnuts roasting on an open fire, you'll find that the luxuries of the islands' opulent resorts easily make up for the loss.
In Agra, one horse open sleighs are replaced by surprisingly dexterous rickshaws. And frenzied shopping malls are substituted with even more chaotic outdoor markets. Christmas in this Hindu city passes by unnoticed. But there are a few things about Agra that are reminiscent. First of all, tourists flock to the Taj Mahal the way children scurry to the Christmas tree. Agra's stunning white marble mausoleum is one of the most recognizable buildings in the world. And secondly, since it stands as a tribute to romance -- commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal -- a day at the Taj Mahal is best spent with a loved one.
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