“Where should I go for Christmas?” asked my friend over lunch. As we’d already established that he’d be heading to Australia with his family, I knew what he was getting at. He wasn’t asking where he should spend 24 and 25 December: he wanted advice about where he might travel for a weekend packed with chilly evenings, cosy interiors, candle-lit shops, hearty dinners and familiar carols on heavy rotation in the run-up to Christmas proper.
After a round of desserts and coffees I offered up Stockholm. My pitch involved booking in to Ett Hem hotel, plates of meatballs, mashed potatoes and lingonberries, a shopping expedition to Svenskt Tenn and Carl Malmsten and a city scented by cinnamon, saffron and cardamom. Before we reached for the bill, everything seemed sorted: he’d find a weekend in late November or early December and go for full festive immersion, Swedish-style.
Christmas has taken something of a battering over the past few decades in some corners of the world, reduced to the rather bland, politically neutral “holidays” or erased by trading hours that have turned it into any other day of the week. But it’s making a spiritual and commercial comeback in many corners of Europe that have stuck with tradition and now feel that they have a unique offer for locals and long-haul travellers alike.
In Finland’s high north, thanks to the clever men and women who run one of the world’s more successful Santa Claus franchises, thousands of Chinese are now enjoying direct flights to the ho-ho hub of Rovaniemi. After six or seven hours crossing Russian airspace, visitors from big, belching cities will step off charter aircraft and be treated to Finnish delicacies, various specially made tat and a bounce on Santa’s knee. Once they’ve exhausted their back-up mobile-phone batteries due to self-portrait overload they’ll scamper back to the airport and head home with the scent of wood fire and glogg fresh in their nostrils.
The battle for Father Christmas ownership is nothing new: Finland and Canada both claim intellectual property rights over white beards and red get-ups of various proportions. But the appeal of Christmas is drifting further south with the likes of Stockholm, Oslo and Copenhagen recognising that they have a strong offer for visitors outside their core summer season.
In Denmark, the boom in books devoted to hygge (the country’s answer to cosiness) is part of the nation’s soft-power push into selling the values of living by candlelight tucked up under blankets woven in the Faroe Islands. “There are a couple of things going on here,” said a Danish diplomat visiting Midori House. “In a world that’s increasingly overlit and constantly connected, the Danish concept of hygge is attractive because it’s comfortable, reassuring and low-watt. At the same time it has appeal because it’s about more traditional values that are unique to Denmark – values that many feel are threatened with dilution.”
Tracht (traditional Germanic dress) and Oktoberfest have re-emerged for reasons of diminished national identity and commercial opportunity. By the same token, the Christmas bounce-back is about re-establishing lost traditions as much as a chance to find new revenue channels.
When “Merry Christmas” was killed off in favour of “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” in North America in the mid-1980s it was a confusing time for this part-time Catholic and early-bloomer consumer. In an era of greater cultural awareness and tolerance, why was this most sacred of holidays being demonised? Was Christmas too powerful a franchise? And wasn’t it commercially daft to try and dilute the brand by just dubbing it “the holidays” and attempting to blend in other religious occasions that didn’t have the same commercial (gift-giving) opportunities?
When I arrived in the UK in 1989 I was relieved to find that Christmas was still alive and well in the office; the HR team hadn’t poked their heads into the art department to change the greetings on the company Christmas card. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s I noticed that various companies I worked for tried their best to kill it off but “Happy Christmas” is still a common greeting in the UK that doesn’t cause too much offence. It now shares the stage with plenty of other holidays that have become part of the calendar of events that allow for a spike in trade of coloured lightbulbs and packed banqueting halls.
Should you be close to London on 3 and 4 December we’ll be throwing open the gates at Midori House for the Monocle Christmas Market. In line with tradition, Santa will be flying in from Finland, reindeer will be snorting in their pen, there’ll be great stalls of goodies from across Europe and the Swiss will be on the scene with their raclette and tasty reds from the canton of Vaud. Likewise, if you’re in northern Italy on 21 December we’ll be doing a special round of drinks – and more – at our shop in Merano. However, before we break for the holidays we still have The Forecast to get on press; it’s on sale from 8 December, just in time for festive reading. And as you might have noticed, next issue marks 100 for monocle, so all that’s left to say is thank you for a decade of your loyal custom, Merry Christmas and all the best for 2017.
For more from our editor in chief, read his column in the ‘FT Weekend’.