Feeling festive? My nomination for Chester made it into Britain’s 15 best high streets for Christmas shopping via Telegrpah Travel.
Read my guide to the city for your next Christmas-shopping weekend break.
Here’s a taster of the text:
Chester was voted the most beautiful city in the world earlier this year in a survey based on Google Street View. Walking the half-timbered main streets is a promenade through 2,000 years of history from the Romans to the modern day. The Xmas market opened November 18 on central Town Hall Square, while nearby examples of Tudor buildings, Georgian townhouses and Victorian flourishes complete a history-spanning backdrop to mooching, gift hunting and hot-chocolate supping.
Find more about Chester (and the other 14 places) here — currently no paywall at this link.
And scroll to the end to vote for Chester (second out of 15 to York when I last checked).
* Today marks December 1st and the official onset of the Christmas silly season. So here’s a suitably festive tale from the far-distant archives.
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I am going to meet Santa. No, really.
This is not some department store wannabe with a beer gut, a stick-on beard and halitosis, nor a drunken uncle in a dressing gown and wellies.
Ever since I was little and new Space LEGO was about as good as life could get, everyone has told me that Santa lives at the North Pole. Yeah right, I thought.
But this year I’ve made the ultimate pilgrimage to Rovanieme in northern Finland for a private audience with the big man himself.
This is my chance to check Santa’s credentials and ask whatever happened to that Scalextric I wanted in 1978.
To be honest, though, now I’m about to meet the big guy, I’m a bit nervous. That’s why I’m on the toilet.
Santa’s toilet! Can you believe this? I’m actually sat on Santa’s toilet. The very one where he settles down to practice his ho-ho-hos and deposit his little Santa parcels.
Come to think of it, I think he has warmed the seat for me. But that’s Santa, eh? He thinks of everything.
I’ve got a confession too: I had reindeer for lunch.
Now I know eating Rudolph is tantamount to saying I’m a bad, bad boy and deserve no presents, but hey, it’s minus 10 outside and I was hungry after the night train from Helsinki.
And besides, Rudolph comes served on a delicious bed of mash potato and loganberries.
Santa knows about my bon-viveur tendencies because, naturally. Santa knows everything.
Now, before I get my one-to-one with big daddy Xmas, I’ve got to work to earn my keep. You see, I’ve been recruited for the day as one of Santa’s little helpers.
I know what you’re thinking. I don’t look good in red and haven’t worn pixie boots since a brief and, frankly, embarrassing Fields of the Nephilim phase when I was 15.
But they’re an elf down at the Santa Claus Main Post Office in the official Santa village and so I’ve manfully stepped into the breach.
It is, after all, Christmas.
When children around the world write letters to ‘Santa Claus, The North Pole’, this post office, located next to a marker for the Arctic Circle in a Santa theme village is where they end up.
Better still, and in the spirit of Christmas, the resident elves sort through the letters and send out typewritten responses from Santa to the best.
The post office today handles around 600,000 letters per year. During December, it receives 32,000 letters each day from 184 counties with Japan, the UK and Poland providing the largest bulging mail sacks.
That’s a lot of mail to sort while festively dealing with the Japanese coach parties and enduring the endlessly chirpy Christmas music, which is piped around the whole complex on a repeat loop tape.
To me, it’s enough to make the most ardent Christmas fan want to go out and terrorise turkeys.
Thankfully, however, Santa has sagely hand-picked helpers like cheery Salla Taurianinen, a 21-year-old business studies student who is one of the three full-time elves employed to sort the mail this year.
“I guess I’m a Christmas freak,” she smiles as we sit down next a box of mail ominously marked X-files. “I’ve always loved Christmas since I was little and love the atmosphere here as the big day approaches.”
As we start sorting through the mail, Salla teaches me the rules for which letters get a place in the ‘deserves an answer’ pile.
“We will send out 40,000 replies by next Spring but that still means we have to be very selective of the deserving letters,” she explains.
She adds, her little elf hat at a jaunty festive angle:
“I look for letters which are more than just a list. Maybe it has a picture or some special message.”
Once we start wading through the piles, it soon become clear that the task provides a rare insight into the human condition. Present requests range from Emily aged three in Hampshire who asks for “Pillows, priced £3.99” to Sayo Yamanashi aged 12 in Tokyo who wants “wings to fly like a bird in the sky.”
An ambitious request given air traffic restrictions over central Tokyo but, by way of a sweetener, her dad has enclosed a cheque.
As the piles grow and more tourists pour through the doors en route to the grotto, we come across a single letter from Iraq, adorned with stamps of Sadam Hussein in strikingly festive pose.
“In our country, Christians are few but God is always with us,” writes Osama Mohammed Shash aged 10 of Baghdad.
The standout letter, though, has all the elves reaching for the Kleenex. It comes from Ilhovana Perez who explains she first heard of Santa aged 23 when she escaped Cuba and fled to Germany.
She writes: “I find it very sad that I never experienced the joy of Christmas and I want so much for my little girl now aged six to know your kindness as I never did.”
“Please send her a reply so both she and I can forget the sadness that has touched our lives.”
My shift over, the moment has come for an audience with the big man himself. As I approach tentatively, I can see he’s reading Harry Potter and waving off another Japanese coach party in near-perfect Osaka district patois.
Of course he is. Santa is all knowing. I feel suitably chastened. How could I ever have doubted this was the real Santa?
“Normally I get a lot of letters which are just big lists of presents but, this year, I’m reading more letters wishing simply for peace and understanding across different cultures,” he explains as we settle down in his grotto.
“I feel a bit sad that Christmas has become a big business; I fear the original meaning has been lost under the weight of materialism,” he sighs, waving at the webcam and smiling as the resident photographer snaps a souvenir shot (available for a token fee after my consultation).
“Then again,” adds the old man wisely, “I suppose that’s why I’m still needed – to make sure that children still have their dreams.”
* So, 37 days to Christmas then. I’ve delved back in the archive on a Christmas theme for an early freelance story from Copenhagen. Follow me on Twitter, or subscribe to the RSS, for more update.
* Photo via AP.
Paradise Yamamoto is running late.
He’s got jetlag having just come off a plane from Japan, a rip in the pants of his Santa suit and one of his bongos is missing.
But there’s no time to worry now. It’s 9am on a sunny July morning in Copenhagen and the official opening ceremony of the 39th annual World Santa Claus Congress is about to get underway.
Back home in Tokyo, Paradise-san lives a double life.
Not only is he an accomplished bongo player with his own Latin club nights and CD back catalogue, but he has quickly risen through the ranks to become Japan’s leading – indeed only – mambo Santa.
Today he will be flying the flag for Japanese Santa power while bashing out a Latin rhythm with the assistance of his trusty helper, Rudolph-san, dressed specially for the occasion in a fetching crotch-hugging jump suit and tinsel ears.
“OK,” he beams, securing his stick-on beard, “let’s mambo. Ho ho ho.”
While in Britain we bemoan the arrival of Christmas lights and grottos hot on the heels of Bonfire Night, the spirit of Christmas comes especially early each year to Bakken, an Art Deco amusement park north of downtown Copenhagen – exactly six months before Santa’s big day to be precise.
This uniquely festive gathering made its debut in 1963 as a slightly incongruous one-off event in Bakken with Santas from across Denmark coming together to play games, swap ideas and kick off the countdown to Christmas against a backdrop of green fields and sunny skies.
It proved such a success that organisers made it an annual event. Today the Santa Claus Congress is a truly global event.
Over 120 bone fide genuine Santas from countries as diverse as Greenland, Venezuela and the Congo (this year, Great Britain was conspicuous by its absence) come together for a three-day festive get-together that is part corporate bonding session, part harmless – albeit slightly surreal – fun.
“The Santas are too busy to met up and talk shop in the run-up to Christmas itself.”
“This event allows them to raise the burning issues and resolve conflicts before the Christmas rush,” dead-pans Tina Baungaard, one of the event’s organisers.
As I watch the assorted Santas, Mother Christmases and token elves registering for their name badges, I learn from Tina that Santa Congress has a serious agenda like any other trade fair or conference.
Amongst the topics for discussion at this year’s talking shop are EU moves to standardise Santa footwear sizes, concerns that hard-working reindeer are increasingly hard to come by and fears that false beards are spoiling the good name of Father Christmas.
The year’s burning issue, however, is a motion tabled by the Spanish contingent to have Christmas Eve moved to January 6.
The Scandinavian Santas, who celebrate December 24 as the main day of Christmas with presents at midnight and a large family meal, are said to be incandescent with rage at the prospect. At least, the ones whose faces I can see under a mountain of greying facial hair appear to be.
The formalities and introductions dispensed with, the Santas are gathered together on a makeshift stage overlooking the park’s fast food stands to break the ice with some Santa tai chi exercises.
I find myself standing next to a man flipping hot dogs in a burger van who looks as if the sight of around 100 middle-aged men in red fluffy suits and fake beards exposing copious amounts of bum cleavage is an everyday occurrence in the Danish countryside.
For me, however, such a wanton display middle-aged spread puts me right off breakfast and leaves me pondering ‘who ate all the mince pies.’
After a spot of dancing round the Christmas tree, we form an orderly procession and, led by a troupe of what can only be described as Santa bunny girls whose costumes set some of the old codgers hearts perilously racing, we head down to Bellevue Beach for another annual congress tradition: Santa paddling.
En route, I get talking to Toshi Kawanuma from Japan who describes himself as Inamoto Santa in homage to the Japan World Cup star and is making his debut at this year’s event.
According to Toshi, behind the smiles and talk of goodwill to all men, professional rivalries and jealousies run rife in the backstage area with Santas jostling for the position of Santa of Honour. It is, prsumably, like being backstage at a Milan catwalk show – except with fewer eating disorders and bigger knickers.
“I feel I have to prove myself as I’m new here,” says Toshi, rubbing his stubbly upper lip.
“That’s why I bleached my moustache white – to show them I’m serious about being a proper Santa.”
“It really hurt,” he adds despondently.
Back among the inner circle of anointed Santas, however, the mood is ebullient.
Indeed, by the end of the first day, the good people of Copenhagen have been subjected to semi-naked Santas bathing, a procession of Santas running riot along Stroget (the main pedestrian shopping street) and a pre-Xmas open air concert in Town Hall Square complete with carol singing and generous helpings of ho-ho-hos.
For even a Christmas cynic like myself, the infectious atmosphere has me fighting an overwhelming urge to rush out and deck the halls with bales of holly.
But before I leave the Santas to their serious discussions to be conducted behind closed doors, we all have one last appointment – a Christmas dinner in the town hall hosted by Bente Frost, deputy leader of Copenhagen City Council.
As the Santas hang up their suits and make a beeline for the turkey drumsticks, I go to take a picture of one Santa in civvies talking on his mobile phone.
“No pictures,” he snaps at me, “we’re off duty now.”