When you think of Christmas, what comes to mind? As residents of the Southern Hemisphere, we have a slightly wacky juxtaposition of yuletide traditions - BBQs and red-nosed reindeer, swimmers and tinsel, snowflake motifs and evergreen trees at a time when the sun is out and the temperatures are beginning to scorch. We are familiar with Santa and with the Nativity, and we like to spend the day itself with family or friends indulging in a feast which includes anything from ham and Christmas pudding to sausages and strawberries.
To quote Shakespeare: there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Christmas is about more than the decorations, the food and the events - it is a celebration, and it comes in many forms. Experiencing the holiday in a different place and culture can be an eye-opening and valuable experience. From watching Sinterklaas parade past on his horse in Amsterdam to cobbling together a makeshift Christmas celebration while afloat with my family in a very small trailer yacht off the shore of New Zealand, I have found it rewarding to come at the silly season from a new perspective a few times over the years.
Getting away for Christmas, with the whole crew or as an escape, allows a look at some different traditions. Even if your ship is at sea on the day itself, port calls leading up to the 25th of December will give you a glimpse into an alternative way of doing things.
Here are just a few of the things you could see if you plan to leave Australian shores this Christmas.
There is, of course, no shortage of opportunities to spend Christmas cruising in the Pacific Islands. Itineraries by P&O, Princess, Royal Caribbean and more will take you into the tropics for beaches, palm trees and turquoise waters. But how do they celebrate the holiday?
Food is an important centrepoint in Pacific culture, and in many places the holiday is marked with a feast - not unlike in Australia. The menu might be a little more exotic, featuring heaps of seafood, salads and cold meats to fit with the surroundings and temperature. A nice aspect of the traditional village life on many of the islands is that people aren't shut up in their own separate houses on Christmas Day but can mingle with neighbours, family and friends for a communal celebration.
The French influence in places like New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Tahiti might see children putting their shoes by the fireplace (or air conditioner, as the case may be) for Pere Noel to fill with presents in the gallic tradition. Many Islanders have a strong Christian faith and will attend church on the day and tell the Nativity story.
The beautiful islands of our own South Pacific cruising ground also mix in modified northern motifs - palm trees wrapped in fairy lights, Santa in boardshorts and fake snow in windows. However, their unique and community-focused way of celebrating is a great experience for anyone who loves the spirit of Christmas.
The Sun Princess offers an Indonesia Cruise which could see you in Ujung Pandang on the 25th of December. Indonesia has a significant Christian population and many citizens mix church services and typical decorations with traditional food (lots of pork) and other unique celebrations.
Feather trees are a common sight in Indonesia - Christmas trees made from chicken or goose feathers. They are usually handmade and very pretty, and the idea has spread so that feather trees are often bought as unique Christmas decorations for homes worldwide.
The Dutch and Portuguese influence means that Santa is replaced by Sinterklas, and the season is called Natal. Regional celebratory dances, rituals and traditions can also be incorporated into the festivities for some unique local flavour. Above all, community and generosity takes centre stage at an Indonesian Christmas, and it is this aspect which makes it a fantastic experience for visitors over the holiday season.
Royal Caribbean's New Zealand Cruise visits Auckland on the 25th of December. You might think that celebrations across the ditch are no different to the Aussie version, and you are largely right. Called "kirihimete" in the native Maori language, a typical Kiwi christmas is based around family, the beach, food and winter-themed decorations in summery December.
One unique aspect of a Christmas in Godzone are the beautiful Pohutukawa trees which flower every year in the lead-up to the 25th.They are the backdrop to most celebrations, lining streets and beaches with their festive red and green. Docked in Auckland, you can see them as soon as you step off the boat, and then make your way up Queen Street to see the giant Santa who watches over the Whitcoulls store.
You might not see many locals around though, because they will be off "at the bach" - escaped to holiday homes at the beach as soon as school or work let out. The multicultural nature of Auckland and indeed the rest of the country means that Christmas in New Zealand is as varied as it is casual - you might come across a traditional Maori hangi, a barbecue or an Asian spread as well as the more typical dinner.
Princess, P&O UK, Holland America, Royal Caribbean and many more lines cruise over Christmas in the Caribbean, where each island and nation has its own traditions. These are just a few of the special touches you might experience when spending the season in the world's most popular cruising ground.
St Vincent and the Grenadines has the Nine Mornings Festival. For the nine days leading up to the 25th, people wake up in the wee hours of the morning to partake in activities like swimming, dancing, church services, bike riding and concerts. No-one's 100% sure of the reasons for the energetic early-morning shenanigans, but it is a great way to embrace the season to the fullest!
In Jamaica, you might be treated to Christmas Carols sung to a reggae beat, and in Trinidad and Tobago the Spanish cultural influence is really felt, not only in music but also in food. The French-colonised islands continue their celebrations until January 6th which commemorates "Les Rois Mages" or the coming of the three wise men, and in places like Guadeloupe a réveillon, or late-night meal, is enjoyed after a church service.
In various ports around the Caribbean you could find yourself eating delicacies like jerk chicken in Jamaica, jug-jug (which is made with ground meats and pigeon peas) in Barbados, Black Cake in Dominica, chow mein in Guyana, garlic pork in Antigua and Jamaican Sorrel, a drink which is associated with Christmas throughout the entire region. Caribbean hospitality is even greater than usual over the holiday season, and food is not just for the family but to be shared around.
You could be visiting the wonderful port cities of Spain, France, Greece and other Mediterranean nations with an MSC cruise - this local line is one of the few who cruise in the region during December. This is an opportunity to experience a classic wintery Christmas, and although it is still usually warm near the coasts, you might even get some snow if you can find a chance to travel inland a little. The magic of a European holiday season is something everybody should experience once in their lifetime - especially the fantastic markets found in almost every city and town on the continent!
One very quirky Christmas tradition in Barcelona and the Catalan area is the "shitter" figurine, or Caganer as he is known in the regional language. Found in most nativity scenes with his pants down and squatting, he is a unique character adding some light-heartedness to the festivities.
Italy's "La Befana" witch is an integral part of the Christmas folklore but does not show up until January 5th, when she flies around on her broomstick and brings another round of gifts to children in the hopes of finding the baby Jesus who she could not find on the 25th.
Christmas trees are becoming more popular in Greece, but the primary symbol of the season is still a shallow wooden bowl with a piece of wire across the rim, around which is wrapped a sprig of basil and a wooden cross. These are used each day to sprinkle holy water around the house.
Of course, when you're in Europe the best part of almost any celebration will be the food and drink. Mulled wine is a must-have, a spicy, hand-warming concoction that smells and tastes like the definition of Christmas. Potato pancakes are an Eastern European favourite, and of course amazing doughnuts and pastries of various kinds are pretty ubiquitous across the continent. The French always finish their dinner with a "bûche de Noël" or yule log, whilst Italians prefer the fruity Panettone bread.
Have you experienced Christmas in a different culture? If not, why not take a chance and cast off for foreign ports? You'll find plenty of options among our December 2015 cruises and, should you like to plan ahead, our December 2016 cruises too.