A cool run-up to Christmas

Mark Juddery goes to Edinburgh, where the festive season is not a spectator sport.

Christmas in Britain? If an Aussie suggests that, Brits are shocked. Why come all that way for miserable weather when you can spend Christmas lying on Bondi Beach (next to crowds of English backpackers)?

To answer, you can go to the even chillier north. While England has plenty to commend the season - scenic ice-skating rinks, all-star pantomimes and (as of this year) the Polar Express - nobody celebrates the festive season quite like the Scottish. In Edinburgh, celebrations are so rich they keep everyone occupied for 11 days, from winter solstice (December 21) to the legendary New Year's festivities.

In fact, it goes even longer. Scotland's capital, always pretty, will be transformed into a Christmas haven for six weeks, as Christmas officially lasts from November 29 to January 6.

"Christmas provides a wonderful opportunity to sample the very best Scottish hospitality has to offer," says the chairman of VisitScotland, Mike Cantlay. "Huge open fires, a few drams of whisky, great food ..."

Christmas markets, generously positioned around Edinburgh throughout December, have been a mainstay since mediaeval times. The most famous is the German Christmas Market, serving endless bratwurst sausages, German beers and gluhwein (mulled wine).

For a more local experience, the Highland Market offers whisky-flavoured fudge, single malt whisky and venison burgers (best eaten with whisky), as the Edinburgh Wheel towers overhead. For a mediaeval experience, or a substitute for the turkey, the Farmers Markets provide venison, wild boar, wild game and ostrich. And whisky, of course.

If you stay away from the whisky, you can go skating in one of Europe's largest open-air ice rinks. In December, Britain is covered with outdoor ice rinks, but the one that takes over East Princes Street Gardens, under sparkling lights, is one of the grandest.

Santa arrives on December 8 in a reindeer-drawn sleigh - not unusual. The next day, however, 1000 Santas run for charity around West Princes Street Gardens for a more recent tradition: the Great Edinburgh Santa Run. The sight of these one-mile charity joggers is a sight to behold. Crazy as it might seem, it has inspired other Santa runs throughout the world. However, if you go jogging in such heavy apparel, Edinburgh's nippy climate is the most sensible weather (if "sensible" is the word).

If you arrive in Edinburgh this early, you will have time to explore more of Scotland. Glasgow, Scotland's largest city, is a mere 70 kilometres from Edinburgh. Few cities do friendly rivalry as well as Scotland's two major towns. Yuletide merriment is a case in point. In Glasgow, fairies, toy soldiers and stilt-walkers wander the streets in December. Winter solstice is celebrated with Burning the Clocks - an age-old rebellion against Christmas commercialism - in which thousands carry homemade paper and willow lanterns through the city and burn them on the beach. (They might be making a salient point, but the city is still promoted as "the perfect place to enjoy Christmas shopping", with Britain's largest shopping area outside London.)

Glasgow doesn't have the Great Santa Run, but it does have the Santa Dash. It also doesn't have the Princes Street Gardens ice rink, but Glasgow on Ice draws skaters and performers alike.

Back in Edinburgh, you can experience hogmanay, Scotland's traditional end-of-year celebration. While hogmanay has been celebrated since ancient times, Edinburgh has been globally recognised as the home of hogmanay for only the past 20 years, drawing visitors from around the world for four days of revelry.

It begins on December 29 with a spectacle involving pyrotechnics, aerial performance and the lighting of the central Norwegian Christmas tree. The next day, the Torchlight Procession invites visitors to don Viking garments and carry a flaming torch through Edinburgh's darkened streets. Thousands of "Vikings" (and an audience of 25,000) head up Calton Hill, where they set alight a life-size wooden longboat.

For hogmanay itself, the city boasts a huge street party, on Princes Street, oft-described by locals as "the most famous street in the world". The Scottish, in their excitement, are masters of hyperbole. But that's academic. This is certainly the largest hogmanay party, and what could be a better way to greet the New Year?

As you frolic to the evening's entertainment (headlined this year by Scotland's own Simple Minds, just to make you think that the New Year is actually 1986), you welcome friends and strangers with hugs and kisses, wishing them a "guid New Year" and, of course, singing Auld Lang Syne.

Other festive UK hotspots

CAERPHILLY The quiet south Welsh town of Caerphilly (population 30,000) is transformed at Christmas, with a market taking up most of the town and mediaeval festivities (including jesters and "singing plague victims"). There is also the River of Light Parade, in which scores of lanterns cascade through the town centre against the backdrop of Caerphilly Castle.

GLOUCESTERSHIRE Westonbirt, The National Arboretum, located near the historic town of Tetbury, boasts a forest of Christmas trees. Each year, it is the setting of Enchanted Christmas, a one-mile, illuminated trail of crafts, gifts and family adventure, like stepping into a fairytale.

LONDON Londoners like to moan about their weather, but they make good use of it at Christmas time. Some of the classiest ice-skating rinks appear: the glamorous Somerset House rink; the 950-square-metre rink in front of the Natural History Museum; and one at the Tower of London, in the moat of the tower (illuminated after dark). Non-skaters can enjoy the Christmas lights in Carnaby Street and Regent Street, Winter Wonderland at Hyde Park (more than 500 ice and snow sculptures) and carols at the Royal Albert Hall. Otherwise, watch the Christmas pantomimes at the West End, which have traditionally given Neighbours and Home and Away stars something to do during Australia's non-ratings seasons, appearing alongside famous comedians and cabaret stars.

Trip notes

Getting there

British Airways flies daily from Sydney to Edinburgh in late December from $2000 return, though this price would need to be booked several months in advance. (Closer to the date, return flights are from $4000 return.)

Staying there

Edinburgh City Hotel, 79 Lauriston Place, Edinburgh. Christmas deals from $68 a night.+44 131 622 7979,edinburghcityhotel.com.
Grand Central Hotel, 99 Gordon Street, Glasgow. +44 844 824 6171, www.thegrandcentralhotel.co.uk.

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