Australian Christmas? It's a bit sad

This time of the year I'm always a bit wistful that I'm not in New York. I'd be decking my halls with boughs of real holly and going to the Union Square Farmers' Market to select a nice plump fir. On my way, I might stop by a street cart to buy some roasting chestnuts and give a few coins to a fat Santa ringing a brass bell on a Fifth Avenue corner.

There would be an excursion to the Rockefeller Centre ice rink to watch all the skaters and trips to the department stores to marvel at the decorations. It would be like living in Miracle on 42nd Street or in the Christmas issue of Martha Stewart Living.

And, with a bit of luck, it might snow on Christmas Day.

I recall the first time I saw garlands of fragrant princess pine at the New York farmers' market. All I'd ever understood about Christmas tree decoration was that you tried to make the scraggly top of a pine tree look as colourful as possible by stringing it with bits of tinsel. I'd never seen a real garland before, nor did I really know the difference between a pine and a fir tree.

It's not that I don't love our southern hemisphere traditions; the way we've adapted the celebration to suit our summer climate.

My Christmas memories aren't of snow ploughs and ice-skating rinks but of ham sandwiches on the beach, ice-cream plum puddings, skinny Santas sweltering in hot fake fur suits, and leaving a beer out for Father Christmas. And the sound of cicadas chirping in the trees on a hot and hazy afternoon when everyone has had too much to eat.

But as lovely as this is, sometimes I find the way we do Christmas a bit dispiriting. I find Santa Snow sprayed in shop windows, droopy cardboard reindeer garlands, unimaginative street banners and the same old dusty tinsel stars dragged out from one year to the next a bit sad.

All the traditions - the roast turkey or goose, the blazing puddings, the eggnog and mulled wine, the stockings hanging over the fireplace, Santa's fur-trimmed suit - have been developed in cold climates.

A lot of them don't make sense until you actually find yourself celebrating the season in sub-zero weather. It's quite possible to enjoy eggnog if you're drinking it by a fire, rather than watching it curdle in the hot sun.

I often think that the fact that Christmas here is entangled with our summer holidays means for some people it becomes something to get out of the way before they get down to the real business of lying on a beach. It can be a chore rather than a delight, certainly for those not interested in its religious significance.

In the northern half, the festive season comes at a time when everyone is looking for a distraction from the long winter ahead, so they throw a lot of energy into it. I'm always struck by the way New Yorkers, who will barely make you a cup of coffee when you visit during the year, go to such a tremendous amount of trouble in decorating their houses, trimming their trees, wrapping their gifts and preparing a feast for Christmas Day.

And it's a long festive season there, starting with Thanksgiving and going on to encompass the celebrations of other cultures, such as Jewish Hanukkah and African-American Kwanzaa.

Similarly, in Northern Europe there's not going to be much daylight before next April, so it's a bit of cheer during the dark days.

I've noticed a growing trend among Aussies to abandon our warm weather, at least for a couple of weeks, and fly north to get a little bit of authentic Christmas atmosphere. The Christmas markets in European cities such as Dresden, Prague and Vienna, which run during the four weeks of Advent, are visited by millions of people a year.

It's increasingly popular for Australians (we're great cruisers) to hop on one of the river cruises along the Rhine or Danube that stop at different towns and villages visiting the markets. You can shop for hand-made gifts while you snack on gingerbread and Gluhwein. More fun than the local shopping mall.

Many are doing this right now and coming back home for Christmas Day to sweaty Santas, sandy turkey sandwiches, awful Christmas cracker jokes, droopy pine trees and a glorious summer.

The best of both worlds, really.