When I learned 10 years ago that my husband's job would be moving us from New York to Munich, I had the usual worries—schools, friends, how to say "bathroom" in German. But what actually kept me awake at night was Christmas. Having always observed the holidays with hallowed traditions, we suddenly realized we were going to be a long way from over the river and through the woods.
Luckily, our new home was in Germany, which dives into the winter holidays with enthusiasm, stringing up lights and calling out an army of angels. We rented a chalet in Kitzbühel, high in the Austrian Alps, for the holiday week. At the Christmas market in the village square, our girls, Zara, then 11, and Kate, 7, discovered gingerbread in every shape imaginable, including toadstools. Our place looked as if Heidi had just moved out, its fretwork capped with the snow that appeared right on cue on December 24. As the bells pealed at midnight, the girls slept under drifts of eiderdown, and I sat in the candlelight, surprised by how happy we all were, even without our cranberry relish and hometown habits.
Related: The Best Places to Spend Christmas
And so our mobile Christmases began. On the strength of that first trip, we forged a footloose new way of dealing with the days between December 24 and January 1, each year heading for a different destination. After all, didn't the Three Wise Men hit the road?A week in a rented country house in Perthshire, in the Scottish Highlands, was memorable for a midnight church service filled with men in kilts, and for Christmas pudding with real sixpence inside. At the posh Hotel Goldener Hirsch in Salzburg, we smuggled a small pine tree into our room and decorated it with origami animals hung from dental floss. In London, where we moved after three years in Germany, we dressed up for a white-linen-and-lashings-of-cream tea at Fortnum & Mason's, paid tribute to Tiny Tim with a visit to Dickens's house, and went to a Victorian music hall to see a pantomime of "Cinderella," with half the cast in drag. We even tried a cruise, luxuriating aboard Holland America's Rotterdam to the Bahamas—though Santa in a Hawaiian shirt scandalized Kate, our true believer.
Yes, there were culture clashes, moments that made us feel foreign on this most familiar of holidays. The Germans, for instance, tend to celebrate on Christmas Eve, leaving the next day an unplanned expanse, and British Christmas lunches, the turkey accompanied by gluey bread sauce and gray sausages, were more than we could stomach—until the feast was saved by Christmas crackers and toasts in several languages. This year, we've got our eyes on La Foce, an estate with rentals near Siena, where we'll roast chestnuts in an enormous stone fireplace. To make the holiday our own, we always pack the gaudy, jingle-belled stockings knit by my mother; the two traditional ornaments that have followed my girls since their births, a china Scottie dog and a pig wearing a kilt (I said traditional, not tasteful); and scissors and tape for making the most of found objects. The other things we bring along are curiosity and a belief in family, wherever it lands. I know, come Christmas Eve, I'll unpack the presents, and with them, memories of a daughter, years ago, asleep under a candlelit Austrian Christmas tree, or of the other whirling as she danced her first Scottish reel, memories that were cast as we learned to take our celebration with us, to carve out a holiday by being at home in the world.
CATHERINE CALVERT is a writer and editor in London.
If you're after the full range of festivities and a family feel, an inn or an all-inclusive resort with lots of seasonal activities is your best bet. Keep in mind that Christmas Day can be an ideal time to travel—planes are rarely full, and flight attendants have been known to wear antlers and hand out candy canes.
Our Favorite Places to Spend Christmas
Streets filled with chestnut sellers, churches glowing with gilded angels. Dirndls optional. Go to the Christmas market, take a horse-drawn carriage ride, and seek out the St. Nicholas church in nearby Oberndorf, where "Silent Night" was written.
STAY AT Hotel Goldener Hirsch (37 Getreidegasse; 43-662/80840; www.goldenerhirsch.com; connecting double rooms from $576), a centuries-old inn that's both cozy and elegant. Christmas Eve dinner brings all the guests together, and there are cookies in every room.
Walks along the North Sea, and crackling fires to come home to. You'll be within easy reach of Edinburgh, which goes all out at its New Year's celebration, Hogmanay (44- 131/473-2000; www.edinburghshogmanay.org), with concerts, film festivals, footraces and a torchlight procession. Book passes to the events well in advance. And think sweaters, coats, and mukluks— even indoors.
STAY AT A house in the countryside rented from Blandings (44-207/947-3290; www.blandings.co.uk; two-bedroom houses from $1,566 a week); ours was Georgian, shared with another family, and filled with Queen Anne antiques.
The run-up to the holidays lasts all December, with markets throughout the city selling chocolate crêpes, steamed pudding, and ornaments galore.
STAY AT The Bayerischer Hof (26 Promenadeplatz; 49-89/21200; www.bayerischerhof.de; junior suite from $794), a standout in the row of onetime palaces down the street from the central market. Ask for a Landstilroom, decorated with Bavarian painted furniture.
Cruising the West Indies
Holland America (877/724-5425; www.hollandamerica.com; family of four from $4,100 a week) has 14 Caribbean itineraries during winter school vacation. Three generations of our family opened presents on deck, drank flagons of pineapple juice, and lost at bingo. Children trooped to Christmas Eve dinner in their very best, causing parental heart flutters.
Where We Want to Go Next
Winter is the quiet season, with panforte, concerts in the cathedral, and Nativity scenes everywhere.
STAY AT La Foce (61 Strada della Vittoria; 39-0578/ 69101; www.lafoce.com; apartments for four from $964 a week)—at this country estate with flats in restored medieval castles and stone farmhouses, the tree and firewood can be delivered to your door.
It's a small city with an ancient heart of crooked streets and half-timbered houses. The irresistible Christmas market has merry-go-rounds, and the shops are stuffed with printed linens and artful children's clothes. Buy a Three Kings' cake at one of the many bakeries and look for the prize inside.
STAY AT Hôtel Beaucour (5 Rue des Bouchers; 33-3/88-76- 72-00; www.hotel-beaucour.com; doubles from $191), an 18th-century house with exposed beams and Internet access—the perfect place to collapse after a meal of sauerkraut and wurst.
Chicken with mole may replace turkey as your holiday favorite, or try the sweet buñuelos with mugs of hot chocolate. During Christmas week (www.christmas-in-oaxaca.com), the streets are filled with processions. December 23 is the Radish Festival, in which the zocalo is given over to carved tubers. And New Year's Eve is all about fireworks.
STAY AT Hotel Camino Real (300 Calle Cinco de Mayo; 52-951/501-6100; www.caminoreal.com; doubles from $250), a 16th-century former convent with shaded courtyards and a lovely pool. — C.C.
A great choice—after all, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert helped launch the Christmas tree tradition. Visit the weekend Borough Market (8 Southwark St.; 44-207/407-1002; www.boroughmarket.org.uk) for handmade chocolates and wheels of cheddar; the18th-century almshouses, done up in period decorations, that now make up the Geffrye Museum (Kingsland Rd.; 44-0207/739-9893; $3.61 per adult, free admission for children under 16); and the candlelit interiors of Dennis Severs's House (18 Folgate St.; 44-207/247-4013). Buy a Christmas pudding at Fortnum & Mason (181 Picadilly; 44-207/734-8040; www.fortnumandmason.com) or Clark's (124 Kensington Church St.; 44-207/221-9225), and, of course, book some entertainment: consider a pantomime, Matthew Bourne's holiday production of Edward Scissorhands at Sadler's Wells (Rosebery Ave., 44-207/863-8198; www.sadlerswells.com; tickets from $18), seasonal music at the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (Trafalgar Square; 44-207/766-1100; www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org) or the Royal Albert Hall (Kensington Gore; 44-207/589-8212; www.royalalberthall.com). Join the natives for a brisk post-lunch walk across Kensington Gardens. Stick around until New Year's for fireworks on the Thames.
STAY AT The Gore (190 Queen's Gate; 44-207/584-6601; Tudor rooms from $625), an eccentric town-house hotel, nicely placed for the museums; or the Knightsbridge (10 Beaufort Gardens; 44-207/584-6300; firmdalehotels.com; doubles from $324).
The British Countryside
Enjoy walks and wassailing in a land of gently rolling hills silvered by frost.
STAY AT The Cotswold House Hotel in Gloucestershire (Chipping Campden; 44-13/8684-0330; www.cotswoldhouse.com; doubles from $369), one of the new-style country hotels that have trimmed back on the chintz but kept the welcome (note the parlor games by the fire), in a heart-meltingly beautiful little town. Ask for the Grammar School Suite for Frette sheets and a plasma-screen TV, plus a 17th-century stone fireplace big enough for six stockings. The Ickworth Hotel & Restaurant (Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk; 44-12/8473-5350; www.luxuryfamilyhotels.com; doubles from $361), a luxurious new family hotel in a very stately 18th-century neoclassical house owned by the National Trust. Acres to roam in, horses to ride, a pool to swim in, and a real gift-a spa. Or consider renting a remarkable and unique antique building—a Tudor fort, a Bath townhouse, even a pineapple-shaped folly—from the Landmark Trust (www.landmarktrust.org.uk). Get the catalogue and dream.
A good base for exploring nearby towns, such as Beauly, where Campbell & Co. (The Highland Tweed House; 44-1463/782-239) will fit you for a kilt for New Year's Eve; Nairn, on the sea; and the Victorian spa town Strathpeffer-take the waters and cure any seasonal ills.
STAY AT Cawdor Cottages (Cawdor Estates Office, Cawder, Mairn; 44-166/7402-402; www.cawdor.com; cottage for four from $1,171, five-night minimum)—heavenly cottages on a Highland estate for a do-it-yourself holiday. The pine-paneled Fisherman's Cottage has a full complement of stags' horns and overlooks the River Findhorn. If that last walk up the mountain was a bit too brisk, order in a massage-now that's a high time in the Highlands.
New York, New York
Yes, the halls are decked, even if the residents are on the 35th floor. Look for Christmas pageants—the Church of the Heavenly Rest (2 E. 90th St.; 212/289-3400; www.heavenlyrest.org) has real lambs-and ice skating in Central Park and Rockefeller Center, a wide choice of Santas, a skyline that glitters, and shops open on the Day.
STAY AT The Lowell (28 E. 63rd St.; 800/221-4444; www.lowellhotel.com; doubles from $555). Near Central Park—and the rooms have fireplaces for stockings.
The Galápagos Islands
The Christmas seals can swim! December and January are prime times to tour the Ecuadorian islands by cruise ship. Lindblad Expeditions (800/397-3348; www.expeditions.com; 10-day tours from $3,480 per adult, $2,980 per child), the outfit that pioneered tourism in these parts, excels at family outings.