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SINGAPORE (Reuters Life!) - Christmas has become a global festival, regardless of religion or location. Lonely Planet's "1000 Ultimate Experiences" lists the best places in the world to experience the yuletide spirit. This list is not endorsed by Reuters.
With today's emphasis on present grabbing and overindulging, it's hard to deny that the real meaning of Christmas often seems forgotten. For a refresher, nothing compares to a pilgrimage to Jesus' birthplace. The energy on Manger Square and in the Old City on Christmas Eve could light a forest of Christmas trees. The place to be as the clock strikes 12 is St Catherine's Church, for the Midnight Mass service.
When too much Santa is never enough, rug up and head north to Finland's Arctic Circle. The jolly man in the red suit is this neighborhood's most famous resident, and round these parts they milk him for all he's worth. Still, the deep wintertime snow and reindeer-dotted forests go a long way toward off setting the touristy atmosphere, though there's an amusement park called SantaPark not far from the village. You'll need deep pockets, but you'd have to be pretty Grinchlike to leave without a smile.
Surely you know what Christmas in the Big Apple looks like, thanks to countless movies: Christmas lights, cheesy muzak, preferably a light dusting of snow. The world's tallest Christmas tree is lit at the Rockefeller Center in early December. Ice skating below it is a must for wintertime visitors, as is checking out the window displays in New York's largest department stores. Finish with a New York Ballet performance of "The Nutcracker" for a Christmas straight out of central casting.
Hit the beach to talk turkey with fellow travelers. Bondi is the antithesis of northern-hemisphere Christmas cliches: sun, sand and surf replace snow and fairy lights. Come 25 December the beach acts as a magnet for backpackers a long way from home, who celebrate alongside other "Christmas orphans." Bands and DJs rock the Pavilion, everyone checks out everyone else, and a festive atmosphere prevails. Items you may not normally take to Christmas dinner: swimsuit, sunscreen, sunhat.
You can rest assured that the spiritual heart of Catholicism knows how to do Christmas. The Eternal City is magical at any time of year, but December has an extra frisson, with roasted chestnuts sold on every corner and the city awash with presepi (nativity scenes) - check them out on St Peter's Square, Piazza Navona, and in the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli on the Capitoline Hill. It's the Vatican that pulls the most pilgrims. Midnight Mass in St Peter's Basilica on Christmas Eve, or at noon on Christmas Day, is an affair to remember.
With a cracking sense of humor, the staunchly Catholic Irish have a few novel ways to honor Christmas. The most eyebrow-raising is a morning swim on the 25th at the Forty-Foot sea-water pool. In the lead-up to the big day there's life aplenty on Dublin's streets and the craic flows. There's the 12 Days of Christmas Market at the Docklands, cheesy pantos, Christmas lights, ice skating, and markets and seasonal cheer in Temple Bar. Don't miss carols at St Patrick's Cathedral.
If present buying makes you think of heaving department stores, maybe you should experience the magical Christkindlesmarkt (Christmas Market), in Nuremberg's Hauptmarkt. Here, 180 stalls proffer toys, trinkets, candles, gingerbread and sweets to shoppers warmed by sizzling bratwurst and mulled wine. Visit after dark, when the colored lights create a fairy-tale spectacle. Christmas shopping never looked this enchanting.
All those famed chocolate-box attractions -- mountains, snow, cobbled streets -- make Switzerland extra-appealing come Christmas. Zurich wins our vote for its oodles of Christmas markets (don't miss the one inside the train station), guided Christmas-themed city strolls, and the enchanting all-singing Christmas tree that comes alive on Werdmuhleplatz. On a tiered triangular stage covered in assorted greenery and fairy lights, a choir of local youngsters sweetly delivers Christmas carols.
Christmas in Tokyo is a fairy-lit, religion-free sight to behold. Traditionally, celebrating the New Year is more important in Japan than Christmas, but this is what happens when non-Christians embrace Christmas, and with gusto: spectacularly over-the-top decorations and lights. While the lead-up is dazzling, Christmas Day itself is a fizzer as it's not a holiday. Christmas Eve is the big deal, resembling Valentine's Day in activity -- a night for couples and romance. Feasting Japanese-style involves fried chicken followed by sponge cake topped with cream and strawberries.
A small island with a big personality, Puerto Rico serves up a sunny Christmas with a salsa beat and a side dish of spit-roasted pig. Festivities last from early December to Three Kings Day on 6 January. From mid-December churches conduct dawn masses rich with Christmas carols, while exuberant roving groups of carolers travel from house to house and make merry. The big feast is held on Christmas Eve, followed by Midnight Mass. For season-setting decorations, head to City Hall on the Plaza de Armas and the fairy-lit promenade Paseo de la Princesa.
Editing by Miral Fahmy