Embarking on the quest for the perfect Christmas experience, the pilgrimage to Lapland to meet Santa Claus often stands atop every child's festive wishlist. Yet, for parents navigating the realms of limited availability and soaring costs, the dream of a Lapland excursion becomes increasingly elusive. With 2023 bookings already sold out and 2024 availability dwindling, the demand for this magical journey is undeniable. However, for parents torn between fulfilling the Santa fantasy and indulging in a more budget-friendly ski holiday, the dilemma becomes a debate as fervent as the naughty list itself.
Caught in the throes of this quandary last Christmas, as my six-year-old daughter, Evie, longed for a rendezvous with the iconic figure of Christmas, I found myself at a crossroads. The prospect of spending nearly £3,000 per person for a two-day Santa escapade seemed extravagant when weighed against the allure of a week on the slopes with my family at a fraction of the cost. Skiing or Santa – a choice with profound implications.
Setting our sights beyond Lapland, we discovered the Baroque town of St Johann in the Austrian Tirol, a mere hour's transfer from Innsbruck Airport. This winter wonderland promised a festive family retreat without the exorbitant price tag. The Alps, pre-Christmas, exuded a magical charm, with traditions rivaling Lapland's enchantment. A Christmas market with open fires and waffles, snow-covered pine forests, and skiing opportunities galore – an enticing alternative, or so I was determined to prove.
However, there was a catch in our Alpine Christmas adventure. In Austria, the embodiment of festive generosity isn't Father Christmas but Christkind, the Christ Child. Christmas Eve takes precedence over Christmas Day for celebrations. A minor detail, perhaps, but a notable deviation from the traditional Santa narrative. Unveiling this revelation during our three-night stay in mid-December, our ski instructor, Christian, shared the local customs, adding a unique twist to our Alpine Christmas tale.
Stepping into the winter wonderland of St Johann, we found ourselves on the cusp of the season's inaugural day at the Sentido Alpenhotel Kaiserfels. Positioned just a stone's throw away from the Eichenhof gondola, the gateway to St Johann's expansive 43km of gently sloping terrain, our choice of accommodation proved to be a seamless blend of convenience and alpine charm. Opting for a private lesson with Christian, our guide, bridging a six-decade age gap, we embarked on the fourth snow adventure for my daughter Evie.
The short gondola ride to the mid-station and a leisurely descent down a gentle blue run were perfect for Evie's skill level. As she mimicked our guide's ski movements, her arms outstretched like airplane wings, my mum and I reveled in the joy of returning to the slopes early in the season. Though I had promised Evie a trip brimming with Christmas traditions, I left the specifics open-ended. After a delightful morning on the slopes, we ventured to St Johann's Christmas market, immersing ourselves in Austrian festive delights.
Nestled in the historic heart of the village, the market exuded an enchanting atmosphere against the backdrop of ornate green, yellow, and cream-colored buildings. Wooden chalets adorned with festive decor lined the square, offering an array of treasures, from handmade decorations and knitted scarves to locally distilled gin, jewelry, and honey. A biscuit-baking stand proved to be a delightful introduction to Austrian Christmas for Evie, where she crafted sweet delicate biscuits with the guidance of local volunteers.
Amidst the festive fervor, tales of Saint Nicholas and the mischievous Krampus unfolded, key figures in Austria's Advent traditions. Krampus Day on December 5th, a day of mischief and costumes, precedes St Nicholas Day, a time for well-behaved children to receive sweets, peanuts, and tangerines. Engrossed in these tales, Evie's curiosity about Santa seemed to fade away.
While Lapland might have offered leipajuusto, a grilled soft cheese with berries, our alpine experience took a delightful turn with waffles drenched in chocolate sauce, enjoyed fireside with a mug of mulled Campari and hibiscus. Families around us were wrapping dough around sticks for toasting in the fire, a tradition known as stockbrot, which we indulged in later at a cabin. In the heart of St Johann's festive embrace, we discovered that Christmas, even without Santa, could be every bit as magical and memorable.
The following day, our skis carved fresh trails on the slopes, and any lingering thoughts of meeting Santa were eclipsed by the sheer joy on Evie's face as she conquered her first red run. The descent culminated in a spirited family snowball fight at the bottom, creating cherished memories that outshone even the prospect of encountering the man in the red suit.
A full day of uninterrupted skiing with children is a rarity during a ski holiday, so we seized the opportunity to explore the winter wonderland beyond the slopes. Our adventures ranged from a picturesque horse-drawn sleigh ride through the trees at Gasteig, evoking Lapland vibes, to the whimsical Murmi's Kinderland, a soft play center in Kirchdorf in Tirol.
While Santa remained elusive throughout our Austrian escapade, the absence did nothing to diminish the festive spirit. Surprisingly, Evie seemed unfazed by the lack of a Santa encounter. Returning home, our hearts brimmed with a distinctly festive glow, and we carried with us a newfound tradition – skiing as a family. It's a tradition that we hope Evie will carry with her, a belief not in the man in the red suit, but in the magic of shared moments on the slopes. Our journey, generously hosted by the Austrian National Tourist Office, affirmed that the spirit of Christmas can be found in the laughter on the slopes and the joy of creating lasting traditions together.
In conclusion, our Alpine adventure in St Johann, Austria, proved to be a magical escape that transcended the traditional Christmas narrative. While Lapland's allure may be irresistible for many, the ski slopes of St Johann offered us a unique blend of winter enchantment and family bonding. Evie's joy on conquering her first red run and the spirited snowball fight that followed created memories more vibrant than any encounter with Santa could have provided.
Venturing beyond the slopes, our exploration of the winter wonderland included a horse-drawn sleigh ride through Gasteig's scenic trails and the whimsical Murmi's Kinderland in Kirchdorf in Tirol. Although Santa remained elusive throughout our journey, the absence did not diminish the festive spirit; rather, it accentuated the beauty of shared moments and newfound traditions.
Returning home with hearts aglow with festive warmth, we realized that the essence of Christmas lies not solely in mythical figures but in the laughter echoing on the slopes and the joy of creating enduring traditions as a family. Our sincere thanks to the Austrian National Tourist Office for hosting us and allowing us to discover the magic of an Austrian Christmas, proving that the true spirit of the season transcends geographical boundaries and is best celebrated in the embrace of loved ones on the snowy slopes of St Johann.