Since my previous blog post, I have fully accepted that Christmas is coming. By now, I am ready to embrace the holiday spirit and to feel my senses rejoice with all the simple pleasures this time of year brings along with it.
When I lived in Europe, this pre-holiday season would make me giddy with wonder and happiness. Late-November in Milano meant the massively tall Christmas tree would be set up — with the help of mega-cranes — in front of the Duomo (Cathedral) and the most wonderful lights and building projections would liven up the grey, fog-cloaked city. The cobblestone streets would be made all the more narrow with Christmas markets selling handmade arts and crafts, and after only a two-minute stroll, I’d suddenly be overwhelmed with the desire to fill my already-overweight suitcase with handcrafted Italian Christmas tree ornaments. Shopping for gifts in tiny, artistic shops (or even gorgeously decorated department stores) never felt hectic or crazily consumerism-driven, and the way the clerks would gift-wrap everything for you automatically with the most amazing paper and with such classy flair always left me smiling. Late-November in Milano was the season of outdoor markets, of Christmassy musical concerts in churches, of poinsettias and panettone, and of the scent of roasted chestnuts permeating the crisp foggy air.
I thought Milano was THE perfect, totally unrivalled place to wake up one’s holiday spirit … until I moved to Berlin. Oh, the open-air Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas markets), the abundance of chocolate-covered marzipan sweets and roasted almonds in paper cones, the uniquely heartwarming feeling of wrapping your mitten-covered hands around your hot cup of glühwein (mulled wine) and suddenly realizing just how tipsy you get when you’re cold and brimming with holiday joy. Berlin also impressed me with its decorations in the streets, not to mention the lovely Christmas tree in front of the famous Brandenburg Gate. It was all so simple and had nothing to do with mass consumerism and with Christmas music blaring in stores, but felt more like an artistic, soothing, inspiring holiday mood.
I’ve been back in Montreal for two years now and every December, I feel a pang of nostalgia for Milano and Berlin and for their awe-inspiring holiday atmosphere. Sure, we (usually) get tons more snow than they do, and I admit that it’s much more authentic to really freeze with our sub-zero temperatures … but I couldn’t help but complain when I first got back to Montreal that it just wasn’t the same. However, in the spirit of giving Montreal a fair chance and of discovering what sort of unique Christmassy experiences this city has to offer, I vowed last year to make an effort to search for this special holiday spirit here too.
Here are some heartwarming sights and fun holiday activities I’ve discovered or would like to try this coming season. Please share your own with me! In doing so, you’d make me (slightly) less nostalgic of Europe, and you’d really make me a happy camper (though please note that I am actually not big on camping, so please refrain from suggesting ice-fishing or building igloos to sleep in as an option!).
1. Christmas trees in the city
Of course, most (if not all) of us McGill-goers know about the Place Ville-Marie Christmas tree standing at the end of the beautifully-lit McGill College Avenue. As much as I love that street this time of year, and although the Ville-Marie Christmas tree does make me smile, it is certainly not my favorite. Something to do with its wiry structure and lack of real pines, I guess. If you feel the same and are in search of a lovely Christmas tree, pop into the small courtyard of Place de la Cathedrale downtown. I stumbled upon it by happy accident and was dazzled by its prettiness and all the surrounding lights.
If unique Christmas trees are more up your alley than the classical-looking ones, then check out the tree made entirely out of poinsettias in the greenhouse of the Botanical Gardens (http:/ www2.ville.montreal.qc.ca/jardin/en/medias/ communique_dorures.htm). And if one tree is not nearly enough for you, enjoy over thirty-five of them at the Christmas Tree Display on from December 3rd until January 2nd at the Museum of Fine Arts.
2. Noël dans le parc
A heartwarming outdoor Christmas market in Montreal, and it’s right in my neighborhood! They have decorated a little park on the corner of St-Joseph and St-Laurent, directly in front of the Saint-Enfant-Jésus church. Beautiful Christmas lights, little booths selling crafts and wintery goodies (including glühwein!), calèche rides, even a sheep or two hang out there. The highlight for me is the bonfire you could sit around to warm up your nosetip and fingertips, and to roast marshmallows if you wish. Closer to Christmas, they have a whole artistic program with live music, films and theater, and puppet shows for kids. Noël dans le parc is open from December 1st to the 24th. http://www.noeldansleparc.com/
3. Noël sur l’avenue
The Plateau’s Avenue Mont-Royal promises great fun and holiday cheer from December 3rd to the 31st, with a whole bunch of festivities for all ages. Santa’s elves arrive on bikes to collect kids’ letters filled with their secret wishes, and there will also be a Christmas tree decorating contest. On December 3rd, a torch-lit march will take place from Mont-Royal metro down to Parc Lafontaine, with a choir singing Christmas carols along the way. There’ll be lots of mouth-watering chocolate-related activities, “tire sur la neige“, and even a “speed-dating gourmand” where many of the coveted food stores let you sample their delicacies. If all this isn’t enough to get you into the holiday spirit, there will also be Christmas music blaring from speakers everyday along the street. Maybe you’ll catch yourself humming along as you do your shopping. http://www.noelsurlavenue.com/home.php?page=121.
4. Marché Casse-Noisette
Whether you love to admire beautiful things or you are looking for original gift ideas, the Nutcracker indoor market looks like it’s worth a visit! On until December 4th at the Palais des Congrès, they have some beautiful (and pretty affordable) gift items, jewelry, home decorations and gourmet products to offer. Admission consists of a 2$ contribution. http://www.marchecassenoisette.com/en/
5. Salon des métiers d’art
Another indoor market selling arts and crafts can be found at Place Bonaventure from December 3rd until the 22nd. It is quite a large space filled with booths and counters of products that local artists are proud of. Entrance is free but the cloakroom costs $2.50. http://www.metiers-d-art.qc.ca/smaq/index.php?option=com_frontpage&Itemid=1
6. Christmas fireworks at the Old Port
This was a highlight for me last year. From December 3rd until January 7th, every Saturday night at 8pm, fireworks will brighten up the winter sky over the Bonsecours Basin at the Old Port. The fireworks are choreographed to music and usually last between 15 and 30 minutes. There is even a midnight show on New Year’s Eve! If you get there early enough and stand right near the front, the sound of the music will literally blow you away (the speakers are powerful). Dress very warmly and consider the fact that it will take f-o-r-e-v-e-r to get back over the basin after the show; there is only one bridge over the water and it will be claustrophobia-inducingly packed with people!
7. International Christmas village
Also at the Old Port, in Place Jacques-Cartier, lose yourself in an international Christmas village from December 9-24. Different shacks will be dedicated to different countries and cultural traditions (e.g. Alsace, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Russia, Quebec). You can also enjoy cotton candy made from maple syrup and, when you’re too cold for anything else to help, glühwein. http://oldmontrealextravaganza.info/?p=22
8. Skate ’til your feet ache!
What better way to embrace the chilly winter air than by spending a few hours skating on one of Montreal’s wonderful outdoor rinks. The most popular rinks are at Parc Lafontaine, at the Bonsecours Basin in the Old Port, and the Parc Jeanne-Mance. If you’re unsure about the conditions of the ice when you’re about to leave the house, check this website: http://patinermontreal.ca/. It is updated regularly to let you know about the opening times of Montreal’s outdoor rinks and the quality of the ice on that very day. If you’re up for an adventure and have the possibility of going out of town for a day, enjoy skating in a labyrinth of weaving ice-trails in a pine forest, at the Domaine de la forêt perdue. They guarantee good-quality ice and hours of fun, as there are more than 10 kilometres of ice-trails. (http://www.domainedelaforetperdue.com/).
9. Snow village at Parc Jean Drapeau
Some people like to keep warm this time of year. Others really enjoy the look and feel of ice. If you are one of those ice-loving people, then the new Finnish-style snow village at Parc Jean Drapeau is the place for you! From January 6th until March 31st, the snow village contains an ice hotel, an ice restaurant and ice bar with a terrace, snow igloos, heated spas, a snow labyrinth and a slide, a snow sculpture exhibit, replicas of familiar Montreal buildings and lighted snow tunnels to explore. It feels like admission will cost a fortune, but it could be really, really COOL! http://www.parcjeandrapeau.com/248-Snow_Village-event.html.
10. I’m dreaming of a Green Christmas
If you have your hopes up for a green Christmas, don’t let snowfall disappoint you! Until December 23rd, the Biosphere is celebrating the holidays through a unique combination of art and environmentalism. A series of clever activities have been planned to raise awareness about the environment and responsible consumption during the holidays, such as an ecological gift-wrapping workshop and a recycling artists eco-fair where you could find original gifts made from recycled objects and materials. http://www.ec.gc.ca/biosphere/default.asp?lang=En&n=16BF3035-1
11. Nativity scenes from around the world
When I was a young child, I was fascinated with the Nativity scene that my parents used to set at the foot of our Christmas tree every year; not because we were tremendously religious but because I loved the scene itself — the composition of it, the depth and background of the manger and the soft light that used to fall on the faces, on the animals and on the hay. I used to lie on my stomach in front of the tree, staring into the scene. To this day, I often find myself staring at different Nativity scenes and losing myself in their composition for a moment. It sounds so strange, but it’s true. It’s surprising, then, that I’ve never been to the annual exhibition of nativity scenes at the St. Joseph Oratory, but I plan to this year. Over two hundred nativity scenes from over one hundred different countries are on display until January. Admission is $4 ($3 for students). http://www.saint-joseph.org/en_1102_index.php
12. Nutcracker ballet
Last December, my husband and I went to see the Grands Ballets Canadiens’ “The Nutcracker” at the Place-des-Arts. We were fortunate to have great seats in the front-middle of the parterre, but that only partly contributed to our amazing experience. The ballet was incredible. It is burned into my memory and I still see scenes of it flash vividly before my eyes whenever I think of it. Children and adults alike were shrieking from excitement and wonder throughout the entire show, their eyes wide and in awe of the magical sets, the dancers’ costumes, their moves and their facial expressions, and all of us moved by Tchaikovsky’s powerful, lingering music. By Act III, my jaw hurt from smiling, and I was touched to the point of tears and goosebumps several times throughout the evening. In fact, we loved it so much that we decided not to go back again this year — as tempting as it is! — in order not to take away from the magic of our first experience. Please, go!
13. Christmas classical music concerts
If you not only love the ballet but are also a fan of classical music, this is the season of concerts. The Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) and the Notre-Dame Basilica have organized a performance of Handel’s Messiah on December 11th and 13th. If tickets to that are already sold out, on the 15th and 16th of December, still at Notre-Dame, the OSM presents a Christmas Celebration, with a mixed program of music from Tchaikovsky to Schubert to Handel (http://www.tourisme-montreal.org/blog/what-to-do/christmas-concerts-in-montreal/). For more concerts, check with the Bourgie Hall of the Fine Arts Museum (http://www.sallebourgie.ca/artemusica/wp-content/Programmes/ArteSeason2011_2012.PDF), as well as churches like the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul (on Sherbrooke) which boasts a fantastic choir (http://www.standrewstpaul.com/music/)
14. Here we come a’caroling!
If you prefer carols to classical music, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to listen to caroling or to sing along yourself. At the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Bonsecours at the Old Port, “Les Choralies” event will take place from December 1st until the 23rd, where seven choirs will take turns in singing traditional Christmas carols from a variety of musical traditions and cultural origins. At the Notre-Dame Basilica on December 18th and 19th is a “Christmas sing-along” with the OSM and the Montreal Children’s Choir. The Opera da Camera also presents a series of Christmas carols, classical pieces and poems, at the “Souvenirs de Noël” celebration at the Rialto Theatre on December 6th.
15. Come on, it’s lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you!
For a day of fresh, wintery air, go up to the charming L’Auteuilloise farm in Laval where they offer horseback-riding, nature walks and even sleigh rides! You have to reserve in advance and, of course, there has to be snow. http://www.fermelauteuilloise.com/sleighride.html
So, I must admit that Montreal has a ton of fun holiday activities to choose from. Although I have resorted to making my own glühwein, to buying panettone from Jean-Talon market and pretending that I bought it at my favorite little bakery in Milano, and although I have come to terms with the fact that every December, this nostalgia for Europe cannot possibly be fought, I am still enjoying where I am now and all that Montreal has to offer. At least until they perfect transporter beam technology so that I could simultaneously enjoy the best of all my worlds.