Beauty queens, spice cookies, Santas spread holiday cheer

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NEW YORK -- It is a common misunderstanding that Europe closes down for the holiday season, barricading its cities against tourists as the locals enjoy private celebrations.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Although Christmas day is dedicated to family fetes, the preceding and following weeks are given over to parading Santa Clauses, craft and cookie markets and yuletide beauty contests.

The following rundown captures only a few of the holiday highlights:

Austria
One of the country's oldest Christmas markets, the Vienna Christkindl, boasts about 140 stands with everything from art and toys to tree ornaments and homemade biscuits.

The market is open from Nov. 18 to Dec. 23, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, and on Christmas Eve until 5 p.m.

The life of St. Nicholas is celebrated in Austria on Dec. 5, and parades are held in Laxenburg, Laa an der Thaya, Wolkersdorf and Innsbruck.

Belgium
According to legend, St. Nicholas rides over the rooftops of Belgian homes on the night of Dec. 5; he rides on a donkey, along with his helper, Black Peter.

Belgium's largest Christmas market, Dec. 8 to 17, is held on the Grand Place in Brussels.

In Bruges, the Hobby Garden Christmas Happening boasts Christmas decorations and children's entertainment.

The happening will be held during the weekends of Nov. 24 to 28 and Dec. 1 to 3.

The market in Liege is open daily from Dec. 2 to 31 and features Belgium's finest Christmas village, a nativity with 120 tiny, painted houses.

Denmark
In Copenhagen, the Great Christmas Parade on Nov. 25 has Father Christmas marching through the city accompanied by children, jazz musicians, angels, and figures from fairy tales.

The Tivoli Christmas Fair will run Nov. 17 to Dec. 23.

Thousands of twinkling lights will add their magic to the gardens, along with a large Christmas market.

Several restaurants will feature traditional Danish Christmas menus, along with glogg, a hot-mulled wine. There also will be ice skating on the Tivoli lake.

Finland
The fair Lucia Maiden -- a teenage beauty queen -- is chosen in Helsinki on Dec. 13, and the subsequent Lucia Parade proceeds from the city's Lutheran Cathedral to Finlandia Hall, where the maiden is crowned with candles.

A Christmas Market in the Esplanade follows from Dec. 14 to 17; here shoppers can find gifts such as handmade ornaments, Finnish crystal and porcelain from designers Iittala and Arabia and seasonal baked goods such as gingerbread cookies and houses and prune-filled pastries.

The market draws to a weekend close with a Christmas festival at the Children's Museum, where families can hitch horse-drawn sleigh rides.

France
The Christmas spirit comes to Provence in November with the opening of the santon fairs. Santons, sold at various markets, are clay figurines dressed in hand-stitched clothes.

The largest fairs are held in Arles; Marseilles and Aubagne, the santon capital of Provence.

On Christmas Eve in Provence, midnight mass often includes a procession cart decorated with candles and ribbons carrying live nativity characters.

The most famous of these pageants is held in Les Baux.

The province of Alsace hosts France's colorful Christkindelsmariks (Christmas markets). Among the best are the markets in Strasbourg and Kayserberg.

Town squares are filled with stalls selling custom-made ornaments and santons, as well as embroidery and stoneware.

Foie gras is always a good buy along with seasonal specialties such as gingerbread, spice cookies and bredele (small Christmas cakes).

In the contest of best decorative lighting, few towns do it better than Montebeliard in the province of Franche-Comte. In the old town, streets are hung with thousands of lights fashioned into stars, angels and bells.

Germany
Christmas markets are this country's specialty, with the most famous held in Nuremberg and Munich from Dec. 1 to Dec. 23. Market confections include zwetschgenmannle, or little prune people.

The Munich market is filled with the aroma of baked goods, bratwurst, gingerbread and roasted chestnuts.

Hand-carved creches -- representations of the nativity -- is another market specialty.

The Rothenburg market features concerts, torchlight parades and stagecoach rides.

Netherlands
During November, Dutch children eagerly await Sinterklaas' arrival by steamboat from Spain -- not the North Pole -- on the third weekend of the month.

In Amsterdam, St. Nicholas will ride on his white horse through the city center on Nov. 19.

Festivities in Gouda on Dec. 15 revolve around the lighting of a monumental Christmas tree, a carillon concert and performances in St. Jan's Church.

Norway
From Dec. 13 to 31, visitors to Lillehammer can take their family members to meet Santa's helpers; have Christmas cards stamped with

Santa Claus' postmark sent from the post office, and shop at a Christmas fair downtown.

On Dec. 24, a scheduled sleigh ride through the forest is followed by a meal of Christmas porridge and caroling.

Portugal
A great place to be in December is Madeira, where Christmas fairs turn the island into a shopper's paradise.

The culmination of Madeira's tribute to the holiday season takes place on New Year's Eve, when a fireworks show lights up Funchal Bay during St. Sylvester's Festival.

Sweden
Three weekends beginning in late November are devoted to the Skansen Christmas Fair, where handicrafts and holiday foods such as smoked sausages, reindeer meat and gingerbread biscuits are sold in the open-air museum.

On Santa Lucia Day, Dec. 13, Swedish girls wearing crowns of candles to celebrate the end of the year's darkest days march in a colorful parade through Stockholm.

Switzerland
In the village of Kussnacht, Klausjagen (the pursuit of St. Nicholas), is celebrated on Dec. 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day. At night, more than 100 transparent bishop's miters are illuminated by candles and worn by those who accompany St. Nicholas through the village.

Turkey
The story of St. Nicholas is based on the legend of a man born in the third century in the costal town of Patara; he moved to nearby Demre, known in ancient times as Myra, where he became the first bishop of Myra. Dec. 6, the date of St. Nicholas' death, kicks off the three-day St. Nicholas Festival in Demre, with ceremonies in the Church of St. Nicholas and folk dancing.

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