If you could hear traditions crumbling, this one would resound with the roar of an avalanche: a great many Americans travel for the holidays, but a lot of them aren't going anywhere near grandmother's house.
Indeed, grandmother may be on the road herself, headed for a sunny Caribbean cruise or to a family reunion at a New England ski resort -- any place, in fact, where she's not expected to cook a large turkey dinner for the spreading branches of the family tree.
Home for the holidays, we used to think, but that is changing for many people -- and for many reasons. But if not back home, where would you go?
Ski resorts and cruise lines do some of their biggest business during the year-end holidays. The slopes attract those who revel in the snow; for them no year-end holiday seems authentic without it. A cruise is for the bikini bunch who don't want to get any closer to winter's chill than a frosty rum punch.
A trip to Europe, to join in an Old World celebration, is becoming very popular, especially among travelers taking advantage of the season's busy cultural calendar.
Londoners leave town for Christmas in the countryside, and many Americans are joining them at historic inns and hotels for a holiday with a Charles Dickens flavor. Vienna is beautifully decorated for Christmas; a night at the State Opera is something special, and you won't find better chocolate goodies anywhere than at Demel's, a coffeehouse in the old city.
Closer to home, Colonial Williamsburg throws a two-week festival that brings an 18th-century family Christmas alive. It's a history lesson, but one you absorb with cheerful caroling and hot cider by a blazing outdoor fire.
Who's opting for holiday getaways?
Bolton Valley Resort, a friendly, family ski area in northern Vermont, attracts a number of family reunions. "I've seen families skiing together with an age range of 70 years," says resort spokeswoman Kathy O'Dell-Thompson.
In this day when both parents and grandparents may work and children are in school, the holidays are a rare opportunity when everyone can gather at the same time. And at a resort, no one must bear the burden of playing host to everyone else.
For some people, the rituals of the season -- baking cookies, trimming the tree, buying presents, decorating the house, throwing or attending a whirl of parties -- have become too much of a chore. A trip away from home is viewed as a welcome break from these obligations.
A vacation at Christmas also appeals to singles and couples with few family ties. They can join in the festive spirit of a resort or cruise ship, avoiding what for some -- at this time of year -- can be a feeling of loneliness, of being left out.
Some families tote all the gifts along, hanging Christmas stockings from the mantel of their getaway condo and carrying on as many traditions as practical. Others exchange only token gifts; for them the shared vacation is a more valuable present.
Whatever the reason, and whatever the destination, it is important to make reservations early. Many popular holiday resorts may already be booked full for this year. But now is not too soon to be considering a trip for next winter.
Among the possibilities for a holiday away from home: On skis in New England: A white Christmas -- what could be more traditional? -- is almost an assured thing at a New England ski resort. If snow clouds don't bring a sufficient fall, the snow-making cannons can create the proper frosty landscape.
For most New England resorts, the week from Christmas to New Year's Day is the busiest of the winter, and understandably so. The holiday blends the fun (and thrills) of skiing with all of the cozy comforts for which the region is famous. Spend an athletic day on the slopes; enjoy a moonlight hayride, and then relax in front of a warming fire.
This romantic picture can be realized at dozens of ski areas, but perhaps best at one of the smaller, family places such as Ascutney Mountain Resort at tiny Brownsville in southeastern Vermont or Bolton Valley Resort at Bolton in the northern part of the state. Both are self-contained resorts, which means you can leave the car parked and walk or ski everywhere.
And both make sure the holidays are appropriately festive. At Ascutney, Santa Claus skis down the mountain on Christmas Eve to distribute gifts to the youngsters, and fireworks light up the mountain on New Year's Eve. At Bolton Valley, you can join an apre s-ski sing-along of Christmas carols, and this year Santa may show up aboard the resort's new hand-carved sleigh pulled by a team of Belgian draft horses.
Ascutney, the oldest of the two -- it began in 1946 -- is tucked into a Christmas-card setting of pine-covered slopes, rolling farm land and white-steepled churches. Brownsville, a quiet village of untouched charm (pop. 763), is just a short walk away, down the path and across the footbridge that spans little Mill Brook.
The resort advertises 31 marked ski trails down terrain about equally divided among novice, intermediate and expert. At the base of the mountain is the resort's new condominium hotel, so close to the chairlifts that you can ski to them right from the hotel. Nearby is a cross-country center and an indoor sports and fitness facility, with saunas, whirlpool hot tubs and a very popular heated swimming pool.
The holiday rate at Ascutney for a two-bedroom suite (for a family of four) is $150 a night. A five-night ski package in the same suite is $928, including two adult and two junior lift tickets (ages 6 to 12) and use of the sports center.
Bolton Valley, to the north, is not far from a Christmas tree farm, so the resort can arrange to have a tree delivered to your condominium apartment. You are responsible for the decorations and the presents underneath. Bolton trims three large trees for the holidays, and when Santa isn't using the new sleigh, rides are offered through the surrounding Green Mountain woods.
Like Ascutney, the mountain terrain is varied, with the emphasis on intermediate-level trails. At Bolton, too, there is cross-country skiing and a large indoor sports center with a heated pool. Accommodations are in the 85-room lodge at Bolton Valley, trailside condominium apartments and the small Black Bear Inn.
The holiday rate for a large one-bedroom condo apartment (sleeping two to six) is $155 a night (lodging only). The rate for seven nights is $935. The package rate for a five-night stay -- including lodging, use of the sports center and a five-day lift ticket for two adults and two children 12 and under -- is $1,077. A meal package (breakfast and dinner) is $18 a day for an adult, $10 for children 12 and under.
For information and reservations: Ascutney Mountain Resort, Box 29-26, Route 44, Brownsville, Vt. 05037, (800) 243-0011. Bolton Valley Resort, Bolton, Vt. 05477, (800) 451-3220. The charm of Old Vienna:
In winter, Vienna belongs to the Viennese, says the Austrian National Tourist Office, but they "are only too happy to share their holidays."
Vienna is always an elegant city, but it becomes radiant when decked out in its Christmas finery. Glittering Christmas trees are everywhere -- and so are the maronibrater, the black metal barrels where local chestnuts are roasted for sale. The tempting aroma mingles with that of another favorite Viennese street food, hot sausages.
For holiday visitors, a favorite attraction is the traditional Christmas Market held in Rathausplatz, the public square in front of City Hall -- this year from Nov. 23 through Christmas Eve. About 150 outdoor stalls sell Christmas decorations, handmade crafts, children's toys, gingerbread pastries and other foods. Overhead towers the city's Christmas tree, and the air is filled with the cheery sound of two very busy merry-go-rounds.
The city's cultural life is at its liveliest during the holidays, with the exception of Christmas Eve, which the Viennese tend to celebrate at home before attending midnight mass at St. Stephen's Cathedral.
The schedule for the State Opera includes "The Magic Flute" on Dec. 20, "Ariadne" on Dec. 21 and "Don Giovanni" on Dec. 25. The Vienna Volksoper is offering "Hansel and Gretel" on Dec. 21 and "La Bohe me" on Dec. 25.
To enjoy a Viennese winter, stroll stylish Kaernterstrasse, a pedestrian street lined with fine shops; explore the art shops and superb museums; spend an evening at a concert hall or the opera; and every day, drop into a coffeehouse or pastry shop. Nobody loves pastries -- chocolate, especially -- like the Viennese, and you will want to find out why.
For more information: Austrian National Tourist Office, Suite 2009, 500 Fifth Ave., New York City, N.Y. 10110, (800) 223-0284. Colonial traditions in Old Williamsburg:
Once Williamsburg was the lively and sophisticated capital of 18th-century Virginia; today it celebrates Christmas with the grace -- and the fun -- reflecting that heritage.
A "Christmas Fortnight," historic Williamsburg's annual holiday fest, begins with the "Grand Illumination," a ceremony borrowed from Old England. At dusk on Dec. 15 (about 5:30 p.m.), cannon fire echoes across the village green and thousands of tiny white electric candles are lighted simultaneously in window panes on every street.
The effect is gorgeous, casting the historic district in a fairy-tale glow that reappears nightly throughout the holidays. By day, the scene is no less appealing. The white-frame cottages and red-brick government buildings are elaborately adorned with garlands of greenery and elaborate handmade wreaths of pine and boxwood. Apples, lemons and red bows add dashes of color.
This is the setting for a bustling round of activities -- for children and adults -- that is highlighted by caroling (you can sing along) most nights at dusk on the steps of the Courthouse of 1770 on Duke of Gloucester Street. Spotted about the village green are cressets, large wrought-iron baskets filled with blazing logs. If the night air gets nippy, you can gather close to the cheery light and sip a cup of the hot cider sold nearby.
On the daily (and nightly) calendar of holiday events are candlelight concerts at the Governor's Palace and Bruton Parish Church; a magic show for children at the Williamsburg Lodge; a marvelous exhibit of antique toys at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center; and "The Powell Family Christmas," an hour-long reenactment of an 18th-century Christmas at the restored Powell-Waller House.
At day's end is a choice of gala banquets, including (among others) the "Baron's Feast," an Old English dinner with the traditional whole roasted pig carried in on a huge platter ($29.95 per person), and the "Groaning Board," a lavish three-hour dinner featuring recipes from Old Virginia ($28.50) and colonial entertainment. This year, the Baron's Feast is Dec. 20, 26 and 28; the Groaning Board is Dec. 15, 17, 19, 21, 23 and 27. Both are in the Williamsburg Lodge, and reservations are necessary.
A wide variety of other restaurants, from fast-food to sophisticated, can be found in Williamsburg. Lodgings range from budget motels and bed-and-breakfast inns to the deluxe Williamsburg Inn, one of four facilities operated by Colonial Williamsburg. The rate at the Motor House, one of the four, is $92 a night for a family suite (four persons); at Williamsburg Inn, the rate is $125 to $155 a night for two people.
Williamsburg is determined to present an authentic 18th-century Christmas (there's no Santa, for example, since Old St. Nick didn't become a part of our traditions until later), so a holiday visit becomes in part a fascinating history lesson -- and a jolly one, too.
For lodging reservations: From within Virginia, (800) 582-8976; from elsewhere, (800) 446-8965. For Baron's Feast and Groaning Board reservations, write: Colonial Williamsburg, Christmas Events Reservations Office, P.O. Box B, Williamsburg, Va. 23187. A cruise in the sun:
Unless you grew up close to the Equator, there can be no sharper break with tradition than Christmas on a Caribbean cruise. No matter how prettily it's trimmed, a Christmas tree in the ship's dining room looks uncomfortably out of place.
Sun Line Cruises offers one of the most exotic of the many Christmas cruise itineraries, an annual 14-day round-trip sail from San Juan, Puerto Rico, through the French West Indies and the tiny Grenadine Islands to Ciudad Guayana, 180 miles up the Orinoco River in Venezuela. The ship is the Stella Oceanis, decked out in seasonal array.
There's a tree, of course, but lots of the tropical bird of paradise flowers, too -- their brilliant orange and blue blossoms a pleasing addition to the holiday decor.
This year's departure is Dec. 20, and on Christmas Eve the Stella Oceanis will be sailing between the beaches of Barbados and Tobago. If children are aboard, Santa will appear; and every passenger gets a small gift from the cruise line's owners.
At 7 on Christmas morning, the ship docks in Tobago, where after a lavish holiday breakfast, beach-bound passengers will be serenaded as they disembark with Christmas carols played by a steel-drum band.
The cost ranges from $2,760 per person (double occupancy) for an inside cabin with an upper and lower bunk; to $3,560 per person for an outside cabin with two beds; and $5,100 per person for a deluxe outside suite. Round-trip air fare from Washington is an additional $175 per person.
A Christmas cruise is for the folks who don't need -- in fact, don't want -- a frozen Currier and Ives scene out the window. Give them blue sea, white sand and a tropical island lulled by balmy breezes. They'll be back home in the snow and cold soon enough.
For more information: Consult a travel agent or Sun Line Cruises, One Rockefeller Plaza, New York City, N.Y. 10020, (800) 872-6400. Yuletide in the English countryside:
London can be terribly quiet over the Christmas holidays, so the city folk head for the countryside where the stately homes, inns and an occasional castle take in paying guests.
Among them is Lainston House, a small hotel in a 17th-century mansion. It is set in 63 acres of park land at Sparsholt near famed Winchester Cathedral, about 70 miles southwest of London. At Lainston, tastefully draped in evergreens and holly, Christmas is a four-day holiday that begins with a welcoming hot rum punch on Christmas Eve.
The elegant, three-story structure houses 32 guest rooms; it is small enough to feel intimate but has the resources to provide a variety of activities, including tennis. Dinner is by candlelight on Christmas Eve, and guests are invited to attend midnight services afterward at the cathedral, about 2 1/2 miles away. Back at the hotel, mulled wine awaits.
Christmas morning begins with a hearty country breakfast, and later everyone gathers in the main hall to roast chestnuts in front of the huge fireplace. The arrival of Father Christmas in holiday garb is toasted with champagne, sipped while he distributes gifts. The Christmas banquet of roast turkey and pudding with brandy sauce is served at midday.
The rest of the afternoon is set aside for strolls, naps and the opportunity to hear Queen Elizabeth's Christmas speech on TV. A light buffet is served in the evening.
Dec. 26 is Boxing Day, a British holiday that is popularly spent in outdoor activities. Guests can join in clay-pigeon shooting on the hotel grounds; watch the start of the Hampshire foxhunt nearby; or tour the countryside in a vintage luxury car.
The final day features an escorted tour of Winchester and its magnificent old cathedral, followed in the evening by a gala "masked dinner" held in Dawley Barn, a newly renovated 17th-century outbuilding at the hotel. Lute and guitar music will accompany the meal.
The cost for the four-day holiday, including lodging, all meals and activities, is about $600 per person.
Lainston House is one of about 30 private luxury hotels associated with the Prestige Hotels organization of London. Reservations can be made through its New York representative, Scott Calder International. The names of other country hotels and hotel organizations with Christmas programs can be obtained from the British Tourist Authority in New York.
If you go, take along a copy of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" or "The Pickwick Papers." In an English country home at Christmas, they seem the fitting thing to read.
For more information: Scott Calder International, 152 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016, (800) 223-5581. Also: British Tourist Authority, 40 W. 57th St., New York City, N.Y. 10019, (212) 581-4700 or (until March 16) the British Travel Centre at the Old Post Office Pavilion on Pennsylvania Avenue NW.