For years, the Christmas season has been my least favorite time of year. It’s stressful, it’s expensive, and everyone’s craziness comes out to party at family gatherings.

Most people don’t feel this way. In fact, most people actually enjoy the holiday season and express their good cheer through festive decorations, good wishes, and “All I Want for Christmas is You” on repeat. During December, I usually go into survival mode, limiting my contact with the outside world, turning my headphones up louder, and marking down the days until New Years when there is a whole year between me and the next holiday season.

Photo by Sarah Gardiner

This year, the holiday season has been much harder to tune out. Europeans just do Christmas bigger than the U.S. Maybe it’s the absence of American political-correctness (in elementary school, we weren’t allowed to decorate the classroom in red and green decorations for fear of offending people who did not celebrate the holiday season). Maybe it stems from the fact that Europeans prioritize time for celebration a bit more highly than Americans (speaking from a Connecticut and Washington, D.C. perspective). Whatever it is, the streets are all lit up with holiday lights, there is a giant Christmas tree in Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore, vendors sell roast chestnuts, and street musicians serenade with Christmas carols as I walk to class.

A month ago, one of my flatmates suggested that we take a trip to Austrian Christmas markets (southern Tyrol is about a four hour drive from Bologna). She described them as stalls and stalls of Christmas-themed products and food. Her eyes got all sparkly as my other flatmates raced to compile Christmas mixes in preparation for the car ride. To me, it sounded a bit like traveling into the belly of the beast. But I’ve always wanted to go to Austria (the hills are alive!) so I decided to head along for the ride and keep Scrooge in check for a weekend.

And here’s the thing: I liked it. I really liked it. There was not a single part of the weekend I didn’t like. We had Gluhwein (new favorite Christmas drink), we rode a merry go round in view of the Alps, we climbed towers, we bought Christmas ornaments, we ate our weight in gingerbread, German is the most fun language, hot chocolate tastes better in the mountains, I voluntarily sang Christmas carols… The whole weekend felt like being a kid again, when your attention span is determined by the sparkly objects within your vicinity and everyone around you just wants you to enjoy yourself because life is short and this only comes once a year.

Maybe I should be blogging about how my studies are shaping my perceptions of the euro crisis or the recent wave of sub-Saharan elections, but, right now, one of the biggest perceptual shifts to come out of this semester is that the holidays can actually be enjoyed as opposed to dreaded. It’s a special time of year. We put down our books, our to-do lists, and just enjoy each other and here are, because that is all there is.

An Austrian Christmas Market, from