Forget Lapland, Austria is the answer to the ultimate Christmas ski holiday – for half the price

Family ski holiday in St Johann, Austria
Find out what happened when one family swapped a trip to meet Santa for a ski holiday in Austria

A trip to see Santa in Lapland is top of every child’s Christmas list. For parents of true believers, this presents a particular problem that no next-day delivery service can solve. Bookings are so in demand with operators such as Santa’s Lapland that trips to the far north in 2023 are sold out and availability in 2024 is already very limited.

Demand aside, trips to see Santa for two days can cost up to nearly £3,000 per person. This presents a second predicament to ski-holiday-loving parents like myself – you could easily get a week on the slopes with your loved ones for a fraction of the price. Skiing or Santa – it’s a debate as hotly contested as the naughty list.

I found myself in the thick of this contest last Christmas when my six-year-old daughter Evie pleaded for a chance to get face-to-face with the big guy. It’s magical to see your children so mesmerised with youthful optimism, but I have a confession – I chose skiing.

Who needs to see Santa in Lapland when you’ve got fresh powder for snowballs, a Christmas market with open fires and waffles and skiing on your doorstep, and spare change in your pocket? Not us (or so I was determined to prove).

Rebecca Miles and family, St Johann, Austria
Rebecca and her family discovered festive delights in the Austrian resort of St Johann

Forget Finland

First to find a destination to rival Lapland. I set our sights on the Baroque town of St Johann in the Austrian Tirol, an hour’s transfer from Innsbruck Airport, where a winter family break comes loaded with festivity, without the eye-watering price tag.

Pre-Christmas, the Alps are magical and there are a host of other traditions that are just as enchanting as Santa’s festive Finnish heartland. So enchanting in fact, that your child will quickly forget that they didn’t actually get to meet the real thing, or so I hoped.

Because there’s just one caveat. In Austria, while there are plenty of snow-covered pine forests, snow and sparkle, the locals don’t believe in Father Christmas. Instead, it’s Christkind (the Christ Child, baby Jesus) who brings the presents, and the big day to celebrate with family is Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day. A minor detail, surely.

My daughter Evie, my mum and I – learned all this not from Christian, our ski instructor, on the first day of our three-night break (one more than we’d have spent in Lapland) in mid-December.

We had arrived in time for the first day of the winter season and our hotel, the Sentido Alpenhotel Kaiserfels, was a short slide away from the Eichenhof gondola at the edge of St Johann’s 43km of long, easy-going slopes (with more down the road at neighbouring Kitzbühel).

With an age difference spanning six decades, we had opted to enlist the private services of Christian rather than split off into different lessons. It was the fourth time on snow for Evie so the short gondola ride to the mid-station and a gentle blue run back down was ideal. While she followed our guide’s skis closely, recreating aeroplane wings with her arms to help her turn, my mum and I were delighted to be back on the snow so early in the season.

St Johann, Austria
St Johann’s Christmas market was as atmospheric as a famed Germanic festive event - Michael Werlberger

Tirolean traditions

I’d promised Evie a Christmassy trip full of traditions, I just hadn’t specified what they were. So after a morning’s skiing, we headed to St Johann’s Christmas market for festive fun, Austrian style.

Set in the historic centre of the village, with its ornate buildings painted in green, yellow and cream, the market was just as atmospheric as we expected a famed Germanic Christmas event to be. A collection of prettily decorated wooden chalets lined the square, selling everything from homemade wooden decorations and knitted scarves and gloves, to locally distilled gin, jewellery, and honey.

The biscuit-baking stand was the perfect introduction to Christmas in Austria for Evie. She was given dough and shown how best to turn it into sweet delicate biscuits by two local volunteers. They shared folklore tales about friendly Saint Nicholas and his more sinister companion Krampus. The pair are a key fixture of Advent in Austria.

St Johann, Austria
Browse a collection of prettily decorated wooden chalets offering gifts, sweet treats and entertainment - Michael Werlberger

The much-feared but also eagerly anticipated Krampus Day is Dec 5, when people dress up in costumes and get up to mischief, followed 24 hours later by St Nicholas Day, when well-behaved children are rewarded with sweets, peanuts and tangerines. Mesmerised by the stories there wasn’t a single query from Evie about Santa.

If we were in Lapland we might have snacked on leipajuusto (a soft cheese, grilled and garnished with berries); but in St Johann, we opted for much-preferred waffles with chocolate sauce and ate them next to a roaring fire pit, washed down with a mug of mulled Campari and hibiscus. Other families had brought their own sticks and were wrapping dough around them to toast in the fire. Called stockbrot, we later found a cabin selling them to indulge ourselves.

Family fortunes

The next day we were back on the slopes. Any delight Evie might have had at meeting Santa paled into insignificance when she reached the bottom of her first red run, which she celebrated by starting a family snowball fight.

Rebecca Miles and family, St Johann, Austria
A horse-drawn sleigh ride was a highlight for the whole family

A full day on the slopes is a rarity with children on a ski holiday, so instead we filled the rest of our time exploring the winter wonderland. Some wouldn’t be out of place in Lapland – a horse-drawn sleigh ride through the trees at Gasteig, for instance – others not so – Murmi’s Kinderland, a soft play centre at Kirchdorf in Tirol.

As expected, Santa was conspicuously absent throughout our trip, but it didn’t detract from the Christmas spirit. Dare I say, Evie had hardly noticed. We returned home feeling fabulously festive and with our own new tradition – skiing as a family – one that Evie will hopefully never stop believing in.

Rebecca and her family were guests of the Austrian National Tourist Office