CHRISTMAS in London is magical. It is dark by four, but this just gives you more time to admire the Christmas lights, and the best vantage point for this is the front row of the top deck of a red double decker bus crawling along Oxford, Regent and Bond Streets. It seems like the top of the bus is brushing the sparkling presents, snowflakes, umbrellas and nets of golden lights that are suspended over the busy streets.
Last Christmas a neon green pine forest sprouted over the entrance to Marks and Spencer, the rest of the store covered in a twinkling blizzard of fairy lights. Blinking neon Christmas presents dotted the front of House of Fraser and golden fairy lights rained down the Debenhams storefront. This year Christmas trees stand like sparkling sentries either side of the Selfridges main entrance and we’re waiting to see if they can better last year’s facade of a Vegas style Happy Christmas sign, complete with a tree wearing pink sunglasses. It’s definitely worth leaving the warm bus to go and check out the Selfridges windows, filled with Christmas scenes and bordered with festive greenery studded with lights. In 2010, Covent Garden did suitably arty decorations like giant baubles, a three story reindeer and a ‘kissing’ Christmas tree that lit up whenever a couple kissed under nearby mistletoe. Carnaby Street went with their own theme, the ‘space’ theme that was particularly memorable with its silver satellites and a Santa-astronaut floating in the air.
Wandering through London’s winter wonderland
Harrods set up a Christmas Wonderland which is great for getting in the Christmas spirit. Santa opens the Christmas department in early August and then returns to man Santa’s Grotto from early November. As you have to be a Harrods rewards card holder and book online in September to get an appointment with Santa, I’ve never made it into the Grotto, however I always make it to the Christmas department. I can even get my Scrooge-like husband to come in with me if I agree to laugh at the price and contents of the top of the range Christmas crackers with him. £550 will get you six premium silver Christmas crackers, 40cm in length and decorated with silver berries and foliage. Feather bows and white faux fur trim complement the glittering finish. Each cracker contains a luxury gift such as matching tie and cufflinks, a pearl necklace, an MP3 player, a leather passport cover and a small pen in a leather case or a silk scarf. For that price they probably even contain funny jokes.
Eyeskate your way through the capital
It wouldn’t be Christmas in London without the seasonal ice skating rinks that pop up in November for the Christmas period. After a painful fall at the end of my first ice-skating lesson, I decided ice-skating was not for me and can be found happily standing at the edge of the rink with a mulled wine, watching people glide by and wincing sympathetically when they fall. Last year I watched friends skate at the Tiffany ice rink at Somerset House. The whole place was decked out in eggshell blue decorations, including the Tiffany tree. The Tiffany Tuck Shop was open selling cupcakes and Tiffany jewellery, none of the usual tuckshop fare, not a packet of chips or a sausage roll in sight. Another year I struggled through the crowds to watch friends skate at the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland rink, joining them afterwards for German sausages from the Christmas markets and the Wintercirque show in the heated big top. There are also rinks at The Natural History Museum, Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Canary Wharf and ‘on’ the Thames at the London Eye (where it is referred to it as Eyeskating).
For he’s a jolly good fellow
Meeting friends for Christmas drinks in pubs provides a chance to try all the hot alcoholic drinks that appear on the menu in winter. Warm your hands on mugs of mulled wine, hot cider and sometimes even hot chocolate with a shot of Baileys. If you are lucky they may even have fruit mince pies to nibble.
It is one of my Christmas traditions to read ‘A Christmas Carol’ and the story really came to life when I read it in the city in which it was set. Each year my husband finds a company performing it and buys us tickets, even though he knows I will embarrass him by saying my favourite lines along with the actors, a touch too loudly. Another excellent Christmas show is The Nutcracker ballet. I didn’t get a chance to read the plot beforehand but was quickly swept into the story, leaning forward in my seat to watch the Christmas party unfold. It was quite a shock when an army of sword wielding mice danced onto the stage and went into battle with a troop of toy soldiers. A quick glance around at the audience reassured me that this was part of the show.
He’s behind you!
You can also partake in the English tradition of ‘pantomime’. Panto is Christmas family entertainment with enough singing, dancing, slapstick and audience participation (‘he’s BEHIND you!’) to hopefully distract the kids from the cross-dressing and sexual innuendo. The panto usually features a guest celebrity, Pamela Anderson appeared as the genie in Aladdin and must have spoken highly of the experience to her Baywatch co-star David Hasselhoff as the following year he appeared as Captain Hook in Peter Pan. Aussie Dame Edna will be appearing in Wimbledon’s Dick Whittington this year and there’ll be a few familiar UK faces in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
I was slightly baffled when the audience roared with laughter at the appearance of Nanny the Dog (in Hasslehoff’s Peter Pan) — which to my panto novice eyes appeared to merely be someone in a dog costume crawling around the stage. It turns out this is a pantomime convention, along with the principal boy being played by a girl in a gender revealing costume, and the pantomime dame being played by a man in drag. There was no pantomime dame in Peter Pan, and perhaps this is why they hired Louis Spence of Pineapple Dance Studios fame to play the cabin boy. I think I’ll check out the guest celebrities before going to another panto…
It’s Christmas, stay at home
Public transport grinds to a halt on Christmas Eve evening and only returns with a partial service on Boxing Day. Wherever you are when it stops on Christmas Eve night is where you’ll be spending Christmas. Our first Christmas Eve, my sister and her boyfriend joined us at our flat.
“We must have Brussels sprouts,” declared my sister.
She tracked down a recipe and whipped them up, they were delicious, a little too delicious. My stomach swelled up like a balloon and I ended up rolling around on the floor clutching at it and moaning. My husband got me on my feet and out onto the street, he walked me around the block in the cold crisp air until the pain abated. It reminded me of the time our bull at home got into a leafy paddock and ate itself into a bloated state. My father got it on its feet and walked it up a hill until the pressure was released. The Brussels sprouts with bacon dish remains on the Christmas menu, but I will never again consume it in such quantities.
Get your tree on
Live Christmas trees are available to buy each year in London. My first year in the city, I even went to a local supplier to pick one out and then brought it home on the bus. The tree filled our tiny flat with the smell of pine, and then with fallen pine needles. I’d find them in the carpet and inexplicably in the depths of my handbag for months. Each borough had a designated Christmas tree collection day in January and it is a strange and slightly sad sight to see the trees lying outside awaiting collection. A sign that Christmas was well and truly over, though winter will remain for months.
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