Christmas in London was magical. It was dark by four, but this just gave you more time to admire the Christmas lights, and the best vantage point for this was the front row of the top deck of a red double decker bus crawling along Oxford, Regent and Bond Streets. It seemed like the top of the bus was brushing the sparkling presents, snowflakes, umbrellas and nets of golden lights that were suspended over the busy streets. 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.
Christmas trees stood like sparkling sentries either side of the Selfridges main entrance, which was topped with a Vegas style Happy Christmas sign, complete with a tree wearing pink sunglasses. It was worth leaving the warm bus to check out the Selfridges windows, filled with Christmas scenes and bordered with festive greenery studded with lights. 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 always went with their own theme, the ‘space’ theme was particularly memorable was with its silver satellites and a santa-astronaut floating in the air.
Harrods set up a Christmas Wonderland which was 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 holders and book online in September to get an appointment with Santa, I never made it into the Grotto, however I always make it to the Christmas department. I can even get Scrooge (Nato) 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.
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. I could be found happily standing at the edge of the rink with a mulled wine, watching people glide by and wincing sympathetically when they fell. I watched Nato and his workmates 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 we 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 were also rinks at The Natural History Museum, Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Canary Wharf and London Eye where it was referred to it as Eyeskating.
Meeting friends for Christmas drinks in pubs gave us a chance to try all the hot alcoholic drinks that appear on the menu in winter. I warmed my hands on mugs of mulled wine, hot cider and sometimes even hot chocolate with a shot of baileys. If I was lucky they even had 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 Nato would find a company performing it and buy us tickets, even though he knew I would embarrass him by saying my favourite lines along with the actors, a touch too loudly. Ballet is not Nato’s cup of tea so I went with a friend to 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.
Nato and I met with friends to partake in the English tradition of Pantomime. Panto is Christmas family entertainment, the singing, dancing, slapstick and audience participation (he’s BEHIND you!) hopefully enough to 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. We were slightly baffled when the audience roared with laughter at the appearance of Nanny the dog – which to our 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…
Public transport grinds to a halt on Christmas Eve night 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 that also contained bacon, thus ensuring that at Nato would at least try it. 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. Nato 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 the bull 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 remained on the Christmas menu, but I never again consumed it in such quantities.
We bought live Christmas trees each year in London, the first year we 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 was 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.