12 Ways To Celebrate Christmas in London
Charles Dickens can take the most credit for reviving Christmas rituals that had lain dormant since his childhood: his role in this is celebrated in the new film, The Man Who Invented Christmas. The white Christmas we’re all dreaming of usually eludes London (though we have some suggestions here on how to compensate for that), but it was common in Dickens’ youth, which is why the capital in A Christmas Carol is given a snowy backdrop. He also writes of Christmas feasts, carol singers and flaming Christmas puddings with holly on top.
Most importantly, Dickens captures the Christmas spirit. You will find that in abundance in London this December, as the traditional British stiff upper lip softens to sing carols under the giant tree in Leicester Square, or to down steaming mulled wine. As Dickens writes in A Christmas Carol: ‘Merry Christmas to all of us, my dears. God bless us… God bless us, every one!’
There is nothing to beat the sound of a heavenly choir echoing through the vast spaces of St Paul’s or Westminster Abbey. For a more intimate setting, try the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields by Trafalgar Square, followed by tea in the Crypt café. Another grand, historic setting for carols is the Royal Albert Hall, though these are relaxed, singalong affairs. Free open-air carols can be heard in Trafalgar Square (11-22 Dec), where a series of choirs take up hour-long slots at the foot of the huge Christmas tree, which is Norway’s annual gift to London. You are strongly encouraged to join in!
‘Pantos’, as they are popularly known, are one British Christmas tradition that always perplexes visitors. These are bawdy, raucous adaptations of popular fairytales, full of sexual innuendo that hopefully goes over children’s heads, as well as men dressing up as women and vice versa – where do you think Monty Python got it from? Audiences sing along and shout out catchphrases such as ‘It’s behind you!’ and ‘Oh, no it’s not!’ Peter Pan at Wembley Arena will be the most high-tech panto yet staged, with a drone playing Tinkerbell and a gigantic LED screen.
The Xbox and PlayStation may have taken over in recent years, but the family board game is one Christmas tradition that will surely never die out. In fact, board games have received a new lease of life among London’s hipsters: for proof, head to Draughts in Hackney, which styles itself as ‘London’s first board game café’. It offers more than 600 different board games with your tea or beer. The Loading Bars in Dalston and Stratford also have more than 100 games, while you’ll find many trendy pubs with a small selection of board games: in Soho, enjoy a Sunday roast followed by a board game or two in The Crown & Two Chairmen on Dean Street.
The Queen’s Christmas Message
Rudyard Kipling wrote the first Christmas message for the king to deliver over the radio in 1932. Every year since then (except in 1969, when the Queen felt she had received enough TV coverage after the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales and the release of the documentary Royal Family), the nation has stopped for a short while to hear the monarch speak of that year’s events, and to offer hope and comfort. If you’re not lucky enough to be in London on Christmas Day, you can listen over the internet. To get you in the mood, visit some of London’s royal sites: from Westminster Abbey, where kings and queens are married and crowned; to Windsor and Buckingham Palace, where they live; and the Tower of London, where some royals have met their end.
Christmas shopping is an annual ritual which some adore, but many others fear. Yet in London you’ll be spoilt for choice. Hamleys is the world’s finest shop for children’s toys; Selfridges always has a
huge Christmas store-within-the-store; and you will find pop-up Christmas markets at Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, Southbank Centre’s Wintertime Festival and outside Tate Modern.
Mince pies used to be made with actual meat (hence the name), but nowadays they are filled with raisins, currants and spices, and often served with cream or brandy butter. Some of the best places to buy them include Konditor & Cook in Borough Market (and branches) and St John’s Bakery on nearby Ropewalk, or the Holborn Dining Room and Delicatessen on High Holborn. And, of course, Fortnum & Mason, Harrods and Selfridges are filled with traditional British delicacies.
In these Brexit times, it might seem strange to have an annual British tradition that has anything to do with Brussels! And yet these strong-tasting green vegetables have become an inescapable part of a traditional Christmas roast. Once always boiled to within an inch of their soggy lives, humble Brussels sprouts have been rescued by modern London chefs, who may serve them with Parmesan cheese, bacon, pine nuts or pistachios. Sutton and Sons Fish & Chips (branches in Stoke Newington, Islington and Hackney) last year invented yet another twist: theirs are deep-fried and, apparently, delicious.
There’s nothing like a good mulled wine to warm the cockles of your heart. You won’t have to look hard for it: many pubs cook up a steaming vat of the moreish concoction. Made by heating red wine together with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, mulled wine was introduced to Britain by the Romans. A version known as ‘Smoking Bishop’ appears in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.
What do you mean, ice skating is not a traditionally British pastime? In Victorian times the Thames would freeze over so solidly that Frost Fairs were held on the ice – an elephant was even brought to one! The first artificial rinks were introduced to London in 1870. The magic of skating with historic London as a backdrop is recreated at landmark venues such as the Tower of London, the Natural History Museum, Somerset House, the Old Royal Naval College and Hampton Court Palace.
Eccentricity has always been a key part of the British national character, and the relaxed spirit of Christmas allows eccentricity full rein. Want to see Santa? Just visit the various grottos in department stores, as well as ZSL London Zoo, though it’s far more eccentric to watch the annual Santa runs. You’ll find thousands of Santas racing in full beard and costume in Victoria Park and on Clapham Common (3 Dec), on the banks of the Thames (6 Dec) and in Battersea Park (9 Dec). Fancy some traditional Christmas pudding? Then look for the fastest, not the tastiest! The 37th annual Great Christmas Pudding Race takes place in Covent Garden (2 Dec).
Paris is known as the City of Light, but over the Christmas period London could justifiably steal the title. The capital will be ablaze with fairy lights when you head out to do your Christmas shopping: the shiniest areas include Oxford Street, Regent Street, Carnaby Street and Bond Street. To add even more sparkle to your winter nights, walk the mile-long illuminated trail at Kew Gardens, or visit the Enchanted Woodland at Syon Park.
White Christmases were common when Charles Dickens was a lad, but the last proper one in London was in 2010. Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter gets into the festive spirit with Hogwarts in the Snow. For more adult pleasures, have a drink and chill in ICEBAR London, which is kept at a temperature of -5°C, or head to K-West Spa near Westfield London shopping centre for a session in its Snow Room.