Charles Dickens can take the most credit for reviving Christmas rituals that had lain dormant since his childhood: his role in these traditions is celebrated in the film, The Man Who Invented Christmas. The white Christmas we’re dreaming of may elude London, but it was common in Dickens’ youth, and thus the capital in A Christmas Carol is given a snowy backdrop. He also writes of feasts, carols and Christmas pudding. Most importantly, Dickens captures the Christmas spirit. You will find that in London, when the traditional British stiff upper lip softens to sing carols under the giant tree in Trafalgar Square, or to down mulled wine. As Dickens writes: "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 St Martin-in-the-Fields. Another grand, historic setting for carols is the Royal Albert Hall. Free open-air carols (Dec 11-22) can be found in Trafalgar Square, where a series of choirs take up hour-long slots at the gigantic Christmas tree—Norway’s annual gift to London.
Popularly known as "panto," this is one British Christmas tradition that always perplexes visitors. Pantomimes are bawdy, raucous adaptations of popular fairytales, full of sexual innuendo, men dressing up as women and vice versa. Audiences are expected to sing along and shout out catchphrases. Peter Pan at Wembley Arena will be the most expensive and high-tech panto yet staged, with a drone playing Tinkerbell and a LED screen.
White Christmases were common when Charles Dickens was a lad, but the last proper one in London was in 2010. Showbusiness gets into the snow business with the utterly magical Slava’s Snowshow at the Royal Festival Hall, as well as family favourite The Snowman, based on the classic children’s book by Raymond Briggs, which is on at The Peacock theatre. Warner Bros. Studio Tour London—The Making of Harry Potter also gets into the spirit with the seasonal display, Hogwarts in the Snow.
Paris is known as the City of Light, but over the Christmas period London could justifiably steal the title. The capital will seem ablaze with twinkling fairy lights when you head out to do your Christmas shopping: the shiniest areas include Oxford Street and Regent Street, as well as Carnaby Street and Bond Street. Look out also for beautifully decorated venues such as Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
What do you mean, ice skating isn’t a traditional British pastime? In Victorian times, the Thames would freeze over so solidly that Londoners would hold Frost Fairs on the ice. 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 and Hampton Court Palace.
The Queen’s Speech
Rudyard Kipling wrote the first Christmas message for King George V to deliver to the nation over the radio in 1932. Every year since then (except in 1969), the nation has stopped for a short while to hear the monarch speak of that year’s tumultuous events, and to offer hope and comfort for the future. To get you in the mood, visit some of London’s royal sites: from Westminster Abbey, where kings and queens are married and crowned; through Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace, where they reside; to the Tower of London, where some royals have met their bitter end.
Are you haunted by the Ghost of Christmas Present? This is the terrifying spectre of seeing your loved ones force a brave smile when the gifts they unwrap don’t match their expectations. Christmas shopping is an annual ritual that some adore and others fear. Yet in London you’ll be spoiled for choice. Hamleys is the world’s finest shop for children’s toys, and you’ll find huge pop-up Christmas markets at Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park (to 1 Jan), and the Southbank Wintertime Festival along the South Bank. Large stores on Oxford Street, including Selfridges, have large Christmas departments.
The Xbox and PlayStation may have taken over in recent years, but the family board game is one Christmas tradition that will 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." The Loading bars in Dalston and Stratford have more than 100 games, while you’ll find trendy pubs with a small selection of board games: in Soho, enjoy a Sunday roast followed by a board game or two at The Crown and Two Chairmen on Dean Street.
Mince pies used to be made with actual meat (hence the name), but nowadays they’re filled instead with raisins, currants and spices. You’ll find them added to the menus of many London cafés over the Christmas period, often served with cream or brandy butter. Some of the best places to buy them include branches of Konditor & Cook, St John’s Bakery on Ropewalk in London Bridge, and Holborn Dining Room and Delicatessen on High Holborn. And, of course, Fortnum & Mason and Harrods are filled with festive delicacies.
There’s nothing like a good mulled wine to warm the cockles of your heart on a cold December day. You won’t have to look hard for it; many pubs place a steaming vat of the moreish concoction on their bars in the run-up to Christmas. Made by heating red wine with spices such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, mulled wine was first introduced to Britain by the Romans. A version known as ‘Smoking Bishop’ appears in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.