London gave the world Christmas cards, crackers and a host of yuletide traditions that took root during the reign of Queen Victoria. The city’s unique dose of festive cheer makes it one of the most magical destinations to spend the holidays. Christmas done the London way is definitely one to remember.
1—‘He’s behind you!’
Pantomimes are an intrinsic part of London’s Christmas. Celebrities dress as panto dames (usually played by men) in innuendo-filled adaptations of popular fairy tales. Comedian Dawn French plays the Wicked Queen in Snow White at the London Palladium (8 Dec–13 Jan) and Clive Rowe, the king (or should that be queen?) of the dames, is in Aladdin at the Hackney Empire (4 Dec–6 Jan, 2019).
For children who have spent the past year being very good, the Royal Albert Hall takes the concept of Santa’s grotto to a new level. The Victorian concert hall is transformed into the ‘top-secret London headquarters of Father Christmas’, where kids journey through enchanting spaces and interact with characters from the North Pole. They can even sit in Father Christmas’s sleigh. At Hamleys, its party room sees children spend time with Santa and Hamleys’ elves, and can post a list of their most-wanted gifts to the North Pole.
For those who want to understand what a Victorian Christmas might have looked like, the Charles Dickens Museum provides a glimpse through the prism of its traditional decorations and authentic festive displays. Enjoy yuletides of old at the Tower of London, which hosts festivities from the mid-19th century (27-31 Dec, 2018), while at Kensington Palace you can meet actors dressed as Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (selected dates).
4—Light the Way
Seeing the city’s Christmas lights on Bond Street, Carnaby Street, Oxford Street and Regent Street is enough to put even the most hardened Scrooge in the festive spirit. The Shard’s colourful light display (from 3 Dec) this year features photos of the building taken by the public. Don’t miss the magical Christmas at Kew where the botanic gardens are transformed with a light trail festooned with art installations and laser beams. See similar seasonal sparkle at the Christmas at ZSL London Zoo light trail, with glowing animal sculptures.
5—Sugar Plum Fairies
It wouldn’t be Christmas without seeing "The Nutcracker". Happily, this much-loved ballet, which sees Clara creep downstairs on Christmas Eve only to be whisked away on an adventure with her doll, has three homes: the Royal Ballet performs the classic version at the Royal Opera House (3 Dec-15 Jan); the English National Ballet gives it an Edwardian London twist at the London Coliseum (13-30 Dec); and the Birmingham Royal Ballet sprinkles Victorian magic at the Royal Albert Hall (28-31 Dec).
Kensington Palace is the backdrop to The Luna Winter Cinema, where classics such as Elf are shown on a big screen in the Pavilion on The Orangery’s lawn (17-22 Dec). Film fans should visit the The Frozen Island in Covent Garden; screens are positioned around a lake of ice as flurries of (fake) snowflakes fall.
7—Joy to the World
Whether it’s the majesty of hearing carols sung in St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey, or a rousing singalong of seasonal favourites at the Royal Albert Hall (23-24 Dec), there’s musical for every taste. Carols sung by St Martin-in-the-Fields’ church choir, which accompany the lighting of the Norwegian spruce in Trafalgar Square (6 Dec), are very special.
8—Fun of the Fair
Already known for its fairground rides, observation wheel and markets, Hyde Park Winter Wonderland packs a festive punch. Joining the spectacle this year are ice-sculpting workshops, a comedy club and a walk-through adventure to mark the 40th anniversary of The Snowman. For an alternative yuletide vibe, head to Clapham Common where Winterville hosts DJs and live music, a roller disco and Mexican wrestling.
9—Get your Skates on
You can enjoy ice skating at many London landmarks including Somerset House, the Natural History Museum and the Tower of London. Topping that, literally, John Lewis has a rink on its Oxford Street rooftop for the first time this year; views of the capital’s skyline, hot Sipsmith gin cocktails and pie and mash await.
From mulled wine and mince pies to artisan cheese and novelty confectionery, December isn’t a month to worry about your waistline, especially for afternoon tea. At The Ritz, guests can admire the lavishly decorated Palm Court as they are serenaded by a choir while indulging in spiced tea and tasty treats. London Shell Co offers intimate Christmas dinner cruises where a five-course menu is served aboard a canal boat, the Prince Regent.
11—Dine in a Dome
Last year saw a proliferation of igloo-shaped, transparent domes popping up all over the city leading up to Christmas and this Noël sees their return. Better suited to larger groups, who can sip hot toddies and feast on fondue, these custom-built glass capsules are dotted on the banks of the River Thames.
12—Shop 'til you Drop
If you’ve exhausted the department stores, head to a Christmas market for a quirky gift – the Southbank’s Winter Market and Bankside’s Christmas by the River are popular or discover Britain’s best makers at the Crafty Fox Market at The Department Store in Brixton (15-16 Dec). It is the season for (over)indulgence, after all.