I am a Christmas fiend. Every year, I am driven to all sorts of madness in the name of Christmas. Yes, I become a bit of a dictator. However, it is after all my favourite time of year.
Christmas in London has changed dramatically since I moved to the city over a decade ago. I moved to London just three short weeks before Christmas, a bouncy eleven year old who spent most of her time counting down the days until the big day. Three weeks before Christmas and none of my family’s boxes had arrived from the US. So we were spending Christmas in an old row house without heating, living out of a couple of suitcases. To avert disaster, I immediately took charge of making as many decorations as I could, including some truly terrible ornaments that are still packed away somewhere (though they never make it onto the tree now). Somehow we made it work.
Twelve years ago, London itself wasn’t too Christmassy either. You had to hunt to find Christmas cheer. Winter Wonderland was a tiny pocket of festivity with only a few stalls selling mulled wine, sweet treats and a few handmade items. Some of the trees were strung with icy blue lights but they were not the extravagant displays you see today. They were beautiful, but simple. Flash-forward and the city is a treasure trove of festive spirit. And every year, it just keeps growing.
Christmas Lights & Shopping
The Major Shopping Streets
West London is currently strung with enough Christmas lights to be seen from space. Every year I imagine walking down Oxford Street, admiring Selfridge’s artistic winter window displays while listening to my favourite Christmas songs. In reality, I end up forcing my way through crowds of people, barely looking at the windows and rushing around stores trying to escape Oxford Street as quickly as possible. Not even my oversized Bose headphones could cancel out the noise of last minute shoppers and traffic. Nor is Regent Street much better.
Instead, I’ve discovered that it is far more enjoyable to do my Christmas shopping online and take a turn off Oxford Street south onto New Bond Street to enjoy the lights. For a few years now the street has been bedecked with some of the most beautiful lights in the city. New Bond Street is rarely half as crowded as Oxford Street or Regent Street, mostly because the shops only cater to the insanely wealthy. For the grand finale, head towards the south end of the street and veer off to walk through the richly decorated Burlington Arcade.
Soho and Covent Garden
Soho is also a prime spot for shopping and scouting out some of the best Christmas lights. Liberty’s typically puts on a good show of Christmas decorations and it’s a great place to find high quality and unique gifts. Nearby, Carnaby Street is well known for its fabulous Christmas lights and shouldn’t be missed.
But my favourite Christmas spot in the city is Covent Garden. It is always spectacular. Even after twelve years, I never tire of Covent Garden at Christmas. I spend hours every year wandering around the market, peaking into shops and listening to the singers and musicians performing outside of The Crusting Pipe. Street performers have been frequenting Covent Garden for around four hundred years, adding to the festive atmosphere. Through the upstairs windows of the famous Punch and Judy pub, you can admire the Christmas tree while enjoying a drink. 55 feet tall with over 30,000 lights, the tree is by far the best in London.
Further west, Harrods is always a showstopper. Every year, the Victorian department store transforms its 1.1 million square feet into a Christmas shopper’s paradise. The façade is covered in around 12000 light bulbs. Inside is a Christmas grotto, and 330 different departments spread over seven floors. Everything you could need is in one place – if you can afford it. There is also a dedicated Christmas department with decorations, ornaments, gift-wrap and more. And though it might be slightly inappropriate for a woman in her twenties to ask for a cuddly toy, the yearly Harrods Christmas bear always makes my heart melt.
Markets & Fairs
Fact: the Germans are Christmas geniuses. Over a century ago, Christmas trees spread like wildfire. More recently, German Christmas markets have become the new Christmas staple. It took some time for the UK to catch up but London is now peppered with markets every year.
From local fairs in neighbourhoods like Primrose Hill to small markets right in the middle of Leicester Square, there seem to be Christmas markets popping up all over the city.
It wouldn’t be right to ignore Winter Wonderland. With over a hundred rides and thousands of visitors, Winter Wonderland is one of the biggest Christmas fairs in Europe. But beware; this is a far cry from the picture painted in the iconic 1934 song. There are no sleigh bells, nor snow, and the only snowman you’ll find is one made out of plastic. From its modest beginnings, Winter Wonderland has become a mammoth attraction filled with overpriced rides, fair games, and stalls selling food, drink and tacky trinkets. Of course, I go every year. But every year I am reminded why I only ever spend about an hour there. It is crowded, noisy and expensive. You often have to wait for up to twenty minutes to get in and security guards are at every entrance checking bags and confiscating outside food and drink, including water.
Southbank Christmas Market
Next to the Southbank Centre, a smaller, more traditional Christmas market is set up every year. Enjoy a stroll across the Jubilee Bridge from Embankment to get to the market. There are handmade items from around the world including leatherwork, jewellery and pottery. You will certainly walk away with more thoughtful and unique gifts than any you’ll find in London’s department stores. But the real stars of the show are the delicious foods and drinks on offer. Pop up stalls serve global cuisines from Greek wraps to Thai noodles and everything in between. Most importantly, there is plenty of mulled wine and hot cider to go around and my favourite way to finish off a trip to the market is with some warm churros or Dutch pancakes.
In a city stretching over six hundred square miles, it isn’t surprising that there are more than enough ice rinks to choose from, some of which are open all year round. Nevertheless, a few rinks stand out apart from the rest.
Skate in the shadow of a beautiful neo-Romanesque Victorian building, home to London’s Natural History Museum. The rink features a Christmas tree and a café overlooking the ice rink so that skaters and non-skaters alike can enjoy a warm drink and a festive treat.
For an even more dramatic backdrop, the Tower of London always has an ice rink set up in the old mote of the castle. It is especially striking at night when the fortress and Tower Bridge are lit up. Like the Natural History Museum rink, there is a café set up alongside the rink which can even be booked for Christmas parties.
Alternatively one of my personal favourites is the ice rink at Somerset House. Enclosed in the neoclassical courtyard, the rink feels like it has been dropped in the middle of a French palace. There are also music nights throughout the holiday season.
Christmas Concerts and Performances
The city is a boom with concerts and performances during the Christmas season. Pantomimes are a tradition, but in this case I tend to ignore tradition. Every year at the Royal Opera House the Royal Ballet puts on the Nutcracker. I have loved the Nutcracker story since I was a little girl and seeing it on stage is nothing short of magical. If you’ve never seen the Nutcracker, this is unmissable. With its beautiful costumes, fairy-tale sets and talented dancers, it’s like getting lost in a dream.
For concerts, the Royal Albert Hall is a good place to start. But for a more intimate setting, St Martin in the Fields in Trafalgar Square offers some beautiful classical concerts and carol services. Tickets are cheap and there are often shows in the afternoon and evening. To add to the poignancy of the performances, evening services are often led by candlelight.
Whether you’re religious or not, there are few ways of beginning Christmas that are more moving than midnight mass. Most churches around the city offer Christmas Eve services but for a truly special experience, there are a few landmark churches which are a step above the rest.
St Paul’s Cathedral offers a breath-taking service every year. Traditional Christmas carols and hymns are sung and the choir is phenomenal. The service starts at 11:30pm but there is always a very long line which seems to grow every year. To get a decent seat, you have to brave the cold and arrive as early as you possibly can.
Alternatively, for several years I opted out of catching my death in the freezing cold and instead went to a nearby church called St Bartholomew’s. Most importantly, there were no lines. The atmosphere is secluded and hauntingly beautiful. The church is steeped in history and heavy incense. You almost feel like you’ve stumbled back in time. Unsurprisingly, the church has also been featured in many major films.
Finally, Westminster Abbey also hosts a midnight mass featuring carols sung by the Abbey choir. It begins at 11:30 and it is free, but it is so popular that you actually have to book tickets in advance! Regardless, it is a wonderful way to start Christmas Day.
Photography by Savannah Hayes
Top: Covent Garden
Middle: New Bond Street; Winter Wonderland
Bottom: Covent Garden Christmas Tree