One of the downfalls to living in London is how dark it gets so early in the winter. It starts getting dark at 3:00 in the afternoon which could make even the most festive of people want to climb back into bed and scream bah humbug. However it feels that the whole city of London is celebrating this time of year. London has decorated its streets, storefronts and buildings for the holiday season and I have to say God Bless them everyone.
The lights of Oxford and Regent Street are magical. Hyde Park has a Winter Wonderland theme park, there are pop-up skating rinks, colourful markets and in and around every corner there is a beautiful reminder that this time of year is special. Even Pokémon Go is into the Christmas spirit as their poster child and mascot Pikachu is popping up all around London wearing a red Santa hat (don't ask me how I know this). If you are planning to visit London I strongly urge you to come for Christmas. For those of you who can't be here this time of year or you are here and looking where to go, let me show you some of the highlights that makes London come alight at Christmas.
Oxford Street & Regent Street
One of the most magical places to be at Christmas is on Oxford and Regent Street. At the centre of the most beautiful shopping area in London the city has spared no expense in lighting blocks upon city blocks with twinkling strings of lights crisscrossing the streets, giant angels with wings that span the entire street or the over 1700 beautiful snow-ball like orbs that go on as far as you can see. Over 750,000 lights on Oxford Street alone.
I was coming out of the Bond Street Tube station the other night (actually it was late afternoon but it was already dark so it felt like night) and the contrast from coming up from the deep dimly lit London Underground to be greeted by the incredible lights of Oxford Street you actually heard people gasp at its splendour.
Even if you are like me and you refuse to get into the Christmas spirit until WELL AFTER all the Halloween decorations have been taken down and given a long rest it does makes you feel like you are in the middle of Frank Capra's film It's A Wonderful Life and you and Geroge Bailey are dancing down the streets of a electric Bedford Falls.
Covent Garden is one of my favourite places to be anytime of year in London but come the Christmas season Covent Garden turns it up to 11. What makes this super special aside from the incredible decorations and lively atmosphere is usually there is some incredible opera singer or a string quartet playing inside the Apple Market (not to be confused with the Apple Store). The acoustics are incredible and it creates the perfect soundtrack to such a beautiful place to shop and see the sights.
Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park
This is the 10th year and every year I have been told it is getting bigger and better. Free admission to get into the Winter Wonderland park but once there you can choose to buy tickets for Christmas shows, ice skating or the many rides. I walked through both during a weekday afternoon (very quiet) and on a evening weekend (not so quiet). If you don't mind the crowds I'd suggest the evening.
Again everything is lit up and sparkles. There is a giant Bavarian Pavillon that has live entertainment, wood burning fires, plenty of gluehwein (I call it mulled wine) and bratwurst (I call it a pale hotdog). The band had everyone jumping although covering more hit's of the 70's than Christmas songs. But who doesn't love a giant group sing-a-long anytime of year to Sweet Caroline? Nobody, that's who. Even though it felt to me way more like Octoberfest than Christmas it was tremendous fun. Lots of Christmas market stalls to buy those stocking stuffers as well.
If you grew up in Canada like I did you take for granted that ice rinks are everywhere and it is just part of life in the great white north. In London the only time you really see ice skating is over the Christmas season. There are several pop-up ice skating rinks that are quaint and are a throw back to a simpler time. Christmas carols are playing and there is hot chocolate or mulled wine for when your feet and fingers get cold (although in London it never gets "Canada cold").
As few folks in London actually have skates (or need them) you can rent them at the rink and for a small cost you can spend some time skating around and around outside some pretty fantastic historical places like the Natural History Museum (my favourite exterior in London), Somerset House and Hampton Court Palace. It's important to note that you should pre-book tickets, especially on the weekend. As these rinks are only seasonal their demand is high. The Westfield Mall in Sheppard's Bush has turned their main atrium into a giant indoor skating arena with live entertainment. Lady Gaga surprised the crowd and turned up there the day after I was there and sang a surprise gig under their giant snow globe on the roof. How awesome that would have been to see.
There are many pop-up Christmas markets all around the city. Mostly little chalet-like booths selling holiday wares and stocking stuffers. Some with old fashioned carousels or simple rides or one at South Bank that has a 80's themed rollerskating rink. They all have plenty of food and drink options and is a nice festive alternative for a place after work to get a pint.
A few of the popular markets are the Southbank Market and the Christmas Market at The Tate. Southbank and Tate are both on the south side of the river so you can have a lovely stroll from one to the other. The markets on one side of you and the wonderful London skyline on the other. Wow.
The Shops...ooh the shops
Once again I believe that Selfridge's has outdone itself in the Christmas window department. The entire store is covered with ever-green and tiny little white lights. The windows feature 12 sequinned Santa's each in a unique situation like in a hot tub or a ski lift. Each Santa suit has over 6,000 hand sewn sequins. The windows themselves have over 114,000 baubles, 2 tonnes of glitter and five of them have a state-of-the-art sound system which uses vibration of the glass panes to create its own soundtrack. 40,000 man hours went into these windows that started back in June. Wow....I mean WOW!!!!!!
Fortnum & Mason's flagship store on Piccadilly is like walking into a live Christmas window with the added benefit of the aroma of cinnamon and clove tea being handed out as you enter the store.
Carnaby Street, made famous in the 60's for their avant grade hippy generation has kept to that theme with a Carnaby Christmas Revolution with giant overhead signs and lights lining the streets with messages of Love, Peace, Kiss and Rebel .
Here Comes Santa Claus...oh wait...Here he comes again...and again...and yes again!
On the lighter side of Christmas, London celebrates a newer tradition called "Santacon". Thousands of people fill the streets of London dressed as Santa (or the occasional elf or reindeer) and sing Christmas songs and spread the holiday cheer...and well... drink the holiday cheer. This now has become a worldwide celebration with now over 50 countries taking the jolly old man in red to the streets in masses.
I got this friendly group of Santas early on in the parade/pubcrawl but this event goes all day and with everyone carrying their "cheer of choice" plus they do make the occasional stop to "water the reindeer" at a few pubs along the way this to me has all the potential for one very festive, jolly looking drunk holding tank gathering later in the evening. Only an hour in and lets just say, the reindeer games had already begun.
Everyone was in fine holiday form and you can see what I mean when you click on the pretty dancing elf above. The video with the two Singing Santas is funny if you watch what is happening behind them as they are joyfully singing a Christmas song all the while a Santa and a reindeer are going to town on one another. Yup, reindeer games.. On the official Santacon website they ask you to behave and not be "that" Santa. They do have a family friendly route that does not pass by any pubs (how they map that out in London I cannot imagine) but why confuse your little ones with all those Bad Santas?.
Finally... my last observation. London is not afraid to say "Merry Christmas". In North America over the years I have personally found the so called "political correctness" of wishing someone Merry Christmas has gotten out of control sucking the life and colour out of this holiday. They have stopped saying Merry Christmas and replaced it with a generic "Happy Holidays" in an attempt to not offend anyone not celebrating Christmas. Toronto City Hall came under fire recently for having a Christmas tree in their lobby. Seriously....who is the person that could object to something so beautiful? Even Starbucks came under attack with their holiday snowflakes and winter decorations on their Red Cups. Getting some sort of weird public pressure to remove any decorative seasonal images on their cups. So Starbucks yielding to pressure left them just plain red. Then once again Starbucks was attacked for being "anti-Christmas" for having yielded to pressure removing the wintery images some were complaining about in the first place. Too Christmasy OR just too red? Talk about you can't win.
Cut back on the caffeine people... it's a snowflake. This year there are 13 different winter inspired Red Cups, all contest winners designed by Starbucks customers. Lets see what controversy this invokes. I celebrate Christmas and would not be offended if someone wished me Happy Chanukah, an outstanding Kwanza or Gong Hey Fat Choy at Chinese New Year. Actually the opposite, I'd be honoured to be recognized with that blessing around anyone's faith or holiday.
So MERRY CHRISTMAS everyone!!!!!! It doesn't matter what faith you are, a Christmas tree (not a "holiday tree" as they suggested renaming it at Toronto City Hall) can be admired and enjoyed by all. Let the lights shine and twinkle and help fill in the darkness. Have a safe holiday and celebrate responsibly. And remember if you lose your shoe at night it is not because you are in a fairytale, it's because you are drunk!!!! Be a Good Santa, call a uber! Coz you never know who is watching you. Ho Ho Ho.