London Lantern

Putting the Spotlight on London

Christmas Time In London - A Complete Guide

27/11/2003, By Michael Tebbutt

Reader Rating: 2.9 from 20954 votes

Christmas Tree - Trafalgar Sq

There is some truth in the notion that the majority of people in London down tools and get cheerfully plastered at Christmas, but it is only part of the story. Increasingly there are things to do and places to go over Christmas. Then, and the weeks before is a maelstrom of activity and our aim here is to list as many of these as possible. It is by no means comprehensive and if you come across an event not listed here please tell us about it – it might happen again next year.

Christmas would not be complete without the annual gift of the giant tree from Norway, a token of appreciation from the people of Norway dating from World War 2. This stands, covered in lights, in Trafalgar Square from mid-December, and serves as a focal point for Christmas around which choirs gather to sing traditional carols.

On New Year’s Eve Trafalgar Square is a favourite place for revelry as the midnight hour approaches though in recent years the crowds have been smaller, perhaps a reflection of the increasing amount of excellent entertainment elsewhere throughout London.

How about getting around? The only time you may experience difficulties are actually at Christmas and New Year itself. On Christmas Eve the London tube and buses operate a Saturday service, with no night buses then or the following night. On Christmas Day there are no tube trains or buses, and it’s taxis or rediscover the use of those oft neglected limbs, legs and feet. By Boxing Day we are back to a Saturday service and buses run at night.

Down Whitehall towards the river Thames is Somerset House. This handsome building is now a deal livelier than when it used to house family records for the Government, or before that the Navy Board. Part of the fun is a huge skating rink between the front of the building and the river. The rink opens on 27 November until 25 January and is open every day except Christmas Day. Pre-booking is essential, even if only to avoid disappointment. Booking is available online at Ticket Master. There is no booking fee but a handling charge is added to each transaction. Ticket prices include skate hire.

Somerset House - Ice Skating

Inside Somerset House there is ample opportunity for further enjoyment, with the Gilbert Collection of Decorative Arts, the Hermitage Rooms, a repeat in miniature of the Winter Palace, which now houses The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, and the Courtauld Gallery, one of the most important art collections in Britain, including world-famous Old Master, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, together with sculpture and applied art. The Admiralty Restaurant, now regarded as one of London’s top destination restaurants, takes good care of the inner man.

A word about eating when away from home. The only time you are likely to experience any difficulty is on Christmas Day and New Years Day. Even then the excellent range of ethnic restaurants for which London is so famous, gallantly fill the breach. Many restaurants and hotels are open on both days but only take bookings. Be warned a number also charge more than the occasion warrants, so shop around. Advice is, book as soon as you can so that you can be selective, or be prepared to go ethnic. Some excellent tours with lunches appear later in this feature and are still taking bookings.

Harrods - Christmas Lights

Christmas is a time for giving and receiving, thinly disguised code for shopping. London offers one of the best quality shopping venues in the world with everything you or your most well-endowed relative could ask for, and there are plenty of bargains to be had. The well-known centres like Oxford Street, Regent Street, Jermyn Street, Knightsbridge, St James, Chelsea, Mayfair and all the large stores are generally heaving, with late night shopping the norm. Also don’t hesitate to explore – bargains are waiting.

Many of the London stores go straight into the sales season between Christmas and New Year, so be on the lookout for absolutely stunning bargains. However, the markets of London in all their multitudinous, multi-racial and multi-faceted variety offer wonderful ranges of goods, opportunities for haggling and the cheerful hurly burly of the traditional market place. For fashion and antiques head for Kensington High Street, Portobello Road and Portobello Market in Notting Hill. In East London you’ll find Brick Lane, home to some very attractive bric a bac. Columbia Road Flower Market stocks flowers and vegetables of every description, whilst Petticoat Lane, probably the best known of all carries mainly clothes, records, leather goods and toys.

Spitalfields Market in Tower Hamlets is one of the old traditional markets that is re-inventing itself and becoming well regarded. They are open every day expect Saturdays right up until Christmas Eve with a good variety of goods. Further afield, in Croydon, Surrey Street Market dating from 1922, has survived the streamlining of central Croydon and is now affectionately regarded as a colourful and attractive feature of the town, open every day. Croydon has a fine parish church, a little known Tudor palace and other historic buildings and connections.

Lincoln Cathedral and Market

You may like to have a day out of London for your Christmas market shopping, in which case you could hardly do better than Lincoln, a fine Cathedral city, capital of Lincolnshire and originator of Christmas markets in Britain. Held 4-7 December the Market at Lincoln accommodates over 300 stalls, set against the awesome backdrop of the great Cathedral, Castle and medieval streets, and this year features a new craft marquee, a Tastes of Lincolnshire Marquee with a Farmer’s Market and cookery demonstrations as well as an Under 10’s Winter Wonderland.

At Christmas thoughts turn to pantomime and Cinderella is playing at the Royal Opera House in Bow Street. Invariably a good performance at this prestigious location, dates are Tuesday 23 Dec, Friday 26, and Saturday 27, with performances at 2pm and 7 pm. Book online at Ticket Master.

Should you want to see Cinders earlier try booking at the Apollo, Hammersmith between 10-20 December, where the English National Ballet will be performing. Bookings can be made online through Ticket Master. As soon as they complete, after a short break at Christmas, they are back at the Apollo 24 Dec-11 Jan with a performance of The Nutcracker. Again bookings can be made through Ticket Master. All UCI Cinemas are open every day except Christmas Day and this is pretty general throughout the world of entertainment.

Windsor Castle

Christmas Day in particular used to be a time when nothing much in the way of entertainment happened beyond hearth and home. What a difference now! A tour of Royal London with Christmas lunch in Windsor, or enjoying your Christmas lunch and the sights of London from the warmth and comfort of the Millennium Thames cruiser on the River Thames are but two of the ways in which you can enjoy a Christmas with a difference.

As can be imagined London is pretty traffic-free on Christmas Day – enjoy a morning panoramic tour of this great city. An experienced guide will tell you all about many of the London landmarks, with good photographic opportunities as well. If you fancy a day out of London there are two tours from which to choose – The Cotswolds with their wealth of historic beauty, including Oxford, university city of dreaming spires, with Christmas lunch in Stratford upon Avon, or Stonehenge, Salisbury and Bath.

Stonehenge is home to the ancient monolithic stones, still shrouded in mystery. Salisbury, famous for its elegantly spired Cathedral, is the venue for a traditional Christmas lunch before going on to the Georgian city of Bath, founded by the Romans and rediscovered by 18th century Society.

All Christmas full day tours include a traditional and substantial lunch with a welcoming drink beforehand. Tours on both days are in the safe hands of highly trained Blue Badge Guides.

Rockingham Castle and Church

Boxing Day is believed to take its name from an old custom of the giving of presents, or boxes, by the gentry to their servants. It has also become associated with Meets of the Hunting packs. Now that hunting foxes with hounds is under political threat this year may well turn out to be the last Boxing Day Meet ever.

You can take a morning flight on the London Eye this Boxing Day before going on a tour of many of the London sights, finishing with lunch in a typical English pub. Leeds Castle, that highlight amongst English stately homes, lowers the drawbridge to a tour which also takes in Canterbury and Dover where, on a good day, you can see the coast of France. And talking of Castles, a Boxing Day tour of Oxford and Stratford upon Avon, with lunch at Marlow’s, finishes up with a visit to Warwick Castle, one of the most historic of Britain’s ancient fortresses. All Boxing Day tours include a good quality lunch at a carefully selected hostelry. Pick up points beyond the starting point operate for some tours – you are advised to check when you make your reservation.

Sometimes we tend to forget that Christmas, for many, is also about religion, as well as assassinating the turkey and generally having a good time. All the churches, cathedrals and Christian places of worship will be opening their doors over Christmas to celebrate the day of Christ’s birth. Depending upon your persuasion there are wonderful occasions of ceremony and worship in which to join, and wherever you go you are certain to be made welcome.

One of the traditions of Christmas is the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Chapel, Cambridge on Christmas Eve. This is the Christmas gift of the University to the people of Cambridge, and tickets are not available, but the places not taken up are queued for by members of the public for several hours beforehand. Be in the queue no later than 9 am to stand a chance. For those who prefer to listen in comfort the ceremony is broadcast live at 3 pm on BBC Radio Four and the Overseas Service to millions of people worldwide.

Christmas Music at the Royal Albert Hall, London includes Christmas Carols with the Royal Choral Society on 15 December at 7.30 pm, performances of Messiah on 18 Dec at 7.30 pm and 29th Dec at 8 pm. The Choir of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge also perform at the Albert Hall on Monday 22 Dec at 7.30 pm. and at St John’s Smith Square, one of the finest churches acoustically in London, on Sunday 7 Dec. Tickets for all these events, except St John’s Smith Square, (020 7222 1061), can be booked through the RAH Box Office on 020 7838 3109 between 9 am and 9 pm daily.

London Eye

At Hampton Court, the magnificent Tudor palace at East Molesey, it’s all go in the great kitchens as they slave to produce the festive food of 1602-1663. Upstairs the Court of the ageing Queen Elizabeth 1 is joined by her guests (that’s you, the visitors) for festive fun and games. This impressive event takes place between 27 Dec – 1 Jan.

Downriver in the brooding Tower of London, King Edward 1 is having a busy Christmas. On the 6-7, 13-14 and 20-21 Dec. visitors will be able to have a taste of life at the court of the king who became known as the “Hammer of the Scots” as well as the “Flower of Chivalry” but who was renowned for the shortness of his temper. Between 27-31 December the King and his Court will be celebrating Christmas in the King’s own apartments at the Tower, with music, dance, stories and feasting and all the richness of medieval seasonal festivities.

On New Year’s Day in London if you want to see one of the finest Parades in the world make sure you are in Parliament Square, or as near as you can get to it by 12 noon. Over 10,000 performers representing 16 countries will be taking part, covering a 2.2 mile route and finishing at Berkley Square around 3 pm. Over 1,000,000 people are expected to be there. Two gala concerts will be held at Westminster Central Hall on 29 and 30 December to bring together young musicians from all over the world.

These are only a few of the highlights in and around London before, during and after Christmas. London is always a centre of activity for leisure and pleasure, but it really excels itself at this traditional time of goodwill and friendship – come and see for yourself!

Michael Tebbutt

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