London is one of those fabulous cities I long to return to again and again, so I’m thrilled to have Anna from Four Kids One Mom Guide to London sharing the inside scoop on a traditional Christmas in London! As part of our Holiday Celebrations Around the World, we’re exploring the holidays in different countries. I’m enjoying learning about new cultures and traditions every week and I hope you are too!
Since the Victorian era, Christmas has become Britain’s most popular annual holiday. We took a closer look at some of the UK’s best-loved Christmas traditions, and where visitors can enjoy them in the capital – London.
History of Christmas in London
It’s hard to imagine a Christmas celebration without a Christmas tree, and the world can thank Prince Albert, the beloved husband of Queen Victoria, for popularizing the tradition. In 1848, a magazine published a drawing of the Queen, Prince Albert, and their children celebrating around a decorated Christmas tree – similar to how German-born Albert would have remembered from his childhood.
The Prince’s homeland tradition quickly caught on with the British people, and soon most families had a tree decorated with candles, treats, fruit and small gifts. As the century wore on, the Christmas holidays became a time for gift-giving, and a special time for children. And as the gifts became bigger and store -bought, the small gifts and trinkets that adorned the Christmas tree in the mid-19th century were replaced by larger packages placed under the tree.
Today, the tradition of the Christmas tree is celebrated in grand style in London’s Trafalgar Square. Since 1947, a tree has been given to the people of London from the people of Norway in gratitude for Britain’s support for Norway during World War II. For visitors, the massive spruce – decorated in beautiful lights – is a sight to behold, and daily carol singing provides a festive soundtrack.
Father Christmas was the traditional figure of the British Christmas holiday. Father Christmas – a man dressed in green robes – represented the returning spring, and would travel from house to house (no chimney or gifts involved – that tradition we owe to Sinter Klaas, the Dutch inspiration for today’s Santa Claus), feasting with families along the way. In Victorian times, Father Christmas’s robes changed from green to red, but today many Britons have replaced the traditional moniker of “Father Christmas” with the North American preference for “Santa Claus.”
Where to Enjoy Christmas in London
London has many places for children to visit Santa Claus, and, in the UK, Santa greets visitors in his “grotto”, rather than a workshop. Harrods, London’s famous department store in Knightsbridge, hosts a fantastic Christmas Grotto until December 24, 2015. This is a ticketed event that sells out quickly, so if you’re planning a Christmas visit to London, book early! More information can be found here.
And what’s a British Christmas celebration without an indulgent family dinner? The Christmas feast enjoyed in homes across the UK has roots in the middle ages, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that turkey became a popular centrepiece for the meal, being the perfect size for a British middle class family. Roast potatoes, gravy, vegetables such as Brussel sprouts, and dressing (stuffing) are must-have accompaniments on any traditional Christmas dinner table, with a plum pudding (a heavy cake with fruit, nuts, and a little brandy), to finish off the meal.
But rather than sit down in a London restaurant for a heavy roast dinner, try a Christmas-themed afternoon tea, complete with festive cakes, cookies, seasonal sandwiches, and, of course, scones with clotted cream and jam, served with a selection of teas or champagne. Most of London’s high end hotels and shops offer Christmas teas, including The Ritz London, London Hilton on Park Lane, The Waldorf Hilton, London Marriott, The Georgian at Harrods, Scoff & Banter (multiple locations and well-priced for visitors on a budget), the Savoy, and Claridges.
For history buffs, or those who just want to learn more about British Christmas traditions throughout the ages, a small but hardworking museum called The Geffrye: Museum of the Home, located just outside The City of London (note that the City of London is the name given to the oldest part of London, not London in its entirety), is a must-see at Christmas time. The museum recreates 400 years of seasonal traditions in English homes, and visitors can walk through the evolution of Christmas from the medieval ages to present day. Authentic festive decorations transform the period rooms, bringing to life many rich and vibrant traditions of Christmas past, from feasting, dancing and kissing under the mistletoe to playing parlour games, hanging up stockings, sending cards and decorating the tree.
London looks like a magical place to visit at Christmas. Have you been? Would you like to go?
About the author: Anna Huk blogs about travel tips, special events and family-friendly attractions in London, England at Four Kids One Mom Travel. A freelance writer and mother of four, Anna’s work has been published in the Ottawa Citizen and Today’s Parent magazine.