How to celebrate the Christmas season in true British style
MANY OF THE CHRISTMAS CUSTOMS and holiday traditions we practice and enjoy in America have their origins in Britain. Who can imagine the season without Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol or without mistletoe, holly and Christmas cards? We sing old English carols, burn the Yule log and decorate our homes with evergreens. If you are spending the Advent season in Britain, however, here are 10 traditional highlights that define the festive weeks for millions.
Perhaps newest of British seasonal traditions, Christmas Markets now introduce the holiday season in market towns and cathedral cities galore from late November. Generally themed as either German-style or Victorian markets, temporary villages of wooden chalets offer goodies and good cheer, with music and entertainment part of the show.
Celebrate in London
London’s streets blaze bright during those dark December days. November’s switch-on of Regent Street’s Christmas Lights is day-long festive event with star-studded entertainment. On December 4, join the lighting of the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square, and sing carols with the choir of St. Martins-in-the-Fields. Throughout the season, decorated store windows draw crowds to Oxford Street and Knightsbridge
Catch a Pantomime
Perhaps no Christmas tradition is more idiosyncratically British than the Pantomime. Regional theaters throughout the country stage these immensely popular fractured fairy-tales rife with outrageous conventions. In London this season, catch Cinderella at the London Palladium, Peter Pan at the Olivier, Mother Goose at Wilton’s Music Hall or Sleeping Beauty at the Richmond Theatre.
Dance the Dream of Nutcracker
December is the traditional season to see Tchaikovsky’s immortal ballet set in the timeless Christmas of Edwardian England, with Clara, her Nutcracker Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy. This year, see Nutcracker at the London Coliseum performed by the English National Ballet, while the Royal Ballet performs it at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Sing or Listen to Messiah
If you do sing, it’s usually not hard to find a sing-along Messiah during the Christmas season. To sing or to listen, a performance is sure to be near at hand. George Frederic Handel’s oratorio has been a Christmas favorite of choral societies, church and cathedral choirs, and an integral part of the season since the late 18th century.
See off a Boxing Day Hunt
The holiday party continues on December 26th with additional family gatherings and sometimes a visit to the Panto. In the country, though, the Boxing Day Hunt is one tradition that does not die. Gather in the market place on Boxing Day morning to see the riders assemble in their hunting pinks, surrounded by eager dogs, saluting the morning with a stirrup cup before the sounding horns.
Join the Christmas Party
Brits love to party in any season, but festivities hit their peak during the Christmas season. Office and company parties are ubiquitous, and every organization has a social celebration. Good cheer, bonhomie and copious alcohol are the order of the day. Lack an invitation? Join the spontaneous party any weekend evening at the neighborhood pub!
A King’s College Christmas Eve
On Christmas Eve, nothing is more traditional than church services, and most famous by far is the Service of Lessons and Carols at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. The King’s College Choir processes in the Gothic nave to “Once in Royal David’s City.” Spend the day standing in line to get in, but the service is broadcast live to the nation and around the world.
Watch The Queen’s Christmas Address
After Christmas Lunch, family and friends gather around the telly at 3:00 in the afternoon to listen to Her Majesty bring Christmas greetings to her people and the nations of the Commonwealth. Often, The Queen’s appearance marks a break in the feasting between the fattened goose or turkey and a bounty of traditional sweets to follow.
Hogmanay in Style
Celebrate the New Year’s arrival. In London join the crowds in Trafalgar Square. For the world’s best New Year’s Eve party, though, hie thee to Edinburgh for its Scottish Hogmanay. Princes Street and its Gardens are filled with revelers, Christmas Market chalets, and Scotland’s top performing artists filling the stages with Celtic rock and good-time music. Unforgettable.