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Ye Olde English Christmas

You’ll have a jolly good time visiting London over the winter holidays.

I adjusted my wool scarf to block the wind as I handed a two-pound coin to the Covent Garden street vendor. He passed me a cup of hot mulled cider from inside his food stall and smiled. The little wooden hut, looking more like a mini ski chalet than a concession stand, was decked out with holly and ribbons and hundreds of shimmering fairy lights. The aroma of chestnuts roasting nearby filled the air as I took my first sip, grateful for the spicy warmth of cinnamon and cloves on a chilly London evening.

Oxford Street

Above: Oxford Street, London Anna Moskvina/Fotolia

In Title: Above: The ornate dining room at the Dennis Severs’ House. Roelof Bakker

Below: Choose a luxury food gift from Fortnum & Mason. Jacqueline Tucker

store

“Cheers! Happy Christmas,” the jolly vendor shouted as I thanked him and walked away, strolling down cobblestone streets on my way to see the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square.

London is one of my favorite cities any time of year, but at Christmas, it transforms into something magical. From shining lights and carousels, to winter sports and day trips, you’ll never get bored with this glittering city. Modern London blends seamlessly with alleyways seemingly out of a Dickens’ story, and carol singers harmonize from nearly every corner, providing a cheery holiday soundtrack as you experience an English Christmas.

Shining, Shimmering Wonderland

The decorative lights draped across Oxford and Regent streets create a canopy of festive fluorescence that you’ll be marveling at all evening long. And Bond Street, just off of Oxford, sparkles with a seasonal elegance that can’t be dampened by winter temps. You could board a red double-decker bus and grab a seat on the upper deck, where you’ll get a great view of all those lights. But if you want a special treat, go for a Christmas tour with London Magical Tours.

Delivering much more than a glimpse of London’s best Christmas decor, you’ll get a guided tour with entertaining stories about the traditions behind an English Christmas – like how Christmas wasn’t widely celebrated in England at the beginning of the 19th century. Many believe that well-known Christmas staples like decorated trees and the exchanging of gifts came about in England when Queen Victoria married her beloved Prince Albert, who brought his German childhood traditions with him.

Splurge for the private tour; a driver and a guide will take you to hidden Victorian side streets. You’ll also get extended stops at charmingly decorated places like Hamleys Toy Store and Harrods’ Christmas World with plenty of opportunities to snap that perfect card-worthy photo.

More bright lights can be found at Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland. Celebrating its 10th anniversary, this year’s winter magic continues to be a highlight of London’s Christmas season. Enjoy carnival-style food, music, entertainment, attractions, and rides all under the warm glow of the lights. Take a spin around the outdoor ice-skating rink or head off on an arctic adventure inside the Magical Ice Kingdom.

And don’t forget your Christmas shopping. Hundreds of stalls line the Christmas markets throughout the park, and you’re guaranteed to find that one-of-a-kind item you didn’t even know you needed. My favorite find was a handcrafted brass kaleidoscope made with colored spun glass.

More Shopping and Holiday Tea

You can’t mention Christmas shopping in London without including a few famous names. Take in the window displays at Selfridges on Oxford Street, and find the perfect luxury brands at the legendary department store. Pick up delicious sweets like Turkish Delight candy or Scottish treacle (molasses) cookies, along with a special Christmas ornament for your tree at the delightful Fortnum & Mason. Browse the stalls at Covent Garden Market for handmade art and jewelry, and don’t forget the fruitcake from Harrods.

To refuel from all that shopping cardio, enjoy a seasonal afternoon tea. Claridge’s and The Ritz are popular places, but you’ll need to book well in advance. Try one of the smaller tearooms. Brigit’s Bakery, or B-Bakery as it is locally known, in Covent Garden is more on the casual side with its quaint London-meets-Paris charm. Still, reservations are a good idea.

Festive Fun

For a uniquely English Christmas experience, visit the Dennis Severs’ House on Folgate Street for a Silent Night tour. Take a silent journey through 10 18th-century rooms decorated for the holidays and lit by fire and candlelight. The smells of holiday baking make it a complete sensory experience. Imagine a Victorian family who has only just left the room, their Christmas goose still sitting on the dinner table.

If you’d like more of a non-traditional treat, head over to the London Eye or the Tower Bridge Exhibition. Both attractions give a breathtaking bird’s-eye view of the city all lit up for the holidays.

After you complete your journey around the London Eye, walk across Westminster Bridge (stopping, of course, to snap a pic of Big Ben and Parliament) to Westminster Abbey for an evensong service, but you will be ushered out immediately afterward. If you’d like to see the entire abbey, purchase tickets and give yourself plenty of time to take in the beauty of this historical place of worship. St. Paul’s Cathedral, a bit of a stroll down the banks of the Thames, is another inspiring place for evensong.

If you didn’t get your fill of ice-skating at Winter Wonderland, the National History Museum also has a beautiful rink, but nothing quite beats the atmosphere at Somerset House. There is usually a long wait at both of these so reserve a time slot.

Boxing Day is another English tradition that dates to the mid-1800s. On this day, tradesmen and servants collected boxed gifts from employers. These days, it’s become a day more for enjoying leftovers, sports, and shopping, similar to Black Friday in the United States.

Lodging and Dining

For lodging, London has options aplenty. The Kensington Close Hotel, located in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, serves a gorgeous afternoon tea on Christmas Eve and is conveniently located near Kensington High Street, where you’ll find plenty of shops and restaurants. It’s also an easy walk to the beautiful Kensington Palace and Gardens. If you’re in the area on a Sunday, stop into the Goat Tavern for a traditional roast dinner.

The Connaught in Mayfair, one of London’s finest hotels, comes complete with a harpist who plays throughout afternoon tea on Christmas Eve. A full English breakfast on Christmas morning gets you ready for a horse-drawn carriage ride through the streets of Mayfair. Take in the views of the rare quiet streets while sipping hot chocolate with tiny marshmallows.

While most of London shuts down on Christmas Day, there are several restaurants that remain open for a traditional Christmas dinner. Dean Street Townhouse hotel opens up its restaurant to the public on Christmas Day.

The Canonbury Tavern, a historical pub in Islington, serves welcome drinks, starters, and main dishes, like roast turkey or duck breast with all the trimmings. Finish off the meal with a delectable Christmas pudding. And don’t forget to pop open the traditional Christmas crackers and discover the treat inside.

If you’re looking for a festive, one-of-a-kind holiday vacation, there’s nothing quite like the experience of an authentic English Christmas. Britain’s old-world sights, flavorful Christmas treats, and traditions will warm you for many holidays to come.

Jacqueline Tucker is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.

November/December 2016 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

AAA Travel can help plan a memorable holiday getaway to London for you. To find a travel location near you, call (877) 510-8702, or visit AAA.com/travel.

Christmas is one of London’s busiest tourist seasons. Make lodging reservations before traveling. Here are a few additional helpful tips to keep in mind:

• Check the train schedules. They do not run on Christmas Day and have reduced hours around the holidays.

• Black cabs are expensive. Be sure to budget for that if you need to take one in lieu of the trains.

• If you’re going to be there for a week or longer, buy an Oyster card. It’s cheaper than paying for a train ticket each trip.

 

 

Wassa-what?

Wassail, a traditional British holiday drink, literally means “good health.” It can be a hot cider infused with fruit and spices, or it also can have a wine base.

wassail

derkien/Fotolia

Ingredients
1 gallon (four quarts) apple cider
1 packet (two-quart drink mix) Crystal Light Classic Orange drink mix
4 cinnamon sticks
2 whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
Orange slices and whole cloves for garnish

Combine all ingredients, except garnishes, in a large saucepan. Cook on low heat for 20 minutes or until heated throw; do not boil. Strain punch to remove spices. Place in a heat-proof punch bowl. Garnish with orange slices studded with cloves.

Makes 16 servings, one cup each.

 


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