I love London at Christmas (to be honest, I love London at every time of year, but it does get an added sparkle in December… and sometimes in August depending on how keen the shops are). It may not have the warmth of an Aussie Christmas or Berlin’s epic Weihnachtsmärkte (the two other Christmasses I’ve experienced), but London does have some wacky Yuletide traditions, a few of which I’ll share with you today. So sit back with your glass of mulled wine, put on a Father Christmas hat and some reindeer slippers, and enjoy… (and press play on the Christmas Hits playlist. You know you want to.)
Trafalgar Square Christmas Tree
Let’s start at the official centre of London (that’s right, the equestrian statue of Charles I just before Whitehall is the official centre point of London). Every year, Trafalgar Square receives its magnificent Christmas tree all the way from Norway. Since 1947 the government of Norway have given us a Christmas tree every November, as a thank you to the people of London. Between 1940 and 1945, London provided refuge to Norway’s exiled king and government after they’d fled Nazi occupation.
Traditionally it is always lit on the first Thursday of December, so you can see it happening this year at 6pm on 5th December.
People often remark that the lights, which fall down the tree like a waterfall, look quite unusual (it’s been described as a “cucumber” before). This is a further link to the Norwegian tradition where the lights are hung vertically.
It’s not a simple case of any old tree being chopped down and sent overseas next day delivery, oh no. In this country, when we do traditions, we throw our heart and soul into them. There has to be a ceremony first, when the Lord Mayor of Westminster, the British ambassador to Norway and the Mayor of Oslo meet in Norway to watch the tree being felled.
And don’t worry, there’s no last minute decision-making. The planning process started a decade ago, when trees with the potential to be the Trafalgar Square tree were marked out as special.
It has to be a tree which is over 50 – 60 years old and more than 20m tall. The one this year is a stately 85 and stands at 24m. I mean, if you need any more evidence of how special it is, it’s a tree with its own Twitter account (@trafalgartree).
Christmas Swimming in the Serpentine
It may be insane, it may be brave, you decide, but at 9am on 25th December each year, a large group of sometimes close to 100 people swim a 91m Christmas Day race, outside, in the Serpentine (the body of water which straddles Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens). Don’t get any crazy ideas, not just anyone can take part; you have to be part of the Serpentine Swimming Club (who have acclimatised to the freezing temperatures, often below 4 degrees Celsius). It has been taking place since 1864, but in 1903/1904 (sources differ) it became known as the Peter Pan Cup when author J.M. Barrie donated the first cup of the same name to the event. He continued to present the prize until 1932.
It is a lovely sentiment because Peter Pan is so closely associated with Kensington Gardens. It was Barrie’s strolls through the park which had inspired the Peter Pan stories and it was where he had met the Llewelyn Davies family who were the inspiration behind the Darling children. Nowadays, many children will be familiar with the modern Peter Pan playground, but even within Barrie’s lifetime children were being enchanted by Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. In 1912, a Peter Pan statue was secretly installed in the park overnight to mark the spot where Peter Pan landed in Kensington Gardens after fleeing his buggy. Barrie wanted the children to believe it had just appeared by magic!
If you’re interested in seeing the race, you’re welcome to go and watch (the racers probably want as much encouragement as possible!) and the race starts close to the Serpentine Café (from the south bank).
More recently introduced is the Great Christmas Pudding Race which takes place annually at the beginning of December. The event raises money for Cancer Research UK and has been organised in the Covent Garden Piazza for the last 39 years. In teams of six, you get to race round a relay obstacle course of inflatable slides, foam slaloms and flour-filled balloons (oh, and you also have to keep a Christmas pudding balanced on a tray in front of you, like a Christmas-themed egg and spoon race).
If you’re not too confident in your sporting prowess, never fear! There’s a prize for the team in the most fantastic fancy dress as well.
Inventing Christmas Traditions
Here I wanted to list a few things which are now associated with Christmas all over the world, but which trace their roots back to good ol’ London.
The opening of the outdoor ice rinks in London is now one of the first signs that Christmas is coming! If you want a chance to glide (or stumble) around in the shadow of the Tower of London, or want to show off some moves in front of the beautiful facade of the Natural History Museum (look mum, no hands!), then London is full of stunning places to go for a skate.
However, did you know that London had the world’s first artificial ice rink? It opened in December 1841, near Dorset Square, in Marylebone.
It wasn’t frozen water though… because we didn’t have the technology yet to freeze vast swathes of water, so instead, inventor Henry Kirk created a strange mix of salts, copper sulphate, and hog’s lard. Yep, that’s right. Hog’s lard. The smelly substance was used, by the inventor’s own description, “to render it more slippery”. It was also only 3.7m by 1.8m, but maybe it’s for the best that there wasn’t much room to pick up speed.
Thank goodness for John Gamgee, who in January 1876 produced the world’s first mechanically frozen ice rink, just off King’s Road in Chelsea. This ice rink had an equally interesting method of construction: the base was concrete, with layers of earth, cow hair and timber planks on top. Over that were copper pipes through which flowed a solution of glycerine, ether, nitrogen peroxide and water, which then froze the water on top, thus creating the sheet of ice. In March the same year, it moved to a permanent venue at 379 King’s Road. This rink was a smidge larger than Kirk’s, measuring 12.2m by 7.3m.
And then it was in 1843 that the first commercially produced Christmas card came along (so you could regale all your friends and family about that magical time you skated in hog’s lard).
It was designed by artist John Callcott Horsley and had a large initial print run of 1,000 cards. Just the outline was printed and then the rest was hand-coloured.
It depicted two acts of charity: feeding the hungry and clothing the poor, but the central scene was pretty controversial because it featured a young child gulping down a glass of wine. It didn’t put people off though because more had to be printed to satisfy demand. Incredibly, some of these cards have survived and one has just gone on display at the Charles Dickens Museum in Bloomsbury!
The Christmas Cracker is definitely not exclusive to London anymore, but they were invented here! Confectioner Tom Smith was inspired by French bon bons which were packaged up with twisted wrapper at both ends. He started adding little mottos to his sugared almonds, but he still thought he could take the idea further. The story then goes that while he searched for a way to make them more exciting, gazing into the fire, he was suddenly inspired by the pops and crackles of the logs in his fireplace.
He patented his first explosive cracker device in 1847, although it’s believed that he purchased the formula for the small cracks and bangs from a fireworks company called Brock’s Fireworks. It was his sons who introduced the paper hats to the crackers. In the 1870s/80s, the company moved to larger premises on Wilson Street, just off Finsbury Square. The company aren’t based there anymore, but in the square, you can still see a memorial which the sons of Tom Smith erected for their mother, and Tom Smith himself is buried in Highgate Cemetery.
The company does still exist as Tom Smith, and they have the very illustrious job of providing the Queen with all her Christmas crackers and wrapping paper! So you can have the same (paper) crown as the Queen!
Bankside Twelfth Night
This tradition has only been running for twenty-five years but it’s a mishmash of ancient customs. A green man dressed in ivy, called the Holly Man, arrives across Millennium Bridge accompanied by a merry group of mummers (a type of actor). He toasts or ‘wassails’ the people, the river Thames, and the Globe Theatre (an old tradition encouraging good health and growth). The mummers then perform a traditional folk play, a style of acting dating back to the late thirteenth century, and they enact the legend of St. George.
After the play, cakes are handed out to the crowd. Cake! (You’re already putting it in the diary, aren’t you?)
But, wait! There’s more! Concealed inside two of the little cakes are a bean and a pea, and the two lucky devils who find them are crowned King and Queen for the day. This harks back to the Twelfth Night tradition of crowning a King of Misrule, who would lead the merry-making. The group then processes to the George Inn on Borough High Street for more storytelling, dancing, and drinking.
It’s not always held exactly on 6th January, depending on where the holidays fall. In January 2020, it will be held on Sunday 5th January, at 2pm. Don’t miss their 25th Anniversary!
That’s already quite a few Christmas traditions to sink your teeth into between mince pies, whether you’re a long-term Londoner or just visiting.
But we’ve only just scratched the surface! Read part 2 – you know you want to…