London just had too many fabulous Christmas traditions to fit into one post so I’ve split it into two for you. Just for you! You’re welcome.
If you need Part I, it’s just here.
Let’s start with a bit of cheap meat.
Smithfield Christmas Auction
If you’re a bit last minute, a bit of an adrenaline junkie, if you like living life on the edge, then this is the London tradition for you. Planning the family Christmas meal? I dare you to wait until Christmas Eve to buy your Christmas roast.
If you are, you can join the hoard of Londoners who make their way to Smithfield meat market on Christmas Eve to buy top-quality meat for bargain prices. It’s a popular event, apparently people start gathering from dawn. It’s not so much an auction in the traditional sense. It’s more, stick your money up in the air and hope for the best. If you get picked and you’re far from the action, your money gets passed above the crowd to the front and your meat is sent back to you the same way. Or it might just be flung at you from the front by Greg the auctioneer…
If crowd-surfing meat wasn’t exciting enough (probably not the right event for vegetarians), there’s also the thrilling risk of a coin toss: guess wrong and you pay the agreed price, guess right and you get the meat for free.
Greg has been running the event for over 30 years, but even before Greg, pre-Christmas auctions would have been popular at Smithfield. And there would probably have been several taking place each Christmas Eve, as butchers desperately tried to get rid of the meat which would have spoiled over the Christmas period, especially in the years pre-refrigeration.
It takes place inside the main hall of the market.
Christmas Window Shopping at Selfridges
Selfridges is a department store which has stood on Oxford Street since the early twentieth century, and it has honoured the tradition of extravagant Christmas windows for the last 100 years.
Now, for many, Christmas shop windows are a capitalist and consumerist nightmare, but for some others the windows are sparkly and snowy and mesmerising and… ooooh, yes, that hipster polar bear does look great in that rainbow satchel which I have actually always wanted for ever (just how I’m imagining Christmas windows this year). I think for most, however, we’re somewhere in the middle: where we can look at the windows through our skeptical Scrooge glasses but still appreciate the artistry in some of the department store displays.
When Selfridges first opened in 1909, according to reports, there were thirty policemen just to hold back the excited crowd. Harry Gordon Selfridge was a clever man and a bit of a showman. He knew how to get people into his store. Right from its opening, the shop had jaw-dropping displays, including the first plane to have been flown across a body of water, which was put on show in June 1909. The theatricality and scale of his windows were unprecedented and they were the first to be lit at night. We’re slightly desensitised nowadays to lights at night, but imagine the impact the shining windows would have had on the members of the public on an otherwise rather shadowy street in the early twentieth century.
He understood who his consumers were as well, and how to target specific demographics: he produced displays that supported the Suffragettes and flew the flag of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) above his store. It may seem like a shameless push for more customers, and maybe it was, but it was still quite a controversial stand to make so publicly at the time.
It was Harry Gordon Selfridge who coined the phrase “X Shopping Days ‘til Christmas” which now haunts our waking moments in the month before Christmas, and apparently Selfridges was the first luxury department store to devote a whole section of the floor to Christmas. He would probably have been very proud then that on 1st August 2016, Selfridges claimed to be the world’s earliest opening Christmas shop in a department store.
If you take a trip to see the windows this year, apparently the theme, “A Christmas for Modern Times”, took 500 hours and the efforts of 100 employees.
Harrods, another historic London department store, slightly pipped Selfridges to the post, Christmas-wise, because they’ve been inviting Father Christmas to their grotto since 1908. And the grotto has been there every year since 1955. Controversially this year, however, the grotto has been restricted to shoppers who are part of the Harrods Rewards scheme “tier Green 2 and above” (apparently this means you have to have spent over £2,000 between January and August this year. Oh, and the grotto is invite-only). A tad more than the sixpence children had to pay in 1908. Although after a furious backlash, Harrods agreed to allow 160 lower-spending families the chance to visit Father Christmas… Merry Christmas?
Unfortunately they don’t happen anymore, but it’s wonderful to think of a frozen river Thames. They aren’t particularly Christmas-themed, but still winter so I’m taking it. The Thames is known to have frozen at least twenty-four times from 1309 to 1814 (there wasn’t a frost fair each time), and there were a couple of main reasons why the river was able to freeze:
- Between 1300 and 1870, Europe was experiencing a Little Ice Age which meant that winters were a lot colder.
- The Thames was slower: as the river was embanked, it became deeper and narrower, so it was harder for the water to freeze. In addition, pre-its demolition in 1831, the many arches of the Old London Bridge (nineteen in all!) and the debris that built up under the bridge also slowed the river down.
The first recorded Frost Fair was the winter of 1607 – 08, when the Thames froze for six weeks, and in the pamphlet you can see people playing skittles on the ice. Someone’s even getting a shave! Even though the ice got very thick and was frozen for so long, it was still very precarious and there were some accidents. In 1739, for example, part of the ice broke and a whole host of tents and people were swallowed up. For the majority, however, the Frost Fairs were a welcome relief to the harsh reality of London’s winters. Food stalls, pubs, ice-skating (obviously), music, fortunetellers, football matches! At the last one ever in January 1814, there was even an elephant on the ice! The Museum of London remarkably still has a piece of gingerbread bought at that last Frost Fair.
Twelfth Night at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane
Not quite Christmas, but close enough. At the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on 6th January every year, the cast of whichever show is on at the time get to partake in a yummy tradition dating back to the late eighteenth century. They each get a glass of punch and a slice of cake.
When actor Robert Baddeley died in 1794, he left a lot of money to the Drury Lane Theatrical Fund to help destitute actors, a charity which still exists today, and he also provided money “for the purchase of a Twelfth Cake and Wine for ever” (no chance of misunderstanding there!). Although, this year they’re closed for restoration so I don’t know what will happen! Saying that, however, this isn’t the first time it has had to be missed. There are thirteen known instances when it has not been carried out, for example previous occasions when the Theatre has been closed or when, during the Second World War, the sugar for the cake was not available due to rationing.
The cake is known as the Baddeley cake, which is nowadays designed to match the show running at the theatre (although already in the nineteenth century the cakes were lavishly painted with scenes from the show), and apparently the punch is a concoction of wine, brandy and gin, produced by the Theatre Manager to a secret recipe handed down through the centuries.
The tradition has had its fair share of illustrious guests over the years, including the Prince Regent (future George IV) in the eighteenth century and in 1888, both playwright Oscar Wilde and poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
If you want to visit the grave of Robert Baddeley and say hello, he is buried not far from the theatre in the churchyard of St. Paul’s Covent Garden, also known as the Actors’ Church.
That’s it from me, I’m afraid!
Hey, don’t cheer. How “rude-olf” you.
“Yule” be sorry.
If you know any other Christmas traditions (from London or your own home town), I’d “deer-ly” love to hear them. Just pop it in the comments below, ‘snow problem.
Cramming all those puns into the last ten seconds. Hold on for “deer” life. It’s really hard to stop now. I’m “sleigh-ing” it. Okay. I’ll stop.
(Have an “un-fir-gettable”, “tree-mendous” Christmas!)
3 thoughts on “A Very London Christmas, Part 2”
Thank you for reminding us about London Christmas traditions before they are forgotten.
Cheers to you with a glass of Mulled Wine.
Thank you! Cheers 🍷