Cel­e­brat­ing a Happy Christ­mas in Eng­land

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - TRAVEL - Rick Steves

For scenes straight out of a box of old-fash­ioned Christ­mas cards, head to Eng­land. Many clas­sic Christ­mas trap­pings, from carol­ing to mince pie and was­sail, have been part of English tra­di­tion for cen­turies.

Other hol­i­day cus­toms have their roots in the 19th cen­tury. Queen Vic­to­ria’s Ger­man hus­band, Prince Al­bert, pop­u­lar­ized the dec­o­rat­ing of Christ­mas trees and the send­ing of Christ­mas cards. Around the same time Charles Dick­ens wrote “A Christ­mas Carol” — cel­e­brat­ing the power of the Christ­mas spirit that still echoes across Eng­land today.

Lon­don and Bath are es­pe­cially ap­peal­ing in De­cem­ber. Build­ings and shops are dressed in their hol­i­day best, elab­o­rate light dis­plays il­lu­mi­nate store win­dows on ma­jor shop­ping streets and skaters glide on out­door ice rinks. Mar­kets and stores fill with gourmet treats, and de­part­ment stores are fun to browse even when you’re done shop­ping. Bath also hosts an an­nual Christ­mas mar­ket in its old town; Lon­don has mar­ket stalls on Le­ices­ter Square, in Green­wich and more — plus a gi­ant twin­kling tree on Trafal­gar Square.

Don’t ex­pect to see Santa Claus. Bri­tish chil­dren visit Fa­ther Christ­mas, who’s usu­ally found in a grotto. In Lon­don, the posh­est Fa­ther Christ­mas is at Har­rods de­part­ment store (sit­ting on his knee is by in­vi­ta­tion only). But tiny tots can see him all over town, such as at the Mu­seum of Lon­don, Green­wich Mar­ket and Le­ices­ter Square. Fa­ther Christ­mas has also been known to visit the Hyde Park Win­ter Won­der­land, which of­fers kitschy car­ni­val fun with a Fer­ris wheel, carousel and other rides, as well as an ice rink.

Along with win­try sights, the joy of the sea­son is ex­pressed in song. From street-cor­ner buskers to sub­lime cho­ral groups, the English sing their hearts out. Concerts are held ev­ery­where from grand cathe­drals and con­cert halls to vil­lage churches and city squares. In me­dieval times, car­ols were not just songs but also folk dances, per­formed by wan­der­ing mu­si­cians ac­com­pa­nied by singers. Con­sid­ered a pa­gan holdover, carol singers were banned from church, so in­stead they’d go door to door vis­it­ing the homes of the big shots, per­form­ing in hopes of get­ting a coin, meal, drink or Christ­mas treat.

Of course, a high point of Christ­mas­time is the feast­ing. By the 16th cen­tury, mince or shred pies (a ref­er­ence to the shred­ded meat that was mixed with chopped egg and gin­ger) had be­come a Christ­mas spe­cialty. Over time the recipe was fan­cied up with dried fruit and other sweets, and by the 17th cen­tury, the fill­ing closely re­sem­bled today’s mix of suet, spices and dried fruit steeped in brandy. Su­per­sti­tion dic­tates that bak­ers stir the fill­ing clock­wise, the di­rec­tion in which the sun would have cir­cled an earth once thought to be at the cen­ter of the uni­verse. To stir the other way could spell big trou­ble in the com­ing year.

Plum pud­ding is another tra­di­tional dessert. In Vic­to­rian times on “Stir-up Sun­day” at the be­gin­ning of Ad­vent, each fam­ily mem­ber took a turn at mix­ing the pud­ding and mak­ing a wish. Then a few tiny trin­kets or sil­ver coins were tossed in the bat­ter. (Th­ese days, most peo­ple just pop an ev­ery­day to­ken in their “puds,” but you can still buy the old-school charms: a sil­ver coin prom­ises wealth in the com­ing year, a thim­ble en­sures thrift, an an­chor as­sures safety and a tiny wish­bone brings good luck.) For the next few weeks, the pud­ding hung from a sack. On Christ­mas Day it was boiled un­til it was fully “plum” (swollen). Just be­fore serv­ing, it was doused with brandy, topped with a sprig of mistle­toe, lit on fire and car­ried to the ta­ble with great fan­fare.

In cold De­cem­ber, hot spiced wine warms the soul. The process of mulling wine with spices can be traced back to Ro­man times, when winemaking in­cluded the ad­di­tion of salt, myr­tle, ju­niper, honey, rose petals and cit­rus rinds. It’s thought that honey and spices were added to a sim­mer­ing pot of wine in the Mid­dle Ages to mask its bit­ter tan­nins. If you were an olde English­man drink­ing was­sail, you would say to your com­pan­ions, “Waes hail!” mean­ing, “May you be healthy!” The proper re­sponse? “Drink hail!” or “Drink good health!”

Another highlight of the fes­tiv­i­ties is the Christ­mas cracker — in­vented right in Lon­don. Just as in Vic­to­rian times, kids break open th­ese col­or­ful pa­per tubes, and crack! A pa­per crown, a corny joke and a teeny gift spill out with the pop. For a qui­eter mo­ment on Christ­mas Day, many fam­i­lies gather around the telly to watch the Queen’s an­nual Christ­mas mes­sage.

While there are plenty of spe­cial hol­i­day hap­pen­ings through­out Eng­land, there are also many clo­sures — in­clud­ing tran­sit — from Dec. 24-26. Plan ahead, and give your­self time for quiet re­flec­tion. Happy Christ­mas!

Rick Steves (www.rick steves.com) writes Euro­pean travel guide­books and hosts travel shows on pub­lic tele­vi­sion and pub­lic ra­dio. Email him at [email protected] steves.com and fol­low his blog on Face­book.


In Lon­don, the court­yard at Som­er­set House trans­forms into an ice-skat­ing rink from mid-Novem­ber to Jan­uary.


Shop­ping in an ele­gant de­part­ment store, like Lon­don’s posh Fort­num & Ma­son, is a fun hol­i­day ac­tiv­ity.

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