Last Updated on November 29, 2023
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
by Donna Manz
Dusk comes early to London in December, and by 4:30pm it’s night … all the better to see the city basking in the glow of holiday lights.
I am, quite often, asked why it is I visit Europe in December, frequently a bone-chilling, damp month. “Because,” I say, “that is when Christmas is.”
My spirits are brightened by the joy and abandon that Europe’s Christmas season exhibits, from lighting displays to unique activities. London revels in Christmas lighting, stretching lights across streets, cascading them down building sides, or blanketing Winter Wonderland with lights.
What can you do in London at Christmastime that you can’t do during the other months? You can ice skate at one of the city’s distinctive ice rinks, including the largest ice rink in the United Kingdom. You can sip mulled wine at an outdoor ski lodge at an upscale hotel. You can ooh-and-aah over a majestic Christmas tree taking over a pedestrian square.
Our first afternoon in London, we walked across the street from our hotel right into a winter wonderland — literally. For 30 minutes we watched families and teens skating at Winter Wonderland, a German-style marketplace and holiday-themed carnival in Hyde Park. On the ice, parents held on to their little ones, and it was sweet watching people enjoy the simple pleasures in life. The festive grounds held dozens of stalls selling German ornaments and German food and mulled wine, and included North Pole- themed amusement rides for children.
It was mid-week and the strolling was easy. We bought some glühwein and bratwurst, drinking and nibbling as we walked around. When my face began to freeze, we walked back to the hotel.
One late afternoon, we wandered over to the Montague on the Gardens for a diversion at the hotel’s re-created “ski lodge” set on the patio. Skis rested against posts, heat lamps kept the outdoors warm and a steaming pot of mulled wine filled the air with spicy aroma. “Snow” gently fell. Bar staff wore red and white reindeer sweaters. This was one of the most relaxing stops we made.
We wandered a lot around London, peeking into little lanes and courtyards such as Heddon Street, which ended at a pedestrian food square. It was our wandering from the Montague on the Gardens that led us to the Covent Garden Square.
In that square is a colorful shimmering Christmas tree, the “kissing” tree. It’s called the “kissing” Christmas tree because the lights are activated when a couple kisses under the mistletoe. We saw a few young couples testing the concept.
Foodaholics will love the food courts of the city’s most prominent department stores. Harrod’s astounds with displays of high-end provisions priced accordingly. Selfridge’s and Fortnum & Mason, neither as opulent as Harrod’s but still foodie meccas, and Marks & Spencer, moderately-priced, round out the food halls in London. From fresh meats and seafood to sweets and savories, these stores appeal to anyone who loves Europe’s traditional foodstuffs. Even the descriptions were lyrical — cheese made with the cream from the morning’s thick first milking, and the thinner milk of the evening’s last.
At Marks & Spencer, I loaded up on chutneys, sauces, mini-mince pies, Christmas pudding and potato “crisps.” I even made a fourth return trip there to pick up the Christmas chutney that sells out as soon as it is placed on the shelves.
Can you imagine Nordstrom’s or Bloomingdale’s with a fresh food hall? Europe can teach us much.
A London Christmas tradition is the lighted tree at Trafalgar Square. Every year since the end of the second World War, the people of Norway have sent a towering Christmas tree to the people of England as a gesture of gratitude. When you visit the square, think of the tree not only as a symbol of the holiday but of something much greater.
Keeping with the spirit of the season, I leave you with “merry Christmas, happy Chanukah, and happy new year.”
If you go:
- Dress for very cold weather. Bring hat, gloves, heavy winter coat (the longer the better), scarf, thermal layers and boots. The only part of me that froze up was my face.
- Covent Garden’s Christmas kissing tree stands until January 5. The nearest underground station is at Covent Garden but we walked the scenic route from Leicester Square, taking in the lights and bustle.
- Don’t rely on the “tube” maps for accuracy. Tube stations around London temporarily close for renovation. Check on station status before setting out.
- Besides Winter Wonderland’s ice rink in Hyde Park, there are also public ice rinks at the British Museum of Natural History and at the Tower of London whose filled moat is frozen solid.
- The Salisbury Pub, at St. Martin’s Court, makes a fruity mulled wine for just 2.50 BP.
- The Hilton Park Lane is within walking distance to most of London’s iconic tourist attractions and the customer service there is warm and welcoming. I’ve stayed there many times.
- Although it’s not Christmassy, Churchill War Rooms museum is a “must’ any time of the year.