London – Christmas is all around

One of the things I had dreamt about seeing before I started flying over a decade ago is the Christmas window displays of notable stores. I am happy to say that I have perused the streets of the world during the holidays and window shopped at Macy’s on 34th street in NYC and meandered down all the major Canadian cities as they were adorned with Christmas decorations. My favourite by far is walking around London at Christmas. Compared to North American cities I don’t find the residential areas terribly decorated but the high streets and world-famous Oxford street look as though Clark Griswold  had a hand in hanging up the millions of lights and adornments that made the cobblestones sparkle.  Going to look at the window displays in London is not for the faint at heart though. There is more hustle and bustle on the commercial streets than anywhere I have ever seen. If you are not a fan of crowds pass this one up and get a brave friend to take pictures for you while you enjoy a pint in a nearby pub.

I started my trip with a stop at the South bank of the Thames River to meander the stalls at the German Market. I have never been able to be in Germany when the markets are open in December so I did the next best thing I visited one in England, the Germanic heritage has to count for something. I exited the tube at Waterloo and walked towards the National Theatre and the southern bank of the Thames.  I was lucky enough to catch the Chocolate Festival in full swing at Southbank centre. The smell of chocolate was cloying and samples of fine cocoa treats were offered at many a stall. I would love to say I did not sample any due to my fantastic willpower but alas it was the throngs of patrons that kept me from indulging my sweet tooth. The crowds were so large that one needn’t actually walk, you were just carried by the mass of people pressed to the person in front of you. It was akin to floating through a chocolate induced dream. It did not take me long to want to find a way out of the thick stream of chocolate sated people.
I found the German market easily. I followed the smell of Gluwine and bratwurst to the river. Actually it was the wooden stalls that gave away the location.  They were pretty hard to miss. The wares ranged from ornaments and scarves to games and food stalls selling the traditional and newer age grub.  Nothing says Germany like churros and ostrich meat. There were of course the standards of pork and the mulled wine Christmas markets are famous for. For the kids there was a fabulous looking Carousel and people powered snow globes. Parents plopped the kids on stationary bikes, let them burn off some energy entertaining passersby with the flurry of snow their pedaling feet kicked up. There was even one of the jolliest looking Santa Claus’ or Father Christmas’ as everyone was calling him, it is England after all. The amusing part was how there were more women over twenty waiting to take their picture with the portly older man than there were kids.

I walked the length of the market along the Queens Jubilee walk, learned all about how a group of skateboarders were rallying to save one of their favourite hangouts, came upon a used book market. After a while I noticed there were an awful lot of young men dressed as Santa forming rag-tag gangs, perhaps they heard how well the old chap does with the ladies and decided to try their luck. I crossed the river by the millennium bridge which gave me a lovely view of the Tate Gallery as I looked back at the Southbank I had wandered along.  The bridge led me straight to St Paul’s Cathedral and the massive Christmas tree set up out front of it.

I made a quick stop in North London to pick up a few last minute Christmas gifts and saw another fabulous and semi quaint Christmas display was that in Hampstead. Heath Street and the lanes were done up with lights and gave a very village-like feel to that neighbourhood. Again I noticed that few of the houses had exterior trimmings and trapping of Christmas like one sees in North America.  I don’t know if I just wasn’t going to the right areas to see the North American decorations flirting with gaudiness that to me means Christmas is near.  The more lights the merrier is a tradition I love to see in the days leading up to the holiday.


My next venture was to see the Christmas window displays at some of the shops.  I hopped on the tube and hit Harrods first. The Knightsbridge station was my next stop to see the windows at Harrods.  I remembered instantly upon disembarking from the train  why I NEVER go to Harrods. The store is lovely and iconic and should be visited by all tourists at least once. It is like Selfridges though, on my salary I can hardly afford anything more than a Christmas ornament, box of chocolates or pouch of tea. I loathe the crowds the status of a tourist attraction brings. I usually prefer to travel a little off the beaten tourist path as I have seen many of the top sites more than once.  I was disappointed inside the store when I found the memorial to Diana, princess of Wales and Dodi Al-Fayad had been replaced with expensive purses for sale.  The owner at one time had been Dodi’s father and he mourned the loss of his son and his son’s girlfriend along with the nation and world.  I have heard though that a second memorial in the shape of a bronze statue exists near the escalator by door three of the building.

Harrods’ displays outside had been all done up in a train theme this year.  Each window acting as a train car from the roaring twenties, a by-product of the Downton Effect, I suppose. The windows were fabulous and the best I had seen this year. The hard part was actually getting to see them as droves of tourists mobbed up and down the street pushing everyone along at a quick pace. Inside the store was even worse as was the tube station. On my way to my next stop I took the train in the opposite direction the crowd was going and I was supposed to go as well, just to avoid the chaos. The wait to get on the train was a good three to four trains and if one wasn’t aggressive they were never going to make it on. In the end it was very fast taking the tube to a different spot to transfer not only did I get a seat to rest my tired feet I believe I got to my next destination faster than I would have had I waited. It pays to know the tube lines well and be flexible in one’s travel plans.  The next stop wasn’t any better for the crowds.

The walls of people roaming Oxford, Regent and other streets to find that special something in their Christmas list are intimidating. My favourite time of day is late night to view the lights strung across the roads after the stores have just closed. The shoppers start to thin out and walking along to street is bearable. The windows at Selfridges are always lovely to see. I love to see what new designs and ideas thy have come up with this year. I meandered the street with another Flight attendant all the way from Selfridges on Oxford down to Regent street to view the windows at Hamley’s toy store.  We met up at a pre arraigned time and place so we could shop and conquer the festive sites on Oxford together.   As usual the windows were cute and are what children dream of before Christmas morning. The hottest toys on display for kids young and old to covet.  I understand that trudging along with the crowds is part if the experience for most tourists but for me if I have to go to Oxford Street I get off the main street and on to the side streets of Mayfair as quick as possible to expedite my travel time.

The other flight attendant and I stopped quickly at Duke of Marlborough pub one block off Oxford, towards the Mayfair area near Selfridges and Marks and Spencer. Some of my friends swear by their lasagna and treacle tart. I prefer the cod and chips with peas. We sat downstairs and watched as many of the pub goers came in dressed up as Santa, Mrs Claus (not the older type but the one who was out to catch Santa’s eye) and reindeer. We stopped one of the bar patrons and asked why there were so many people dressed in festive costumes. It turned out that it was a city-wide Santa Con (convention) pub Crawl. Calgary holds a bad Santa pub crawl, New York has a Santa con too. Thousands of people, mostly younger dress up as Santa or one of his cohorts and go from pub to pub imbibing in holiday cheer and a pint or two.

My favourite part of the trip to the pub was when I had to use the facilities. I know this sounds odd but it was something out of a Monty Python skit.  There wasn’t any paper in any of the women’s toilet stalls and two of the locks were broken leading to a more up close and personal view of some of the other party revellers. Once the bar staff was notified of the lack of tissue they dropped a roll on the sink straight in a puddle of water and darted out of the massively queued restrooms. I think to fully understand how humorous the situation was you probably had to be there but if you can only imagine a half corked woman screeching like a banshee for some toilet paper but refusing to open the door to be handed it by those in the queue.

I did not make it to the winter wonderland in Hyde park as it was closed due to high winds nor did I make any carolling concerts or church performances. Sometimes you just have to leave something to do next time.