My husband and I are having a quiet Christmas Day this year, opening presents, eating a good brunch and a good dinner, and zoning out in front of the Christmas tree. Oh, and lighting red and green candles and saying a b’rucha for the fifth night of Chanukah in our ecumenical household. So I’d like to take you back three years to our Christmas in London in 2005.
Several years ago, my stepdaughter married a Brit whom she met on the Internet, after a prolonged transatlantic courtship. (You can listen to my song about it, Online Loving, to get an idea of how that went.) They currently live in Bromley, a suburban town in Kent within commuting distance of what I want to call the Big Teapot. So off we went to London for the holidays, neither of us having visited England for thirty years or so and both with our minds crammed full of English history and English literature.
If we were looking for a Dickensian Christmas, we were a century too late. The Brits don’t eat roast goose anymore: the centerpiece of Christmas dinner is a turkey. Nobody came caroling to the door of our Bayswater hotel (on a little square off Queensway, down the block from the Whiteley’s shopping mall that figured in Elizabeth George’s What Came Before He Killed Her, to my retroactive amused horror when I read it later). And our attempts to “do London” were hampered by the fact that the whole city shuts down on Christmas, not for one day but for three: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day. Forget museums and theaters, and on Christmas Day itself, the Underground doesn’t run at all.
Thanks to the Internet, we were forewarned, so we did our museum and theater going before and after the holiday and had all our plans in place long before Christmas Eve. We even attended a pantomime, the traditional holiday entertainment we’d read about all our lives, which is so weird that the fact that kids are brought up on it goes a long way toward explaining the fabled British eccentricity. I don’t think my husband has recovered yet from the spectacle of Ian McKellen, his beloved Gandalf, camping it up in a dress as Aladdin’s mother, the Widow Twankey.
But on to the holiday itself.
On Christmas Eve, we went out to visit the kids in Bromley, starting early so we could catch a train back to London before the railroad shut down. There was a festive outdoor mall with lots to buy and trees festooned with strings of what the Brits call fairy lights, all blue in this case and making a fine display against a spectacular sunset. We ate dinner in a Mediterranean restaurant and got to pull our first Christmas crackers. Another revelation: everybody in the UK actually wears his or her gold paper crown. In public.
On Christmas Day, we had our holiday dinner at a restaurant in Drury Lane with what in Yiddish we call the whole mishpocheh: the extended family, consisting, besides us and the kids, of my stepson-in-law’s parents, most of his many brothers with their wives and partners and a child or two, and my stepdaughter’s other parents, ie my husband’s ex and her current hubby. One of the brothers picked us up by car, solving the day’s transportation problem.
The kids had picked another Mediterranean restaurant, this one looking even more like a Turkish bordello with dark red velvet draped everywhere, a lot of glitter, and dim hanging lanterns. Probably because we were in the theater district, we were serenaded by a group of players in Restoration dress, including a King Charles II in full dark curly wig. Everybody got along fine. The only near contretemps was when my husband had to kick me under the table as I apologized to the Brits for current US policy. I hadn’t realized his ex’s hubby was quite so far from us on the political spectrum. It was Christmas, so I was good and changed the subject.
Boxing Day was best of all. I started the day, as I did most mornings there, with a three-mile run in Kensington Gardens while my husband slept in. We had a mid-afternoon reservation for tea at Claridge’s. Research on the Internet had suggested this magnificent old hotel was a better bet than the Ritz, where the teas have become so popular that customers are overcrowded and rushed through. We were treated like royalty at Claridge’s and had a leisurely, sumptuous tea with finger sandwiches, scones, and pastries. My favorite moment was when our server shook his head over my choice of tea on an extensive menu. I was dying to try Silver Needles, a white tea that until recently only the emperor got to drink. The leaves are picked only two days of the year by virgins with golden scissors (my memory may exaggerate, but not by much). “Unfortunately, madam,” he said, “that particular tea goes best with a fine cigar.” I chose another tea.
We then strolled down Regent Street, another fairyland of blue lights, where all the shops were open to bargain-seeking Londoners and those returning their Christmas presents. We went into Hamley’s, a toystore I’d read about in novels, and bought a Paddington Bear. (Well, two, but one was a very small one.) We ended up in Trafalgar Square, where we had tickets for the perfect concert: Boxing Day Baroque at St. Martin’s in the Fields.(Yes, there were taxis: we got back to Bayswater with no difficulty.) The kids still live in Bromley, and if the dollar ever goes up again, I’d be glad to spend another Christmas the exact same way.