The English do Christmas in a way that can only have a member of the former colonies gawping in awe. It’s not only that it starts some time in August and slowly builds up a head of steam until it all but mows you down with its cargo of baubles and tinsel and carols and turkey with all the trimmings, all marinating in mulled wine and eggnog. It’s more than that. It takes over the British Isles as surely as if it had been conquered by a white-bearded Laplandish dictator in a red and white suit with an army of wild-eyed elves.
Spending Christmas in England is like landing inside one of those mawkish Christmas cards with Robin Redbreasts and boughs laden with snow and little houses with laurel wreaths on the front door and warm orange light pouring out of all the windows.
We may think we decorate our homes and shops and streets up for Christmas, but we are Grade 1s compared with the master’s degrees the Brits have in doing Christmas. It pervades everything, and there is no apology for it either, none of that politically correct ‘festive season’ or ‘come round for festive drinks’ for the Brits. It’s Christmas, it’s called Christmas, it’s coloured in red, green, silver and gold, and it sucks you in.
They even still send one another cards. The only Christmas cards I have received so far this year inSouth Africahave been online ones e-mailed by marketing types. In theUK, everyone sends Christmas cards to everyone they know, even if they only met you last week. If you work somewhere inEngland, in the fortnight leading up to the big day you’ll find piles of Christmas cards on your desk every day, from random colleagues.
Every city, town and village is strewn with Christmas lights in varying degrees of imagination, style and tat, although this year the lights switch-ons have been rather later than usual to save energy in these green, recessionary times. And there was the sadly embarrassing occasion in one county town last Christmas when the Scrooges at the local town council decided not to switch on the lights at all, which resulted in Sky News asking, ‘Is this the meanest town in England?’ But the lights are back on, if somewhat dimly.
And all those cheesy seasonal traditions are real in England. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire might be just a line from the old Nat King Cole song to you or me, but in every village centre in the UK you’ll find a man with a barrow with hot coals on it and, yes, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, with mulled wine and mince pies on the side. They’re odd things, vaguely nutty. Not quite delicious, a tad chewy, but, well, it’s Christmas, the lights are on, the man is smiling at you, it’s freezing out there, and you find yourself giving him a pound in return for a little brown bag full of nutty English warmth.
Every town and village also has its regular farmers’ markets, and they are generally so much better than ours. Farmers appear in person, with their hand-raised pork, beef or lamb, their game birds and homemade sausages, their cheeses and local specialities, and at Christmas they pull out all the stops. And at this time of year, in towns throughout the south, the annual French markets come over the channel for the day, with stalls piled high with patés, olives, cheeses and wines, even tagines and soaps. You can do all your Christmas shopping, from food to gifts, at the French market.
And then there’s the telly. Comedians are everywhere and Christmas specials abound – last year the Ab Fab girls, Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley, were among those reprising old formulae while they still can – and then there’s ‘The Christmas Number One’. This isn’t a show so much as a coveted tradition, as deeply rooted as Santa Clauses in stores and mistletoe in the hallway. Pop stars bring out their poppiest, catchiest song just weeks before Christmas, hoping to be at the top of the charts just as Father Christmas powers up his sleigh. Cliff Richard is almost always in there, with Will Young in hot pursuit, as is whoever wins The X-Factor, that other British tradition which is so much better than its forerunner, Pop Idol. Take That, Westlife and whatever act either Simon Cowell or Louis Walsh is currently promoting are sure to be in there with a chance too. And all of them are all over the place, on every chat show or breakfast show, in the run-up to the day.
Christmas in England is also about shopping, these days not so much to spend as much as you can but to take advantage of the retail slump caused by tighter pockets, which has seen high street prices tumbling. The annual “January sales” - a superb tradition where prices of a shop’s entire stock are slashed by up to 75 percent – are now preceded by equally thrilling sales before Christmas.
With this in mind, from our base in West Sussex’s county town, Chichester, we did some early Christmas shopping in the town’s high streets. Like other county towns built around an ancient church, Chichester Cathedral boasts an annual Christmas carols service, over several nights, which puts others to shame. Voices of virginal clarity soar into the vaulted buttresses way on high as choirboys sing medieval madrigals as you sit rapt, transported to another age.
We took a train to Brighton, which locals think of as London by the sea, as it has all the character, charm and excitement of the capital but in a smaller, slightly slower way, and also boasts wonderful shopping, from swish, high-end stores in mammoth malls to eccentric little shops in ‘the lanes’, a criss-crossing labyrinth of old narrow shopping ways only minutes from the seafront and the famous pier with its gaudy entertainments.
But for at least one day of a holiday at this time of year in Britain, you need to be in London, where it feels as if the locals invented Christmas, it’s that tangible. London is ablaze. Lights twinkle and sparkle all along Oxford Street, down Regent Street and past Liberty, that marvellous department store, to Piccadilly Circus, and all over the city in pockets of exhilarating life from Notting Hill and Camden to Soho’s Carnaby Street, where the Carnabytian Army beloved of Ray Davies’ Kinks in the Sixties still marches on, this year beneath whimsical garlands of giant holly.
But it was late one night on Chichester’s South Street, two years ago, that Christmas stepped out of a cheesy Christmas card and into reality for my daughter, when, closing up the Slug and Lettuce pub, something flashing shiny and white through the window caught her eye. It was snowing, and the waiters from Café Rouge, across the road, had come out to throw snowballs at their window. She and her colleagues ran out and a glorious snowball fight erupted in exhilarating giggles and a joy that’s hard to imagine in climes more conducive to braais and beaches. Which is nice, but it’s not really, really Christmas, is it?