This time of year, London comes into its own. There is arguably nothing finer than soaking up the festive atmosphere, indulging in some retail therapy and enjoying the nostalgia of Christmas in the capital. London has a strong tradition of ‘doing’ Christmas well. From its light installations, markets, world famous shopping districts, theatrical spectaculars and even the weather…it would take a hardened Scrooge to leave London and not feel even the tiniest bit Christmassy.
Enjoy this week’s long read, all about the wonderful history of Christmas in our festive city. Download the full article below to read on the go, or scroll down to read online.
This Christmas, for a second year in a row, we are all unlikely to be enjoying the capital the way we want to. Therefore, what better time to reminisce, remember the great Christmases of old and ignite excitement and anticipation for the festive seasons to come. This is but one year, there are many more ahead. Time is something that London also does well and with hundreds of years of history under its belt, it knows a thing or two about Christmas. Join me for a few minutes as we explore some of the seasonal stories of the city we love.
Ice-skating is all the rage in London these days, with temporary rinks popping up at museums, squares and tourist attractions across the city. Somerset House opened its outdoor courtyard space to the public in 2000 and has since become known as a major London destination for outdoor film screenings in the summer and the glamorous SKATE ice rink in winter. Located in the Northbank, Somerset House sits just adjacent to the River Thames, which is rather fitting when you learn about the Frost Fairs that were once held in the area.
River Thames Frost Fairs were held during several winters, starting as early as the late 7th century until the early 19th century. Most were held between the early 17th and early 19th centuries during the period known as the Little Ice Age, long before the term Climate Change had been invented, when the river froze over more frequently.
The Thames froze at least 24 times between 1400 and 1835, and in some years frost fairs were held on the river itself. Market stalls, food vendors and entertainments all crowded onto the ice, and the whole of London society came to view the spectacle. During one frost fair – reportedly the last one held in 1814 – incredibly an elephant was led across the river below Blackfriars.
The English writer John Evelyn’s account of the 1683-84 frost fair recalled: “Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs too [sic] and fro, as in the streets; sleds, sliding with skeets, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tipling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water.”
It’s not entirely clear why the Frost Fairs did not occur after 1814, but perhaps it could be down to the other festive traditions that were growing in popularity during that period.
Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel A Christmas Carol was highly influential and has been credited both with reviving interest in Christmas in England and with shaping the themes attached to it. In the story, London is as much a character as it is the setting for the tale, helping to bring the story to life and adding a rich, visceral element to the famous narrative.
Although its high production cost and low selling price did not bring in a lot of profits, the book was an immediate success — and it made a permanent mark on how Christmas is viewed and celebrated in modern times. The vocabulary has crept into today’s conversations, with a “Scrooge” being someone who refuses to get in the Christmas spirit. Most importantly, every time this piece of literature is read or displayed on the silver screen, it reminds us of a vision of Christmas that has little to do with displays of wealth, and instead focuses on loved ones and the joy of an act of charity. Instead of a being a communal feast or party, after the publication of A Christmas Carol, seasonal celebrations became smaller, more intimate, and focused on families and children.
When Charles Dickens passed away in 1870, a young girl in London asked a question that demonstrated just how strongly Dickens’ writings were associated with the festive season and modern Christmas traditions. She asked, “Mr. Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die, too?” Now we all know that Christmas did of course survive the passing of Mr Dickens, and in fact it has only grown in popularity since. For example, from the 1870s onwards, Christmas shopping began to evolve as a separate seasonal activity, and by the late 19th century it had become an important part of the English Christmas.
The purchasing of toys, especially from the new department stores, became strongly associated with the season. The first retail Christmas Grotto in a UK department store was set up in JR Robert’s store in Stratford in London in December 1888, and later their Christmas fairs were known for animated soldiers, sailors and other toy figures. During the early part of the 20th century, the postcard artist Hermann Fleury Jnr fitted out the shop’s Christmas display for a fee of £200. Long forgotten now, after JR Robert’s was bought by House of Fraser in 1975, but it seems that this early department store in east London paved the way for the famous displays we now see in Selfridges, Harrods and Liberty each year.
The Victorians can be credited with cementing many of the traditions we still hold dear today.
In 1848 the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family celebrating around a decorated Christmas tree, a tradition that was reminiscent of Prince Albert’s childhood in Germany. Soon every home in Britain had a tree bedecked with candles, sweets, fruit, homemade decorations and small gifts.
The custom of sending Christmas cards, as we know them today, was started in London in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole. He was a senior civil servant (Government worker) who had helped set-up the new ‘Public Record Office’ (now the Post Office), where he was an Assistant Keeper, and wondered how it could be used more by ordinary people.
Sir Henry had the idea of Christmas Cards with his friend John Horsley, who was an artist. Their first card had three panels. The outer two panels showed people caring for the poor and in the centre was a family having a large Christmas dinner, including children drinking wine! The original cards were advertised with the slogan: “Just published, a Christmas Congratulations Card; or picture emblematical of old English festivity to perpetuate kind recollections between dear friends”
Cole’s Christmas card was sold at a shilling a piece, which was expensive at the time, and the venture was judged a commercial flop. But the 1840s was a period of change, and the commercialisation of Christmas was on its way, prompted by developments in the publishing industry. More affordable Christmas gift-books and keepsakes were aimed at the growing middle classes.
A good example of such innovations is that seasonal staple, the Christmas Cracker, which was invented by the confectioner Tom Smith in London in 1847. He created the crackers as a development of his bon-bon sweets, which he sold in a twist of paper (the origins of the traditional sweet-wrapper). As sales of bon-bons slumped, Smith began to come up with new promotional ideas. His first tactic was to insert love messages into the wrappers of the sweets.
Smith added the “cracker” element inspired by the crackle of a log on the fire. The size of the paper wrapper had to be increased to incorporate the banger mechanism, and the sweet itself was eventually dropped, to be replaced by a trinket. The new product was initially marketed as the Cosaque but “cracker” soon became the commonly used name, as rival varieties came on the market.
The other elements of the modern cracker—the gifts, paper hats and varied designs—were all introduced by Tom Smith’s son, Walter Smith, to differentiate his product from the rival cracker manufacturers which had suddenly sprung up. A memorial water fountain to Tom Smith and his family stands in Finsbury Square.
While the Victorian’s established many of the world’s most recognisable Christmas traditions, more recent history in London is equally as fascinating.
In December 1940 London was in the middle of the Blitz, as a series of devastating air raids from German forces destroyed huge sections of the capital and other UK cities such as Birmingham and Bristol and claimed tens of thousands of lives.
But although the country was under heavy fire, people across London did their best to carry on regardless as far as Christmas was concerned — in a wartime festive season that came to be known as “Blitzmas.” Time magazine reported that despite the bombs, “life in the big London air-raid shelters, where over 1,000,000 people regularly spend the night, had become so standardised that many shelter Christmas parties were elaborate communal affairs with mass harmony singing, skits and dancing.”
Many things were different at Christmas that year and the royal family reflected this with an alternative approach to one of their annual traditions. Rather than using a typically formal family photo for their annual Christmas card, the royal family stood in front of a bombed-out section of Buckingham Palace.
Ever resourceful, a Times article that year reported that a new sweet was making the round in households during the Christmas season. Plum pudding, a long held traditional dish was replaced by Blitzmas pudding, “the same as the traditional Christmas pudding except that carrots were much used where the receipt called for certain fruit.”
The end of the war eventually heralded in a new era for the festive season in London. Arguably nothing illustrates the positivity and hopefulness of the post war period better than seasonal lights.
The tradition began in 1954, on Regent Street, when local retailers and businesses arranged for a display. The aim was to show that post-war London did not have to look drab around Christmas. In the 1950s and 1960s, the installations spread to other streets, with the Oxford Street Christmas display premiering in 1959. Quickly, the lights grew to be a key part of London’s festive calendar.
Today, light displays enliven many of the streets in central London, including on Strand, High Holborn and Hatton Garden, and continuing the trend set by those businesses around Regent Street in the 50s, most displays are funded by local business communities through the various Business Improvement Districts across central London.
From lights to trees…many will be familiar with the large Christmas tree that has been erected in Trafalgar Square every year since 1947, but are you as familiar with its back story? It’s Norwegian, an annual gift from the city of Oslo in recognition of the help that Britain gave to Norway during the second world war. Norway was occupied by the Germans in 1940, forcing King Haakon VII to flee to London where he set up a government-in-exile. His speeches were regularly broadcast to Norway by the BBC World Service, while British forces incorporated Free Norwegian units and trained Norwegian commandos to attack key Nazi installations within occupied Norway. Some have asked this year whether we Brits may have done something to annoy the Norwegian people, with criticism that the tree looks somewhat threadbare, but the Trafalgar Square tree remains a popular addition to the London Christmas landscape. This year, yet again, it’s been rated the UK’s most popular tree followed by the ZSL tree in St Pancras International.
If decorations are not your thing and indulging in festive food and drink is more your style, you may be interested to learn about the great Smithfield Market Christmas Eve meat auction. The origins of the tradition, which started at least 30 years ago, stems from the fact that most of the market butchers take at least a week off over Christmas, generally not returning to their stalls until the new year. As a result, they would auction off their remaining stock on Christmas Eve to those keen enough to brave the cold and come out.
Throngs tussle for the chance to pick up a quality cut of meat at a bargain price, or even for free if you win the coin toss! This is also an opportunity to see how genuinely trustworthy people can be, for if you’ve made the winning bid and you’re standing at the back of the crowd, you pass your money to the front. Unfortunately, this is one London tradition that you will have to wait until 2022 to enjoy – this year’s has been cancelled due to you know what.
Like many of London’s festive treats and traditions however, it’s undoubtedly an experience that will be worth the wait. In the meantime, we’ll be reminiscing about Christmases past, enjoying the twinkling lights, and looking ahead to future festive fun in the UK’s favourite Christmas city.