If you haven’t had a chance to visit London this Christmas, I’ve got a virtual tour of festive events that will have you planning to visit London next year in December! From the City of London to the West End, Londoners take Christmas very seriously.
A photo gallery of Christmas in London
The Christmas Makeover of Dennis Severs’ House
Dennis Severs was an American with way too much money and a love for period architecture. He restored a house in Spitalfields where the Huguenot silk weavers had settled in the 18th century after they had fled persecution for their faith from France. The house is now ‘still life drama’ with each floor showing how the fortunes of the house (and occupants) fared from the 19th century to the 20th century.
For Christmas the house is decorated like it would have been during the period portrayed included smells and noises. I really did feel like I had my own Ghost of Christmas past leading me through the house. Needless to say, the Victorian period did make you feel you were hanging out with Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol in all of their sad squalor.
The entrance to Dennis Severs’ House lit with gas lamps.
No photographs are allowed inside the house but the museum does have a YouTube video showing you what to expect.
The Most Festive Pub in Britain
The Churchill Arms in Notting Hill in London has been called the most festive pub in London. It’s got 90 Christmas trees strapped to its outside and is decorated with 21,000 lights. I would say having a pint (or two) inside counts as a festive event in London don’t you?
The Churchill Arms in Notting Hill is as festive as you can get.
The trees are all held up by netting. Let’s hope a strong wind doesn’t blow!
Harrods, the Christmas Experience
Harrods this year went with a very British fairy tale Christmas theme. The windows were decorated with mannequins of children and animals. I guess in times of world uncertainty it all goes back to children and animals (and very expensive accessories). I found it underwhelming – perhaps all in just too good taste. Let’s face it, no one goes to Harrods to experience good taste.
Geometric animals and expensive accessories in the Harrods’ windows.
One of the funniest things we saw in Harrods this year was a mother chasing her child who was wailing that she wanted her Elsa doll NOW. The 3 year old was too fast for the mother who was teetering around in heels. I’m sure the mother was thinking that quality time with her child was overrated.
The Santa Grotto at Harrods is in the massive toy department. The appointments open in August and it is usually full up by October. I remember taking my kids to the Santa Grotto each year and dreading having to go through the toy department. It definitely is a lesson in fortitude.
My daughter punching a very British festive fairy (inadvertently).
The Harrods Food Hall has great gifts if you need something easy to give someone you don’t know very well. It’s easily packaged and the Harrods name conveys that you care (enough to pay over the odds).
Harrods makes gift giving easy
The food hall decked out for the holidays to distract you from the prices of the products.
These prices are fine if you send your butler to shop for Christmas and you don’t see the bills.
Festive Window Shopping
Like in Paris, New York and other big cities, the big hotels and department stores do very creative festive displays.
The Mandarin Oriental Hotel decked out for the holidays.
The Harvey Nicks window displays were not as colorful as last year. They were more interesting though than Harrods. A certain Let Them Eat Cake attitude prevailed.
Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.
I have no idea why some of the stores in London and New York both insisted on having insects in their windows. I personally found it creepy even if the fashionistas declare that insects are a big thing for next season.
Because nothing says Christmas like giant creepy-crawlies.
Dolce and Gabbana went back to Sicilian roots with a decadent store front display.
I’ll take the bags, leave the cannoli.
The Lights, The Trees etc.
My favourite tree this year was in front of the art school, Central Saint Martins, in Granary Square in Kings Cross. The 17 foot Christmas tree with 1200 lights is frozen in resin created to look like a giant block of ice. The ice puddles into the fountains in which it is located in an effect created by 550 pounds of melted clear wax. It’s called “Fighting Fire with Ice Cream” by Alex Chinneck who is known for creating OTT public works of art.
It’s called Fighting Fire with Ice Cream because “Christmas Tree in Ice Block” would have been too bourgeois a name.
The Christmas tree in a block of ice: as cold as the spirit of the season captured in the heart of capitalist London (or something like that) Photo credit: Kings Cross.
For some more traditional Christmas festive events such as the ice rinks that dot the city and the lights at Oxford Circus, check out this video put together by the Visit London:
What do you think? Would you now consider coming to London in December? The days may be short and dark, but there is plenty of sparkle in the city nonetheless.
You may have dreams of stockings hung by the chimney with care and beaming Hallmark-card moments of family time, but the reality may be different. Travelling with kids is never easy. Add in the hoopla over gifts, visiting relatives and too much sweets, your trip just got a lot harder. There have been very few years where we spend Christmas at home. We usually travel to my parents or my parents-in-law because the rest of our respective families live close to them. Amidst all the excitement and disturbed schedules, I need to make sure my kids don’t behave like they were raised by wolves in front of the extended family. With all these points in mind, here is my survival guide for a stress free Christmas while visiting family.
Be Prepared For the Journey
For end of year travel with the kids, I am a big fan of the Boy Scout motto: Be prepared. The Christmas/New Year’s holidays are among the busiest times of the year on the roads and at the airports. I don’t know how parents survived holiday travel without [easyazon_link identifier=”B018KXK652″ locale=”US” tag=”jg20-20″]iPads[/easyazon_link] or other electronic entertainment.
If you are doing a road trip, I am a big fan of the [easyazon_link identifier=”B01KQLAU5M” locale=”US” tag=”jg20-20″]Native Union charging cable[/easyazon_link]. At four feet long, the cable easily reaches the back of the car without getting tangled. In addition, Native Union charging cable is reinforced with fibre so it doesn’t break like so often happens with Apple cables.
If you are flying, I highly recommend taking portable power. Sure, the flight may be only a few hours which means the kids electronics won’t run out of charge. But what if the flight is delayed?? Winter weather can be unpredictable. One Christmas, we were circling New York for 4 hours.
Luckily, I’ve had my Mophie Powerstations forever. I keep the 1x in my handbag because it is pretty lightweight and the kids know it is off limits. With its two outlets and eight charges, the [easyazon_link identifier=”B01BD8EYOA” locale=”US” tag=”jg20-20″]8x Mophie Powerstation[/easyazon_link] should last even the longest of flights and delays.
Whether you are in the car or on a plane, good quality headphones will save your sanity. Of course, there is the concern with little ears and headphones. I’ve found the [easyazon_link identifier=”B00OM3NV3E” locale=”US” tag=”jg20-20″]Puro Sound Labs headphones[/easyazon_link] the best for both volume limits and noise cancellation. We have had cheaper head phones in the past but they always broke. Speaking of damage, the Puro headphones come with a great hardshell case.
Keep all of your chargers and other gear in an [easyazon_link identifier=”B01C8D0LOG” locale=”US” tag=”jg20-20″]electronic travel organiser case[/easyazon_link]. It’s handy for packing up, too. When all the cousins get together and everyone has the same electronics, I know exactly what we brought because I know what pockets I had filled.
Tips for having a stress free Christmas when you visit family
Take Good Reading Material
Assuming you don’t want your children to stare at a screen for hours on end, physical books are always a good idea. I know some people allow their children to read on [easyazon_link identifier=”B00OQVZDJM” locale=”US” tag=”jg20-20″]Kindles[/easyazon_link] but I personally prefer the good old-fashioned heft of a paper book.
Escape the present by Losing yourself in a good book.
Besides, people will leave you alone if you are reading a book because it makes you look like you are busy doing something intelligent. They will ask someone else to run to the supermarket to get that one ingredient that’s missing. Bonus: you can get out of having tedious conversations on how your year has gone.
Here is a selection of books on our Christmas reading list this year (my husband I trade books all the time)
[easyazon_link identifier=”B01N2GCORE” locale=”US” tag=”jg20-20″]Spitalfields: Two Thousand Years of English History in One Neighbourhood[/easyazon_link]by Dan Cruikshank
[easyazon_link identifier=”0761169083″ locale=”US” tag=”jg20-20″]Atlas Obscura[/easyazon_link] by Joshua Foer
[easyazon_link identifier=”B01K5J6S4C” locale=”US” tag=”jg20-20″]The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold[/easyazon_link] by Tim Moore
My husband hides behind his computer for the same reason I retreat behind a book. Everyone assumes he is doing work because some office in some other time zone is open business. In reality, he is checking BBC Sport.
Self-medicating with a good holiday drink will keep you jolly and take the edge off when your misguided relatives insist on talking about Brexit or President-Elect Trump. If you have a teetotal family like mine, a [easyazon_link identifier=”B00E223VM6″ locale=”US” tag=”jg20-20″]good flask[/easyazon_link] comes in handy (or a water bottle filled with vodka for particularly dysfunctional moments). Check out the flask disguised in a book – who said multi-tasking and avoidance can’t be done?!
I definitely don’t advocate drinking and driving (unless you are just the passenger). If you are into cocktails, check out these [easyazon_link identifier=”B00WX8TEA4″ locale=”UK” tag=”jugopl-21″]carry on cocktail kit[/easyazon_link] for planes. Of course, bringing on a liquor-induced calm is much harder to do the younger your child is. You might want to set up a sober schedule with one of the relatives you like.
Personally I think in London, this great book called [easyazon_link identifier=”0993570216″ locale=”UK” tag=”jugopl-21″]London Pub Cats[/easyazon_link] would give me a good excuse to find cats in local pubs. I would need to check and see if the cats are as cute in person as they look in the book. And, it’s perfectly acceptable to take your children to a pub in the United Kingdom! We could make it a family expedition.
Play Board Games
You will need to interact with your family at some point. How about engaging in some friendly competition with board games? It limits conversation, includes the kids and passes the time. That’s a win/win/win. We play some old favourites like [easyazon_link identifier=”B00004TZY8″ locale=”UK” tag=”jugopl-21″]Uno[/easyazon_link], [easyazon_link identifier=”1932188126″ locale=”UK” tag=”jugopl-21″]Bananagrams[/easyazon_link], [easyazon_link identifier=”B0007XC1QG” locale=”UK” tag=”jugopl-21″]The London Game[/easyazon_link] and [easyazon_link identifier=”B00CPN0TUQ” locale=”UK” tag=”jugopl-21″]Logo Billionaire[/easyazon_link]. Recently, we have discovered the joys of [easyazon_link identifier=”B010TQY7A8″ locale=”UK” tag=”jugopl-21″]Exploding Kittens[/easyazon_link], [easyazon_link identifier=”B018SRUCXQ” locale=”UK” tag=”jugopl-21″]Obama Llama[/easyazon_link] and [easyazon_link identifier=”B0058NC0BG” locale=”UK” tag=”jugopl-21″]the 5 Second Rule[/easyazon_link]. By the way, if you want a game that everyone knows and loves but don’t have hours to play, check out [easyazon_link identifier=”B013FA2WPM” locale=”US” tag=”jg20-20″]Monopoly Empire[/easyazon_link] which is a version of the game for the ADD generation.
Mindfulness is the big trend these days. It seems to have surpassed deep breathing in helping you to remain calm. I’m sure you’ve heard of [easyazon_link identifier=”1910771163″ locale=”UK” tag=”jugopl-21″]adult colouring books[/easyazon_link] which help you attain this joyous state of mindfulness. I also color with my daughter. She takes one page and I take the other page. We have spent many happy hours colouring quietly together.
Colouring is now the big craze for coping with stress.
My fellow blogger, Suzanne Fluhr, is a zentangle expert who does the most amazing artwork. Zentangle is the art of creating intricate patterns on paper to help you meditate and relax. Her website has a list of books for the beginner who wants to learn to zentangle. I would love to be able to create such amazing patterns but am thinking the Christmas holidays is not the time to start.
A nice walk outside always does wonders for everyone’s spirits. Being cooped up inside a house with too many family members for too long is never a good idea. If nature isn’t your thing, hop in the car and go to your nearest city and check out the Christmas lights.
Get outside and do something! Fresh air will clear minds and do the body good.
If it’s cold, wrap up warm and take your sturdy boots. On the plus side of living in England, at the end of every hike there is always a village with a pub and a roaring fire!
Take silly photos and have your children take silly photos. Not only will you have a good time but you will make good memories. In years to come, you won’t remember the petty annoyances but instead will remember you had a good time. After all, you have photos that prove your memories right.
My daughter loves her [easyazon_link identifier=”B010FU61PW” locale=”UK” tag=”jugopl-21″]Fujifilm Instax Mini[/easyazon_link] which takes cute Instagram like photos that she can print out to put in her travel journal. She’s definitely part of the instant gratification generation so this camera works a treat.
I have discovered that I LOVE my [easyazon_link identifier=”B00SMPL3OC” locale=”UK” tag=”jugopl-21″]Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II[/easyazon_link] which has become my regular everyday camera. It’s lightweight and takes great photos. I use it with the [easyazon_link identifier=”B00SMPL2V6″ locale=”UK” tag=”jugopl-21″]Olympus 14-150mm zoom lens[/easyazon_link] which is perfect for most situations.
For selfies, I love this [easyazon_link identifier=”B01G22ZCU2″ locale=”UK” tag=”jugopl-21″]Lumee LED case[/easyazon_link] which lights up on both sides for perfect selfies. After all how will your friends know what a great time you are having if you don’t take a selfie showing them so? The two-sided flash on the Lumee really comes into its own when you are in low-light situations.
Remind Yourself That It Is Not Your Home
When you find yourselves visiting family, you may find their ways as alien as little green men from Mars. For example, I don’t see the point in dressing up for dinner when I am not leaving the house. But why make an issue of it? Grab yourself a drink (see point above) and let it go.
I’m not ready for Christmas to be over. There is such a long lead-time towards the big day and then ‘poof’ it’s over. The British at least have Boxing Day the day after Christmas day itself to drag out the celebrations a bit longer.
The British also have the Pogues song ‘Fairytale of New York‘ playing on endless repeat on the radio. In fact it is the most played Christmas song in the UK in the 21st century. I realised in New York City, Fairy Tale of New York is not as popular as in the UK. Maybe it’s too bleak to be a real fairy tale. Americans like their anodyne fairy tales. Plus, some of the language is questionable for children to hear.
I’ve got a feeling This year’s for me and you So happy Christmas I love you baby I can see a better time When all our dreams come true
New York City is for dreams, especially at Christmas. The city that never sleeps sparkles and shines like at no other time. A siren song for the young and the ambitious, New York will dash the hopes of many against its steel and glass towers. I followed the call of New York in my 20’s but now I’m simply happy to be one of the tourists that visit.
They’ve got cars big as bars They’ve got rivers of gold But the wind goes right through you It’s no place for the old When you first took my hand On a cold Christmas Eve You promised me Broadway was waiting for me.
Wandering around New York City last week, I tried to capture the magic of the city at Christmas. Here are my efforts:
The tree at Brookfield Place overlooks World Trade Observatory
The Saks Fifth Avenue window displays reflected the theme of Winter Palace
Fifth Avenue tarted up for the holidays
Giant candy canes hanging off a building – magical!
A gingerbread house at the Plaza Hotel
The old and the new coexist.
The only angels that exist in Manhattan.
The Pogues’ song veers between sentimental and bittersweet similar to the feelings of the couple referenced in the lyrics.
I could have been someone Well so could anyone You took my dreams from me When I first found you I kept them with me babe I put them with my own Can’t make it all alone I’ve built my dreams around you.
I think it is a fitting tribute to Christmas. A whole lot of sentimentality with an undercurrent of disquiet. No one has a perfect Norman Rockwell Christmas even though the pressure is there to have one.
Bergdorf Goodman is the grande dame of New York luxury retailers. Located on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th streets since 1899, she is the only New York-centric luxury store left in the city. All the other department stores have spread their influence outside of New York. (I’m looking at you Saks Fifth Avenue and Barneys). For me, Bergdorf NYC is quintessential Manhattan style, class and luxury. After all, it was one of Carrie Bradshaw’s favourite stores in Sex and The City.
What better way to celebrate Christmas in Manhattan than to check out how it’s being done at Bergdorfs?
Bergdorf’s Christmas Windows
The store windows at Bergdorf NYC this Christmas was all about the sparkle. Blair Waldorf from Gossip Girl would have approved.
A Swarovski ice cream? Why, of course, darling. No carbs.
Puss in Boots says ‘You shall make me very rich.”
Dahling I do hope my pet lion and my handbag dog get along.
It’s raining diamonds! so much better than raining men.
It’s so awkward when Grandpapa insists on wearing his pearl bodysuit to dinner.
If Barbie and her friends had more money, they’d party like this.
Bergdorf’s Christmas Department
The Christmas department at Bergdorf NYC is small but exquisite. Everything is beautifully detailed with prices to reflect such craftsmanship.
I heard a fair bit of Russian while browsing this part of the store. Presumably people have so much space they need life size animatronic polar bears and Santa Clauses to fill their Manhattan penthouses. I love the fact that the Santa Claus statues are in magnificent robes. No, red velour for these Santas.
I loved the look of these bejewelled velvet tree skirts and matching (!) socks. One or the other as Oprah would say or it will look too match-matchy. Unless, of course, that is the look you are going for.
I have a thing for shoes on Christmas trees and fell in love with the gold sneaker ornaments. My daughter, of course, wanted the gold heels.
Check out these beautiful ornaments in a short movie clip.
Visiting Bergdorf NYC
Bergdorf Goodman is located on 5th Avenue on 57th and 58th streets. You can’t miss it. It’s a giant mansion at the very top of Fifth Avenue on the side of the street that becomes Central Park. In fact the near-perfect location was the site for Cornelius Vanderbilt’s home during the Gilded Age.
Next stop after Bergdorf is the Plaza Hotel. We spent time at Bergdorf’s then had tea in the Plaza Hotel atrium. My kids know the Plaza Hotel from the Eloise books as well as the movie, Home Alone 2. So mama was happy and so were the kids. Daddy just suffered along, carried shopping bags and complained about the prices.
In New York for Christmas and thinking about visiting the Christmas lights at Rockefeller Center? Fuhgettaboudit. In New York City, the spectacle you need to see are the Christmas lights in Brooklyn.
Our guide, Marc, from A Slice of Brooklyn showed us a side of Brooklyn that I had never seen and that enthralled my children. We visited three neighbourhoods in Brooklyn but the most amazing was Dyker Heights which is completely over the top for the month of December.
Tasteful? Depends on what your definition of tasteful is. Sometimes I felt like I was in a Real Housewives of New Jersey episode. As Marc pointed out, this tour really does bring out all the stereotypes.
Christmas Lights in Brooklyn
Not everywhere in Brooklyn goes crazy for Christmas lights. You need to head out to the old Italian neighbourhoods which are places not easily accessible by public transportation.
Blue Christmas House
Bay Ridge has multi-million dollar homes facing the waterfront. Many of the lighting decorations are tastefully done. Our favourite has to be the Blue Christmas house. The husband is Italian-Catholic, his wife Jewish and they compromised on blue lights. (Blue and white are the colours traditionally associated with the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah). And, is this house ever blue!
It’s gonna be a Blue Christmas but not because they are Elvis fans.
At Blue Christmas house, you can just about also make out the Christmas tree which is hung upside down. An upside down tree makes a more significant triangle which is supposed to signify the Christian Trinity. Even with a drop-free needles tree, I bet that tree sheds a lot.
The tree is hung from the ceiling and the stockings from the chimney.
Sammy the Greek has a house that is Vegas meets Brooklyn. And, he’s Greek, in case you missed the Greek flag, or the Greek words spelling out Merry Christmas on the front. Note the cultural diversity in a predominantly Italian neighbourhood. Sammy’s got his own radio station which plays Christmas tunes coordinated with his light show.
Greek, proud and announcing it loud
He’s also got a Christmas village set up in a protective glass case on the front lawn. We noticed other people did too, but maybe not to Sammy’s scale. At least now I know who buys those Christmas village things.
More a Christmas city than a Christmas village
Lucy Spata’s House
The grandmama of the Christmas lights tradition is Lucy Spata’s house. Lucy put up 40 angels to commemorate the passing of her mother in the 1980’s. The neighbours were sympathetic at first, but then they started complaining.
The original trendsetter
With true Brooklyn attitude, Lucy told them to stick their complaints where the sun don’t shine. The neighbours called the cops on her.
I think you’re going to need a bigger lawn.
Then it was WAR. Not Sopranos style but the Christmas edition. But like in the Godfather movies, I’m sure it involved lots of tasty pasta sauce. Lucy hired carol singers for her front lawn. The neighbours decided the lights may be bright but at least they were quiet.
And, lo, unto them, a tradition was born.
Christmas Lights in Brooklyn Photo Gallery
Eventually, more and more of Dyker Heights got into Lucy Spata’s Christmas spirit. Here are some of my favourite sights.
B&R are professional Christmas lights decorators. So, of course, their family house looked amazing.
Right on trend with mixed metallics
People may have their houses go dark during Christmas if there has been a death in the family. Or, they may choose to commemorate their family member (even the four legged kind).
All dogs go to heaven.
What price Christmas festive lights you may ask? One man has admitted his December electricity bill comes in at $5000. Yowza.
Some of the homes have animatronics.
This creepy snowman reminded us of Dr Who cyborgs.
On donut duty, in the ‘hood.
Simple (relatively) but effective
Taking the Christmas Lights Tour
I’d never seen these lights before because you really need private transport to get to these neighbourhoods. Our Slice of Brooklyn tour bus left from the very convenient Union Square. Taking about 3.5 hours total, it was fun, easy and hassle-free.
Our guide Marc was terrific – amusing with the right amount of respect. After all, he’s from Brooklyn and will need to show his face in the ‘hood. It’s a small family-run operation expertly run by another Brooklyn native son, Tony Muia, for the last 10 years.
A Slice of Brooklyn takes about 90,000 visitors a year to see the non-trendy, authentic side of Brooklyn that exists outside of hipsters, Williamsburg and Girls. Tickets for the tours are $50/adult and $40/children. Our tour bus was full so you really need to book in advance.
We received complimentary tickets from A Slice of Brooklyn. All words and opinions are strictly my own. And, yes, I would pay to do this tour again.