During the holidays, there are certain cities that shine in a way that define the spirit of the season. London is one of those cities. When Christmas rolls around I find myself fantasizing about London and its blustery charms.
I live in Los Angeles. Like London, Los Angeles is a world-class city– full of life. Both cities are leaders in the arts, commerce, education, entertainment, fashion, and finance. But London is a Christmasy city, and Los Angeles is not. The palm trees are part of the problem, of course they are. But truthfully, a fully bedazzled conifer doesn’t really define the season, or at least not entirely. No, I made my peace with decorated palm trees long ago.
The weather isn’t really the issue either. People can say they long for a white Christmas. But ask them how they feel about snow once New Year’s Day has passed and you’ll see a flash of California Dreamin’ in their eyes. No, I’m a warm weather guy, most of the time.
Still, there is a certain romance surrounding the winter wardrobe. You might consider this a rather shallow point of view on my part. But sweaters, jackets and even hats begin to make it feel a lot like Christmas. Just the word muffler makes me want to burst into a chorus of Deck the Halls.
However, Christmas is more than knee-high boots and cashmere mittens. Everyone wears knee-high boots and cashmere mittens in Los Angeles during the holidays.
I think the answer lies in the history of each city. More correctly, the literary history of these cities. Los Angeles is defined by the images we know from movies, and London is a city of words.
It’s impossible to think about Christmas without thinking about Charles Dickens and his holiday classic A Christmas Carol. Ebenezer Scrooge is what makes Britain, and especially London, such a potent Christmas destination.
No matter where you live, no matter what the weather, everyone has their Christmas traditions. Mine have included some version of A Christmas Carol for as long as I can remember. Which is why I pine for London this time of year.
The city streets take on the air of the holiday. The underground food hall at Harrod’s comes alive with delicious old-world charm. I can imagine Dickens himself passing through the food stalls, admiring the amazing Royal Doulton tile murals portraying the city’s culinary traditions.
But Christmas in London is more than the shops and the bustle for me. Christmas in London means seeking out a bit of that Dickensian allure that has come to define modern Christmas. Which means a trip to Dennis Severs’ House. (18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields, London)
The house is a former silk weavers’ residence built more than 300 years ago. It’s not a museum exactly. It’s more performance art, where the house itself is the performance. It’s been refurbished to playfully portray the 18th century family home of a fictional wealthy London merchant. Each room tells a particular story of the people who live there. The rooms progress in time as you meander through the house, so you learn a bit of what is happening with this family through the sights, sounds, and even the mousey, dusty stench of the place.
You can make an appointment to tour the house almost any time of the year. But at Christmastime it gets dressed in vintage holiday splendor and becomes a unique form of theater called Silent Nights. Guests meander quietly through each of the five floors (no talking allowed). The tours are spaced so you won’t run into other guests as you wander through the house. You’ll feel perfectly alone as you spend time absorbing the detailed tableaux of each of the candlelit rooms you encounter. You’ll swear you can smell half-finished meals or feel the warmth of freshly mussed bedclothes. Dishes clank down the hall, and the murmuring of servants always seems to be just in the next room.
It’s as if you are indeed Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, searching each floor for the inhabitants who must have just left the room the moment you entered. It’s a magical journey into Christmas Past.
Before you leave you can choose a room or a comfy corner to sit and warm yourself by the fire. You may be offered something to drink; something warm and comforting. Tis the season for a cocktail. The mere idea of a steamy mug of fragrant luxury, laced with a fiery shot of a seasonal spirit is warming to both body and soul.
So to honor Dickens and the Christmas spirit he evokes, I have just the thing– a crimson-colored holiday cup of cheer. It’s a style of mulled wine, similar to wassail and something like a warmed sangria– though made with port. Traditionally it’s scented with cloves and sour oranges, but my version has been updated just a bit with kumquats. It’s called a Smoking Bishop, and it has come to be associated with Christmas itself.
We again have Charles Dickens to thank for that. Because at the very end of his beloved holiday classic, a reformed Ebenezer Scrooge and his long-suffering employee Bob Cratchit promise to share a “bowl” of this oddly named libation:
“A Merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavor to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon over a bowl of Smoking Bishop, Bob!”