Christmas in London

Lights, Carols, Shopping…and Official Folly

By Tom Aitken in London

Is Christmas still perceived as a Christian Festival? Many Londoners would answer, sadly or enthusiastically, ‘No.’

Numerous others would say ‘What do you mean?’

Churches will undeniably be busier than usual so far as formal services are concerned, and those who programme midnight service on Christmas Eve will probably register their largest congregations of the year.

Many churches and concert venues will mount carol services. (The most famous of these, of course, will take place not in London but in King’s College, Cambridge.)

A good many of these events will be mounted by secular organisations as gatherings for their membership and/or opportunities to raise money for charities.

This household will have spanned the above categories, under the varying auspices of the Salvation Army, Age UK, the London Press Club and Richmond Parish Church.

Apart from all this, however, the preoccupations of most people in London during the next fortnight will be familial and commercial.

I will take family Christmas as read.

Commercially, the weeks preceding Christmas are seen by retailers as an opportunity (I am tempted to say God-given) to claw back some of what they have lost during the financial gloom of the past months.

Actually, they have always seen it this way––even in prosperous times Britons tend to be binge spenders, with Christmas providing a potent stimulus.

The traders don’t want a white Christmas. It’s bad for traffic.

But they are under threat from another quarter. The internet increasingly represents the twenty-first century’s seductive and, in general, very efficient variation on the commercial adage ‘Pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap.’ Tap, tap, tap, double-click, and you’re done.

But British predilections are favourable for those maintaining the traditions of a nation of shopkeepers. On winter nights the attraction of bright lights and colourful, gleaming, glamorous displays remains irresistible.

Auden wrote about that attraction in the 1930s:


Quarter of pleasures where the rich are always waiting…
You with your charm and apparatus have abolished
The strictness of winter … your glow is visible far
Into the dark countryside, enormous and frozen…
Night after night to the farmer’s children you beckon.


So it is in London’s West End. From its western outpost at Sloane Square, where the department store Peter Jones holds its royal court, you can move on to Oxford Street (Selfridges, Debenhams, John Lewis, Primark, Russell and Bromley, Next, Benneton), Regent Street (Apple Store, Topshop, Moss Bros., Armani, and Austin Reed) and Piccadilly, gawping and spending.

Strung between buildings overhead will be displays of lights, which, however you may judge them in terms of taste, will leave you poised between mirth and amazement. Having been switched on by footballers, rock stars and minor royalty in early November, they shine nightly, beckoning. And not just to farmers’ children and their 21st century equivalents.

Beyond Piccadilly (and New Zealand House in the Haymarket) you will arrive at Trafalgar Square, where the most genuinely touching of the Christmas lights can be contemplated in relative quiet.

Seventy years after the relevant events, the people of Norway are still sending a Christmas tree to Trafalgar Square every year, in gratitude for Britain’s support in 1940.

But size and brightness do not necessarily signify confidence.

In central London, this year’s festivities are overshadowed by looming disaster for retailers, theatres, restaurants, bars and churches not just at Christmas but throughout the year.

The Tory council of the Borough of Westminster (opposed by virtually everybody concerned, from the Tory led coalition government downwards) is determined to impose parking charges during evenings and Sundays.

At almost £5 an hour the charge will add significantly to the cost of leisure visits to the West End (the only relief is that the Cou ncil say the charges will only apply from 1pm to 6pm on Sundays).

A proportion of theatregoers, including especially those who buy expensive seats, will think twice about the hike in cost and the difficulties of returning home late at night to places not served by public transport, and stay at home.

Anyone, male or female, who feels vulnerable on public transport late at night may feel forced to work elsewhere.

Shoppers, diners and drinkers may be similarly discouraged.

Many London churches, including the most beautiful and famous, are attended largely by people who live far from the immediate vicinity. Transport problems are greater at weekends because of engineering works on railway lines.

A family of Salvationists who between them take several large brass instruments to their church in Oxford Street both on Sundays (when they spend a substantial part of the day there) and some weekday evenings, pointed out to a reporter that whereas a tuba can be carried in the boot of a car it is problematic in a crowded bus.

Westminster Council says they will reverse their policy if it becomes apparent that the predicted damage has taken place.

The words ‘shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted’ spring to mind.