A Brief History Of London's Christmas Traditions

By Nick Young Last edited 88 months ago

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A Brief History Of London's Christmas Traditions

London has many a Christmas tradition, some not be as old as you might think. Carol services really have been around for centuries, but other traditions — like the notorious lack of public transport on the big day itself — have been part of the city's life for mere decades.

Christmas carols at St Martin-in-the-Fields.

Carol services and concerts

London's second to none when it comes to carols, for what festive experience could hope to compete with going to the Christmas Eve service at St Paul's Cathedral? Many of London's churches host carol services in the run-up to Christmas, at lunchtimes as well as in the evenings, while St Martin-in-the-Fields has a full programme of Christmas concerts, some dates selling out months in advance. The singing of Christmas carols in England dates back to the Middle Ages, although most of the carols that we know today date back to the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square

A large Christmas tree has been erected in Trafalgar Square every year since 1947. 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. Think of the tree as a long-running thank-you from the other side of the North Sea.

Photo: Joao Paulo Pimenta.

Crisis at Christmas

The homeless charity Crisis was set up in December 1967 to raise awareness of homelessness — originally in the East End, but it now covers the whole country. David Hoffman captured photos from the early days. Christmas shelters opened in London in 1972 and have offered warmth, food and services such as dentistry and healthcare to homeless people over the festive period ever since.

Department stores

Christmas comes early to some places, but Selfridges wins the prize, having opened its Christmas store on 1st August — apparently the earliest Christmas opening in the world this year. The Oxford Street store's famous Christmas windows, an annual tradition dating back over 100 years, usually follows in October. We can also thank Harry Gordon Selfridge for the phrase 'X shopping days until Christmas', although the idea of shopping for Christmas presents had established itself in London in the 1870s. London's first Santa's grotto in was reportedly at JR Roberts Stores in Stratford in 1888. By contrast, Father Christmas made his first known appearance in Harrods in 1908.

Smithfield's Christmas Eve auction. Photo: Londonist.

The meat auction

The great tradition of a Smithfield Market butcher auctioning off whatever he has left prior to Christmas take place every Christmas Eve morning (the sign announcing it remains up all year for some reason). 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. The auction, run by Harts of Smithfield, started over 30 years ago as a way of selling meat that may otherwise spoil when they close between Christmas and the New Year. Don't forget to bring your own bag.

No public transport on Christmas Day

This tradition, unusual in a global city, really divides opinion. Some like the idea of the whole city shutting down for a day. However, for anyone who wants to go anywhere and doesn't have a car, it's a major inconvenience. It's not just confined to London though; most bus and train services across the UK don't run on Christmas Day. It was not always thus. In the early 20th century, railway companies made a point of selling Christmas Day tickets in advance, and even sold gift tickets that people could send to relatives who were due to visit. The decline started in around 1948, with transport providers apparently responding to a fall in public demand caused by the rise of car ownership. By the mid-1960s there were hardly any Christmas Day public transport services. London Transport held out for a few more years, with the tube running on 25 December for the last time in 1979. This is in complete contrast with other major cities: in Berlin, New York, Paris, Rome and Toronto (to name but five), public transport services run on Christmas Day, albeit with a reduced timetable.

Photo: sinister dexter.

Swimming in the Serpentine

The tradition of swimming in Hyde Park's man-made lake at 9am on 25 December is over 150 years old. The annual 100-yard Christmas Day swim was first swum in 1864, and in 1904 the author JM Barrie donated a trophy, the Peter Pan Cup, to be awarded to the winner. Due to the risks involved in plunging into near-freezing water, this is not an event you can just turn up and take part in; the race is only open to members of the Serpentine Swimming Club who swim in said body of water year-round.

Toasting in the Theatre Royal

Since 1795, the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane has kept a tradition whereby everyone in the cast of whichever production is being shown on 6 January is given a glass of punch and a slice of cake, with which they toast the memory of the 18th century actor Robert Baddeley (1733-98). In his will, Baddeley had left money to help destitute actors and actresses as well as providing drinks and a cake for those performing on Twelfth Night. In this, he was following a very old tradition, for prior to Victorian times, cakes were specially made for Twelfth Night rather than Christmas Day. Opinion differs as to whether Twelfth Night, also known as the twelfth day of Christmas, should be celebrated in 5 or 6 January; it depends on whether you think the first day of Christmas is Christmas Day or Boxing Day.

Winter Wonderland. Photo: Joyce Dela Paz.

Winter Wonderland

A relatively recent London Christmas tradition, the Hyde Park festive extravaganza — complete with funfair rides and a German -style beer hall — started in 2006 as a Christmas market next to an open-air ice rink.

Street lights

London's tradition of streets having festive lights appears to have started on Regent Street, which has had Christmas decorations in some form since the 1880s — although they only became a regular thing in 1948 when the Regent Street Association (RSA — the organisation that represents the interests of the retailers, restaurants and offices in the area) decorated the street with trees. Lights followed in 1954, and the RSA is still responsible for arranging the display. Oxford Street got its Christmas lights in 1959, and over the years a tradition has evolved whereby the lights are switched on by a celebrity in mid-to-late November. Many other central London streets, such as Soho's Carnaby Street, also have their own lights, as do lots of suburban high streets. Some don't just celebrate Christmas — the ones in Edgware, for example, also celebrate the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.

And finally, a couple of London's Christmas traditions that have fallen into disuse...

The Boy Bishop of St Paul's

In the middle ages, the clergy of St Paul's Cathedral would appoint one of the choirboys to be the 'Boy Bishop' in the run-up to Christmas, usually on St Nicholas's Day (6 December). The lucky chorister would be dressed in the bishop's robes and got to perform several of the ceremonial functions usually undertake by the (adult) Bishop of London, although he was of course unable to perform the Eucharist. Highlights included his delivering a sermon (which was written for him) and leading the carol singing in the neighbourhood. This tradition was abolished at the time of the Reformation.

Photo: James Offer.

Football on Christmas Day

Many of us associate festive football matches with Boxing Day, but for much of the early 20th century, going to a football match on Christmas Day itself was a big event. The Football League used to provide a full fixture list for 25 December, invariably pitting teams against their locals rivals to make things easier for travelling fans and players. This declined as Christmas Day public transport services declined, and had more or less died out in England by the early 1960s. There was an attempt to revive this custom in London in 1983, when the Third Division fixture between Brentford and Wimbledon was scheduled for 11am on Christmas Day... but it was moved to Christmas Eve after complaints from fans of both clubs.

Last Updated 15 December 2016