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London prepares for Christmas

December- a month associated with winter, with snow, with holidays, with magic- the magic of Christmas! And the magic is finally here- a place believed to be one of the most iconic cities in the world- London.

Trust me, winter is in no way a magical time in London, or in any parts of the UK. With incessant rains, cold windy spells which make stepping out of the house an ordeal, it is very hard to imagine a mood of festivities and joy. But much like the way a vibe sets in during festivities in India, it seems as if the entire city of London shrugs off the chill and the gloom and transforms into a winter wonderland during Christmas.

Christmas has always been very close to my heart. I still recall going out to the Church premises of my home town in India, with friends and wondering about how it would be like to experience such a day in a place where it is the primary festival. And now, as I wander about in the streets in London trying to soak in the festive vibe, I pinch myself intermittently to check if I am in a dream.

Contrary to popular belief, or atleast the one I had while back home in India, Christmas is a very personal festival here. People spend the Christmas day with family and very close friends and do not really venture out. So much so that there is almost no public transport that operates in London on Christmas Day. Everyone is given the day off to stay close to family. The essence of Christmas lies in decorating houses with evergreens, feasting with friends and family, charity to the have-nots and exchanging gifts. Almost every English household keeps a decorated tree near their glass window at least a month ahead of the Christmas day, as if a mock competition as to who has the best decoration in the neighborhood.

The primary Christmas meal is usually eaten at lunchtime or early afternoon on Christmas Day, mostly consisting of roast turkey, bacon, sausages, roast vegetables like carrots & peas and brussel sprouts often served with cranberry sauce. However, back in the 1800s, before turkey was available in UK, roast beef or goose was the star of the dish. This elaborate main course is followed by Christmas Pudding which is often served as dessert. Mince pies, trifle and lots of chocolates are some of the other popular choices of dessert, while mulled wine, eggnog and the likes make for the drink to gulp it all down. London is also famous for its Christmas Cakes. Windows of bakeries display beautifully decorated Christmas cakes, which is traditionally a rich fruit cake covered with marzipan and icing – and often topped with Christmas themed decorations.

Although the Christmas day is quiet, don’t be lulled into thinking that the city sleeps during the season. Almost every corner of the city is decked up in its own way, with beautiful lightings, decorated Christmas trees, winter markets, skating arenas, theatres, and one is easily spoilt for choices as to what not to do and see. Bereft of the throngs of tourists that frequent London during the summer months, there seems to be a lot more to look around and explore.

Almost every famous square and street in London is illuminated in elaboration, setting the place alight with Christmas spirit. A dazzling spectacle can be observed in Oxford Street, with this year’s theme being ‘Christmas is calling’, and it’s calling almost 2 months in advance, as the lights were switched on in the first week of November. Regent Street with its iconic ‘angels of light’ (as I like to call them) stretching right upto Piccadilly Circus makes the shopping district of London seem otherworldly. It’s a nice experience to be walking about the street, stopping to gape at the iconic stores draped in grand decors and window displays dressed in their festive finest.

Like the Christmas lights, a lot of the places put up decorated Christmas trees and these remain a popular attraction. One of the most famous in this list is the large Christmas tree that has been erected in Trafalgar Square every year since 1947.

Many places setup carnivals, like the ‘Winter Wonderland’ in Hyde Park and other Christmas markets, like the one in Leicester Square. Festivals- irrespective of who celebrates them, where they are celebrated and their significance- have a unique charm which is common. To my Bengali eyes, shopping for Christmas ornaments for decorating the trees, and creating scenes of Jesus’s birth (which is done in a lot of homes here) resembles our very own ‘Jhulan’, the monsoon festival celebrated by followers of Lord Krishna, where there is a spectacular display of scenes from Krishna’s birth, boyhood and his courtship with Radhika. There is a lot of discount shopping during this time, which reminds me of the ‘Chaitra sale’ (although the wet and chilly weather is a far cry from the sultry late March afternoons back in India). Visiting different parts of the city to look at the decorations and Christmas trees is very close to the Durga puja pandal hopping experience. And the lights in the streets, gardens and parks reminds me of Diwali. To me, London’s Christmas celebration very nicely blends the spirit of Jhulan yatra, Durga puja and Diwali.

Christmas is a festival of joy and its nice to see the work-oriented city come to a stop to relax, chill out and prepare for the new year in a lighter mood. The Brits, famous for their ‘stiff upper lip’ would have a spring in their step and a smile on their lips.

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