Saturday, December 18, 2010

A London Christmas

Whatever happened to that infamous British reserve? The kind that makes you self-conscious in conference calls and emails, trying hard not to reinforce the notion that we Americans are a race of emotional over-sharers, with our all-to-ready familiarity and our bright enthusiasm punctuated with loud "HOW ARE YOU DOINGs" and "HAVE A NICE DAYs" and excessive exclamation points.

And yet it seems at Christmastime all that reticence and guardedness goes straight out the window.

Exhibit 1. For a Christmas party we were told that everyone will be dressing up as Santas. I figured that's an old English grift. I saw the Bridget Jones scene where no one but her was dressed in costume for the erstwhile "tarts and vicars" party.

But it turns out they were serious. Deadly serious. In fact, just that afternoon I stumbled upon a crowd of probably 500 Santas gathered in Trafalgar Square. Here is just a small cross-section of them, gathered at the base of Nelson's column, where just 48 hours before protesters were waving signs and urinating.

It was quite a spectacle, especially to hear them all chant in unison, yoga "ohm" like, long "HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOs." So that's when I knew the Santa thing was real. Apparently scaring up a Santa costume in England is as easy as finding a Starbucks here. So I relented and agreed to wear a Santa hat, along with a festive scarf of garland and a red tie. All invisible in this photo from my crappy iPhone.

Exhibit 2: At the other party we went to (this one on a houseboat on the Thames!), they had a keyboardist and horn player and proceeded to hand out 16 pages worth of Christmas carol lyrics. Who knew Good King Wenceslas had so many verses? And everyone was singing. Without any embarrassment or so much as a trace of irony.

They were as earnest as, dare I say it, Midwestern Front Porch Americans singing the National Anthem. It was a fascinating moment, hopelessly under-depicted here by, again, my crappy iPhone (come on next-gen iPhone 4, come out already!)

Maybe this is how they are when they're among(st) themselves, at a party made up mainly of natives and off the beaten path in a non-tourist area, where they can safely and fearlessly emote. It was quite touching.

Exhibit 3: Near the hotel, in Hyde Park, they had this huge carnival-like Winterland Wonderland festival running, 7 nights a week for 7 weeks. And it was swamped! They had a Ferris Wheel and other rides, games, ice-skating, open-air taverns, a giant inflatable disco, and hundreds of booths selling food and mulled cider and wine, and beer and crafts and other things.

It was an amazing scene, though I suspect for most natives it's like going to Navy Pier. Or Rush Street. Still, for us tourists it was kind of a blast.

Exhibit 4: Finally, they light up their retail streets like no city I've seen. We did an architectural/holiday lights walking tour that took us from the big commercial strips to the little out-of-the-way boutique-filled lanes, and it was pretty stunning, from the sublime to the borderline tacky.

Christmas in London. As Joe Biden would say, it's a Big Fucking Deal!

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