Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.
My love of the holiday season is no secret. I was fortunate to have happy Christmases in my childhood, full of family love and fun traditions. (I know that’s not true for everyone, so I feel especially grateful that this is my experience.) This year, I’m spending the holiday in England, and the lead-up here in London has been wonderful, as I’ve done lots of Christmas-y things.
Winter Wonderland is one of those terrible/wonderful things, a giant carnival in Hyde Park. Liz and I went there a couple weekends ago, and we stayed for the perfect amount of time: long enough to see all the attractions, not long enough to get crushed by the crowds.
We walked through the fun fair and the crafts market, past the ice rink and the inexplicable haunted house. We had brats and mulled wine, and we listened to a live band speed through a Stevie Wonder medley. All the rides had been done up seasonally, and there was one particularly creepy animatronic Santa who laughed maniacally at the passersby.
Lights and Windows on Oxford Street
After we had our mulled wine and share of crowds, we wandered down Oxford Street to admire the lights. Oxford Street is a major shopping district in London, and every year they string lights across the street, and across the side streets, so it’s delightfully lit up everywhere you look as you do your late-night shopping (or any shopping after 3:50, when the sun sets).
We admired the windows at Selfridges, dreamy and colorful, and had an unsuccessful hunt inside for egg nog (they had some unrefrigerated thing that I looked askance at).
Forty Hall by Candlelight
This past weekend, I went up to Forty Hall, a stately home on the very north end of London. My friend Dave directed a group of volunteers in a sort of tour/mobile theater event, so we walked from room to room in this wonderfully restored home and heard stories about the house in 1643, during the English Civil War. It was an interesting mix of tidbits about daily life at the house, and some of the ways the war affected households. We ate mince pies and drank hot spiced cider, and we each walked out with a sprig of rosemary–my favorite herb, and apparently a traditional favor in the 17th century during Christmastime. It’s meant to flower on Christmas Eve, thus the tradition.
Neighborhood Christmas market
The neighborhood park had a Christmas market this Sunday, and although I didn’t buy anything, I enjoyed looking at all the crafts for sale, including those made by my talented friend Natti. More mulled wine and minced pie (notice a theme to celebrations here?) while a brass quartet played at the edges of the gathering and adorable children ran around. And then my favorite part, the carol singing. A small brass and woodwind band decked out in Santa hats got up in the bandstand and led us all in carols.
Handel’s Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall
Finally, on Sunday I went to the Royal Albert Hall for a performance of Handel’s Messiah. This is one of my favorite choral works. I’ve sung it in a choir in Michigan, seen it done in a gospel style in Chicago, and now seen it sung by hundreds of people in London. The Hall is a beautiful setting, and even though my seats were “semi-restricted viewing,” I saw most of the choir and orchestra, and anyway the main thing is to hear it. It was a glorious performance: the choir was great, the trumpet for ‘The Trumpet Will Sound’ was perfect, and three out of four soloists were wonderful (the bass sounded like he was gargling marbles, but I find that to often be a problem with basses). I walked back to the bus stop with the sounds of joy and celebration ringing in my ears. I wouldn’t mind ending more weekends like that.
A final Christmas post for this year. Here’s our lovely tree.
Merry Christmas, everyone!
After Liz and I left the central part of the North Island, we stopped off at National Park (yes, that’s the actual name of the town) so that Liz could hike the Tongariro Crossing and I could bundle up against the cold and damp of the mountains while reading a good book.
A couple days later, we drove south, and once the mountains were in our rearview mirror, the weather improved immediately. We got more than one radio station, we saw other cars on the road, and we started passing through towns. We must be getting closer to Wellington.
About 40 minutes outside of the capital city, we pulled off the highway to a town called Waikanae Beach. Liz dropped me off at my friends’ home and she carried on to Wellington for a few days. We’d meet up later in the week on the South Island. In the meantime, I’d see how the Kiwis celebrate Christmas. Spoiler: in the sun. They celebrate the (northern hemisphere’s) midwinter solstice in the sun.
We went to the most laid-back church service I’ve ever been to (the pastor was in shorts and sandals) and sang a few carols. The words were projected on a screen at the front of the sanctuary and a guitarist led us in song. At the end of the service, ushers handed out Christingles, which are apparently common in the Church of England, though I’d not heard of them before. It’s an orange (the world), wrapped in a red ribbon (Christ’s blood), stuck with four toothpicks holding fruit and candy (the four seasons and the fruits of the earth or the sweetness of Christ’s love), and containing a candle in the center (Jesus, the light of the world). It was fun to watch the kids of the congregation mumble “Silent Night” with the rest of us while sneaking the candies off their Christingles with varying levels of surreptitiousness.
I had a lot of fun with the 9-year-old of the house, a smart, sweet kid who explained to me all about the various things he’s collecting and which Horrible Histories episodes he likes best. We played in the ocean together, and on Christmas day we put together some of his Legos and smashed down an Angry Birds Star Wars imperial ship. We tried to out-weird each other in our Mad Libs choices, and we both dozed off after a big Christmas dinner. Such fun!
Dinner was a massive collection of food, and also delicious. Then came dessert, which also took up a whole dining table, and was also delicious. I had my first taste of pavlova; a light, tasty meringue and fruit dish. New Zealanders and Australians argue about who invented it, but they agree it is their favorite dessert.
The Kapiti coast is a popular place for Kiwis to retire; its positioned east of Kapiti Island and north of the tip of the South Island, so it’s more protected than many other parts of the North Island, and while my hosts said that Christmas was especially hot this year, they also said they always spend at least part of Christmas on the beach. What a great tradition!