Large illuminated reindeer model
Culture & tradition,  Friendly Friday,  Lens-Artists,  London

Celebrating Christmas in London and (a little way) beyond

Although we love to travel, we have always spent Christmas at home in England. Not for us the snowy ski slopes of the Alps, or the tropical shores of the Caribbean or Far East. Tempting as the latter sound, we save trips to warmer climes for February, when the long chilly season is really dragging. Christmas is a time for the comforts of home, and for family.

So here are some of our traditions, and a few treats, shared for the Friendly Friday Christmas party. I’m also sharing this for Amy’s Lens Artists Challenge celebrating theme. And I’ve thrown in some song lyrics for Terri’s Sunday Stills challenge!

Christmases past

I'll be home for Christmas;
You can count on me.
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents on the tree.
Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love-light gleams.
I'll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams.

My mother was totally unreligious but nevertheless the traditions of our family Christmases were sacrosanct for her. My sister and I have many happy memories of those times, all the more vivid perhaps because every year was almost always the same! The photos below are from 1961, when I was six and my sister four; but they could have been taken any year!

After we married my husband and I settled into a pattern of spending alternate Christmases with my family and his; mine in north west London, his in Newcastle. I adopted some of their traditions, but I have to admit imposed more of mine on them!

And today…?

For the last few years, since our respective parents are all no longer with us, we have spent Christmas with my sister and her family; or last year, thanks to lockdown, just the two of us together at home. Let me show you what Christmas looks like to us.

How London celebrates

And it's Christmas time in the city
When the air is filled with cheer
And the storefronts look this pretty only once a year

The various parts of London, or even individual streets, each have their own decorations: Oxford Street, Regent Street, Carnaby Street, Mayfair, the South Bank and so on. The photos below were taken in different years but are all typical.

How we celebrate

I don’t like Christmas to start too early; somehow it takes the edge off the fun and the decorations become part of the normal backdrop to life rather than something special. But as we move into December I start to shop for gifts and to bake. Wherever we are spending Christmas, at our house or my sister’s (or this year for the first time at my nephew’s), I am responsible for the pudding and the cake. And both have to be traditional!

Now, bring us some figgy pudding,
Now, bring us some figgy pudding,
Now, bring us some figgy pudding, and bring it out here!

For the pudding I usually turn to my mother’s old recipe, which she got from the cook book that came with her first ever cooker when my parents married in in 1953! And for the cake I used to use a recipe from one of my first cookery books. However I’ve recently discovered the wonders of Nigella Lawson’s traditional cake. I have her Christmas cookbook but you can also find the recipe in several places online, such as this old Guardian article. The secret of its success lies, I suspect, in the amount of alcohol (I use brandy) and the soaking of the fruit overnight.

Once made the cake must rest for a few weeks, with regular dousings of more brandy, before covering with marzipan and icing. I enjoy trying to make it look pretty; but I don’t think I’m any threat to the Great British Bake Off contestants!

December is also the time for wrapping gifts and celebrating with friends.

Deck the halls with boughs of holly
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la
'Tis the season to be jolly
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la
We decorate our home ten days to a week before the big day. And the decorations must stay up until Twelfth Night and must be taken down on that day. My mother taught me that to do anything else brings bad luck. And as I said at the start, her traditions were sacrosanct!

So now we are ready to celebrate; let the Friendly Friday party begin!

May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white.
Crumpled gift wrap on the floor by someone's feet

As for the aftermath …

75 Comments

  • Forestwood

    What fun I had reading the post and all the comments. Interesting how you have followed your Mother’s traditions yet modified others. So the twelfth night is two days after Christmas? Have I understood that right? Or twelve days after Christmas? I also wondered about that when I woudl hear the Christmas carol on the twelfth day of Christmas…
    Your cakes look very professional and I will check out the recipes. My hubby loves Christmas pudding and I am always going to make him one but with everything else to be made, it is too much and it is the only time I cheat and buy something ready made!
    Have a joyous Christmas Sarah!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Amanda 😀 Twelfth Night is twelve days after Christmas, as Christmas Day counts as the first day of Christmas. Arguments rage annually however as to whether decorations should come down on the evening of the 5th or the next day on the 6th. My mother always stuck by the latter but I see my Google calendar is telling me that the 5th is Twelfth Night. What to do?!!

      I find the Christmas pudding much easier and less time consuming than the cake, actually, but my husband wouldn’t forgive me if there weren’t one of my cakes at Christmas!

      • Forestwood

        Thanks for the clarification. We had to have our tree down by New year when I was young. Maybe Mum was over tinsel by then! Lol.
        I am sure you will find a way to straddle the time difference between Google and tradition! If I were in the UK, I would say Cake and pudding are both necessary for xmas.

  • Jo

    We spent the lead up to Christmas in the UK in 2015 and came home to Australia for the big day. Christmas has, however, never felt quite the same. So in 2019 we spent the big day in the UK with some Kiwi friends. It was the Christmas we’d dreamed of (no snow, but still…)

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I’m glad you got to spend Christmas here 🙂 I can’t remember the last time we had snow in London over Christmas. If we get any at all (these days there are some winters when we don’t) it usually falls later, in January or February. To be honest I’m glad as we’re usually travelling around that time or have family visiting us and the snow makes the roads hazardous and plans uncertain.

  • Oh, the Places We See

    What a treasure of a post! I love the family pictures and then seeing how London does up the holiday. Your heartfelt sentiment is not lost on any of us — you make Christmas special just by loving the holiday in your own special way. Best wishes for happiest of days continuing into the new year.

  • Wind Kisses

    I loved everything about this, Sarah. I am glad I waited to get on my home computer. The photos are brilliant. London as I remember, with all the lights, and food, EVERYWHERE. My favorite photos though are of you and your sister. So special to have the memory especially as your parents are no longer with you. And I love how you follow your moms traditions until the 12th night. Such a lovely post, and the songs mixed in are a perfect match. It is indeed, beginning to look a lot like Christmas at your home. Donna

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Donna, I’m so glad you felt the photos were worth the wait! We’ll be decorating our house over this weekend I think – earlier than we usually do but we could use the Christmas cheer!

  • pattimoed

    Wonderful post, Sarah. I especially loved your description of the cake and pudding. I looked at the cake recipe. Can you share a link to the pudding recipe? My husband loves British pudding. I also enjoyed your description of your mom’s traditions. Have a wonderful holiday season. BTW…we are very close in age. 😀

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Patti. My Mum’s pudding recipe is from 1953 and I only have her handwritten notes, but there are similar ones online. This is the closest one I could find to hers: https://apriljharris.com/old-fashioned-christmas-pudding-recipe/. Ours doesn’t have the grated apple, but I would include it if following this recipe as you may need the moisture that brings. Let me know if you decide to give it a go – I have to say though that not everyone likes Christmas pudding so it may be an acquired taste! The cake however should appeal to anyone who likes fruit cake!

  • the eternal traveller

    Just once I would love to have a Northern Hemisphere Christmas. Last week I was asked by a friend who lives in London if our summer Christmases have a festive feeling and the answer is definitely yes. No different except we tend to have lighter meals, often with delicious fresh seafood and of course there is no snow. 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I guess the truth is that we have festive Christmases in both hemispheres but our festive associations are very different – yours are warm, ours are chilly, yours are seafood, ours are turkey, and so on 🙂

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    Hi Sarah, hope you’re OK. We’ve only been away for Christmas once (Mexico, 2018) and have to say we both thoroughly enjoyed being in hot sunshine on Christmas Day. And unless something goes wrong in the next few days, we’ll be doing it again this year. We’ve has several New Years away in different places though. Good to see your old family photos, bet you love looking back through those at this time of year!

  • Anonymous

    It was fun to see your family photos from years past. You have bottled up lots of memories. I think your cakes are outstanding looking. I’d love a bite, but I’d be afraid to cut it and spoil the perfection. Have a wonderful celebration this year as well.

  • Anne Sandler

    What a wonderful post Sarah! Since we don’t celebrate Christmas, I do enjoy to understand how others celebrate the holiday. It’s great that you have these memories of your childhood and have created your own traditions. I remember the neighborhood Chanukah parties we hosted when my kids were little. We lived in Los Angeles and a neighbor had a Santa suit. We were the only Jewish family that had Santa visit during Chanukah.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Anne 🙂 I do find it fun that many people these days are happy to mix their own festivities and celebrations with some of the ingredients of others! Our schools tend to mark every festival so the children go from Diwali to Chanukah to Christmas … 😀 🎆🕎🎄

  • Leya

    How lovely to have so many photos of olden days/Christmases. We were not into photography, so unfortunately we don’t have many from when I was a child. The atmosphere feels lovely and that Christmas cake! Wow. Thank you for sharing your beautiful memories!

  • rkrontheroad

    A moving trip down memory lane, enjoyed seeing your family photos. I don’t believe I’ve ever had figgy pudding, but know it from Dickens and songs! Didn’t know it had alcohol in it.

  • Marie

    What a lovely post Sarah – I’ve no photos of my early Christmases growing up – just wasn’t the done thing. It’s funny how strong the Xmas tradition is – we don’t actually think about it until it’s challenged. Once I began my own Christmas in my own home, quite a few of the old routines and rituals continued…

    We also stick to home for Christmas although in recent years we’ve headed off for New year… Hopefully in 2022 again!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Marie, it’s been good to read how many people are carrying forwards their family traditions. We’re usually away for NYE too but in this country – we try to get up to Newcastle to catch up with friends and family there although had to miss that last year. Hopefully this year …!

  • leightontravels

    Ah I’m a sucker for old photos, love those black and white shots from the 60s. I’ve recently been wading through my own family shots from the 50s and 60s for some upcoming articles, so this really resonated. Totally with you that Christmas should be a time at home. Over the years, whichever country I found myself living in, I would always try to get back for Christmas. I am rarely one to get homesick, but if I had to spend Christmas abroad, that’s when I would really miss Britain and all its comforts. The cake looks magnificent, thanks for bringing a slice of this to this wintry nowhere town in Serbia. Unfortunately, due to a number of tedious factors, we won’t be getting back to England until January. And even that’s a fingers crossed at this point.

  • Suzanne@PictureRetirement

    Sarah, you are so lucky to have these photos. I vaguely remember a few Christmases’ from my early childhood, but there were never any photos taken. I have seen my daughter’s photos from NYE in London and some of them were taken exactly as yours. We are the same age btw.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, we are lucky to have the photos I know 🙂 I’m so pleased Dad took them! London always looks good for Christmas and NYE, I’m glad your daughter was able to experience it. And nice to ‘meet’ a fellow 1955er!

  • Heyjude

    Love your Christmas memories! Our Christmases were always the same too and many of those traditions carried on with my own children. I only ever decorated the tree once they broke up from school so they would help me (proper tree) and then when my parents were still alive and I lived close by they would come over on Christmas Eve and remain until the buses were running again (until I learned to drive and had a car) so it was a well packed household! Lots of baking going on though the cake would be made in October (also a tradition) – mince pies, chocolate truffles and peppermint creams and trifle of course! Good times. Now the OH and I are on our own, too far to visit any family, so it is very quiet and we can almost forget it is happening!

  • Manja Maksimovič

    For a few weeks? The cake must rest that long? 😮 I haven’t heard of this bit before. I fear in our home that wouldn’t be possible. I have two beasties. 😀 I applaud you for sticking to traditions. I wish you a marvellous celebration and joyful December!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Manja 🙂 The cake is worth waiting for and is all the better for being fed with extra brandy during that time. Plus I must cover it with marzipan, let that dry a little, then ice it and let that set. It all takes time!

  • rosalieann37

    My husband once replied to our DIL’s pronouncement that we should come to their house (a 4 hour drive) for Thanksgiving by saying, we are going to Bermuda for Thanksgiving and the Virgin Islands for Christmas. Afterward I said that I didn’t want to be away at Christmas – I wanted to go to Costa Rica in February when it was really bad weather. For some years, we did travel at Thanksgiving and after our family were spread out over the States and I retired in 2000, traveling in the winter (starting at Halloween) was a way to not have to figure out who we would spend Christmas with. We’d be in SC with our son at Thanksgiving, in Miami with our daughter for Xmas, and our in Texas with another daughter sometime later.

    I didn’t realize how much older I am than you are until you dated your photo. 1961 was when my first child was born.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      It’s hard keeping everyone happy at Christmas! We were hoping my sister and her family would come to us this year but my nephew and his fiancee have just moved into their first house together and are keen to host. Plus they have the biggest lounge in the family so we can spread out more there!

      I was born in 1955 – I had hoped I didn’t look too much older than that 😆

  • Alison

    Wonderful memories Sarah, oh to be in England for Christmas. It’s so unchristmassy in Australia, but we still do all the traditional things. Decorations have to go up early now though, because of our three year old grandson.

  • Terri Webster Schrandt

    You are so right about spending Christmas at home, Sarah! But YOUR area and London, are spectacular places to be for Christmas. I know many folks who travel to different parts of Europe for the holidays. Your pictures highlight the lyrics so well and its just a fun, homey post for the holidays! Your cakes, décor and family celebrations are magical! Next week I’m hosting the color challenge–metallic, so save those ornament shots and other holiday décor and delights (or take us on a tour abroad) for next week 🙂 Enjoy.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Terri, I’m glad you liked this 🙂 I have to confess these aren’t my favourite Christmas songs so it’s slight off-piste, but they’re the ones that seemed to fit best with the photos! I’ll have a think about next week but will probably go down a different route …

  • Tina Schell

    Loved your post Sarah – so fun to see others’ traditions. Your early days look much like ours. I still remember those massive headlights my dad had on his movie camera to video us coming into the family room and seeing the tree for the first time that year. Must admit tho, the hat-thing might put me off LOL. Thanks for sharing the wonderful memories

  • Amy

    Thank you for sharing your sweet memories, Sarah! Family, friends, delicious cake, lights… what a wonderful celebrating series.

  • maristravels

    Your article made me realise that I’ve got no photographs of family Christmases! I wonder why? Maybe because when I was so young cameras were not the everyday thing they are today. I think the box camera only came out when we went to the seaside for a day or on holiday to my grandparents in the country. I’ve got lots of me as a child but no Christmas ones. Yours are delightful and I’m glad you continue the traditions. I’m not a traditionalist in any way but I do adhere to the decorations remaining up until 12th Night, that was ingrained in me. As for your cakes! If I could produce a cake like that I’d be a contender on Bake-Off.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Cameras were only used sparingly when I was a child too, but my father was quite keen on photography and captured a lot of special family moments, for which we’re grateful today 🙂 I’ve only scanned one or two albums – doing more is one of those retirement projects I’ve not yet got around to! That’s why all of these are from the same year – the album covered winter 1961 to summer 1963 but he didn’t take any at Christmas the following year it seems. Can you imagine families today only having a few dozen photos spanning almost two years?!

      Thanks for the kind words about the cakes, but really they’re very simplistic by Bake Off standards – certainly not show-stoppers 😆

  • SandyL

    What a lovely way to celebrate Christmas. The photos of you & your sister are so cute. Do not apologize for your cake – they look exceptionally good. Much better than mine which I never decorate!

  • margaret21

    When I was little, and my own children too, Christmas Eve was The Day for decorating the tree. I’m a little less hard line these days, but yes. Twelfth Night is the day to dismantle it all. It’s the law.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Ah, we think alike 😁🎄 When we were kids my parents would decorate the tree after we’d gone to bed, the a couple of nights before Christmas Eve i think, so we had the delight of seeing it appear as if by magic! When we were a bit older we were allowed to help, but my mother had certain ‘rules’ we had to follow – least pretty ornaments at the back (but never leave the back bare!), tinsel draped to cover the wiring of the lights, and both tucked well into the branches, larger ornaments towards the bottom and smaller ones up high etc etc. And of course I do the same now!

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