In the U.S., fireworks are often synonymous with July 4th celebrations. But, in England, they are normally associated with Bonfire Night. If you don’t know the story, Guy Fawkes – along with some fellow co-conspirators – tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605 by filling a cellar, under the House of Lords, with barrels of gunpowder. Ever since then, straw effigies of Guy Fawkes have been burned on bonfires throughout Britain, underneath (in later years) firework-lit skies.
Prior to moving to the U.S. a little over a decade ago, November 5th was one of my favorite British traditions. Despite its origination, as a child there was something remarkably comforting about wrapping up in a warm wooly hat and blanket, sipping steaming cups of soup and eating treats like roasted chestnuts, while oohing and aahing over the pyrotechnic spectacle above my head. More importantly, for me, Bonfire Night represented the start of the year’s most magical season.
So, in honor of this year’s November 5th commemoration, here is a rundown of some of my favorite London activities during this time of year.
Christmas Trees & Lighting Ceremonies
If you are in London on Thursday, December 6, be sure to check out Trafalgar Square for the lighting of its Christmas tree. Every year, Norway donates a 20 meter high tree, to thank Britain for its help during the Second World War. And don’t worry, if you can’t make it in time, the tree typically stays up until the Twelfth Night of Christmas!
Bonfire Night also marks the first of several lighting ceremonies throughout London.
Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland
Later this month, Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland will once again open to the public. Revel in all the rides and attractions, or just meander through Santa Land and the Christmas Market. Just remember to book your tickets in advance for any attraction that you are really interested in. While entrance to Winter Wonderland is free, popular rides and attractions do require tickets that often sell out.
Just like New York, with its outdoor seasonal ice skating rinks in Central Park and the Rockefeller Center, London also boasts a number of pop-up ice rinks during the winter. For more information, check out About.com’s page on London’s Ice Rinks.
Whenever I have tried to explain what a pantomime is to my American friends, I have always failed miserably. My best description is that they are play-like renderings of children’s nursery stories that involve slap stick (adult and kid) humor as well as audience participation – think “Oh yes he did/ oh no he didn’t” back and forth. The larger theatrical productions typically feature well-known British TV stars in the lead roles (sometimes in drag).
However the fact remains that pantomimes are near and dear to my heart and something that I automatically associate with Christmas. For this reason, every time I am back in England, I make sure to attend at least one production. This year, there are a number of old favorite pantomimes making appearances in London – from Mother Goose, to Aladdin, to Jack and the Beanstalk, and good old Dick Whittington.
Royal Albert Hall
If you are looking for a more high-brow form of entertainment, then you can’t go wrong with tickets to a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Whether you choose a performance like Carols by Candlelight, or the Christmas Carol Singalong, you are sure to be impressed by this exquisite 19th Century venue.
Shopping in London is not for the faint-hearted, especially if you visit tourist favorites like Oxford Street, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols, and Harrods in the run up to December 25th, but it can be a lot of fun! And to this day, around Christmas, I normally order something quintessentially British online from Harrods. Just be warned that the post-Christmas sales on Boxing Day can be absolute chaos due to the unique deals available.
Perhaps it was the movie My Fair Lady, or Covent Garden’s colorful history, unique layout and architecture, people-watching, or street entertainment, but Covent Garden continues to be a favorite London haunt of mine – come rain or shine. This year there will be plenty of seasonal delights for visitors to enjoy.
If the weather in London is a little wet or cold, why not head inside to one of London’s world renowned museums? The Tate Modern holds the national collection of British art from 1500 to the present day, the National Gallery houses the national collection of Western European paintings from the 13th to 19th centuries, and the Victoria & Albert Museum is the world’s leading museum of art and design. There is also, of course, the Natural History Museum – where entry is free!
Houses of Parliament
I cannot write an article inspired by Guy Fawkes, without calling out the fact that oversees visitors can tour the Houses of Parliament on most Saturdays throughout the year.
Not able to get over to the United Kingdom for the holidays? Then why not get a slice of London state-side by celebrating the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens at the 34th Annual Great Dickens Christmas Fair and Holiday Party in San Francisco, or the 31st Annual Dickens Show & Festival in Myrtle Beach.