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Christmas in London

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Photo: Jasper James

This, of course, is the story that makes Britain, and especially London, such a potent destination at Christmastime. The Cratchit family is at the heart of the matter: what’s so striking about them is not that Scrooge rescues them with a giant turkey and gives Bob a raise and promises continual goodwill. It’s that the family, even without the raise and the cure for a dying child, is already full to the brim with goodwill.

As are Elizabeth and I—finally—at Harrods.

Everything good here happens underground. It’s enough just to see the food hall, with its famous Art Nouveau tile work by W. J. Neatby of Royal Doulton. An astonishing hunting scene shows wild and domestic edible animals before the slaughter, in pastoral portraits under Tree of Life canopies. The founding priests at this temple of food were far from squeamish about sacrifice. At the butcher’s counter, despite a lifelong familiarity with lamb—chops, shanks, rack of, and leg o’—I learn that in Britain the beast also gives up chump, carré, and scrag. All around is every kind of meat, sausages, fruits and vegetables, chocolates and teas and seafood. A freestanding bronze pig holds a maple leaf in its mouth. Two mermaids, like twin Atlases holding up the world, shoulder the weight of a giant clam.

We go upstairs to buy some tights, and Elizabeth discovers that she has lost her credit card. A clerk tells us crisply, "We have been trained to immediately take credit cards to Lost Property." In the basement, down a dreary hall, a dour-seeming clerk searches for the card and hands it over. "Thank you for shopping at Lost Property," he says, not dour at all but deadpan. Such wit, Elizabeth and I decide, defines "merry" in the Queen’s English, that British sense of measured fun, which can’t be too much fun, since, after all, one must always be prepared for one’s fortunes to change. At this point we have gone back to the food hall and settled at the oyster bar for a perfect dozen, and champagne, and toasting.

And now, we are in the diminutive theater with its dining room chandelier. Two of the three plays we have already seen in our 12 days of Christmas have nothing to do with the holiday but everything to do with unexpected gifts: the actors Rhys Ifans and Stephen Wight at the Donmar Warehouse in Patrick Marber’s Don Juan in Soho; the revelation of playwright Tom Stoppard’s Rock ’n’ Roll, in every way about revolution, and the survival of music and love and humanity through ignorance, horrors, and betrayal. Now the curtain is about to go up on The Snow Queen. It’s my first Christmas pantomime, which, as everyone in Britain, if not everyone in the United States, has long been aware, has nothing to do with mime and everything to do with fairy tales made into very silly musical melodramas, audience participation required.

The Snow Queen wears a glittery white dress with a tentlike skirt, under which she is making her feet appear to roll across the stage. She is very beautiful, and very cruel. (When traveling, she wears a polar bear–skin cape.) Suddenly two fat trolls costumed in cool-aqua Smurf fur rush onto the stage. The Snow Queen growls an order and the trolls hop to. "Yes, your iciness!" they say.

Fa la la la la, la la, la la.

Alice Gordon is Travel + Leisure’s features director.


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