Piccadilly is empty. After the torrents of last evening, the morning dawned bright, the vaulted sky filled with high, fat clouds and rain-following sunshine that appears to have scoured the drear from the world. It is Christmas. I am, of course, in London, walking the quiet streets of a city many of whose residents are presumably now at home awakening to the smell of bacon and to ziggurats of boxed presents wrapped in shiny paper.
The city is mine for a moment. Its broad, bowed avenues, its shuttered shop fronts, its parks with venerable oaks seem like the furnishings of an immense and harmonious ancient structure, a 1,000-year-old edifice. The moment feels oddly holy, a word I long ago ceased to associate with this particular day. I have come to England to escape from Christmas. And here, by happenstance, I have found some of its essence. A string of days spent in the company of new and old friends and a particular loved one has renewed my spirit, even given me a kind of faith. At the very least, it has shifted my perception of Christmas as a holiday to be outrun at any cost.
And as I walk the lightly occupied streets it comes clear that it was not so much a desire to avoid a day that’s held sacred by billions of Christians as to flee what any sane person agrees is months of dinning and relentlessly commercialized cheer. I came to London to escape the endless aural loop of Alvin & the Chipmunks and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”
This is not the first time I’ve tried. I’ve ducked out on a holiday I felt was best appreciated by six-year-olds so often that I’ve begun to feel part of the Escape Christmas movement. There actually is one. Scores of websites exist that recommend getaways to destinations like India, where so many gods are in competition for one’s attention that the infant Redeemer is just another face in the crowd.
While on paper this seems promising, in reality you plan a jaunt to, say, the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi and soon enough you encounter the reality that Christianity is the third largest religion on the subcontinent. This becomes clear when an old friend, a highborn Sikh, e-mails to say that her daughter will be appearing in her international school’s Nativity pageant. She will be dressed as “Mother Mary.” Would you like to attend? There will be a crèche.
You might, as I have done, try escaping to Thailand at Christmas, figuring that in the land of the Buddha and sex tourism you might find relief from an obligatory annual viewing of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. You would be mistaken. In Thailand, as I discovered one Christmas, every half-decent hotel features a tree in the lobby, beneath it a stack of Potemkin packages fastened with shiny bows. You are also sure to find a petite Thai lounge singer with a voice like a Klaxon at the bar. She will be belting out a phonetic version of “Feliz Navidad.”
Perhaps this is the place to mention that my ambivalence about the holiday is not antireligious. Even as a lapsed believer, I can be moved by the tale of the flight into Egypt, the lone figures in search of lodging, the manger kept warm by beasts with steaming flanks, the guiding star, the miracle itself. Rather, it originates in an effort to avoid the freighted emotional longings of the season, its welter of muddled expectations, the office parties, the candy canes and eggnog, the consumerism run amok.
It is not that my lot in life has been to find a lump of coal in a stocking come Christmas. I have enjoyed wonderful and companionable Currier & Ives holidays with family and among friends. I have decked halls, stuffed turkeys, gone on slightly drunken rounds of caroling in sleighs drawn by big-rumped horses yoked with jingle bells. I have succumbed to full-blown seasonal madness, resuscitating childhood Christmases with the demented intensity of a Disney Imagineer.
The nadir was the year I bought a lush Fraser fir so large it took two deliverymen to get it into my apartment, and decorated the behemoth with hundreds of ornaments accumulated over the decades. For a week I took to lying on the floor every evening and gazing up through the lighted branches in a kiddie swoon. Then the tree dried out, of course, and you know how that story ends.
It was then that the idea first occurred to me that I could enjoy Christmas better when it was someone else’s. I conceived a notion of traveling to some Christian country, where I might float anonymously among the tree-trimmers and curbside bell-ringers and last-minute shoppers and treat the holiday and its customs with the bemused fascination one might bring to some charming but culturally obscure event.
I did this first in Bavaria where, accompanied by a pal, I settled into the Mandarin Oriental, Munich, a place of snug rooms, wide beds, fat down coverlets, and a lobby tree surrounded by bow-tied boxes from Bulgari. Even the weather conspired to complete the clichéd scenario, and near nightfall on Christmas Eve, an armada of clouds sailed across an otherwise clear sky and precipitated onto the spires and medieval beer halls and famous Glockenspiel a confectionary dusting of snow.
I took to visiting various other western European capitals at Christmas, this past year choosing London in the hope that the Anglicans’ restraining influence might temper the worst, noisiest, and gaudiest elements of the season. I billeted myself at 51 Buckingham Gate, a hotel where—as an English actor friend explained—temperamental Hollywood artistes tend to lodge while promoting their films. I spent five indulgent days there, wandering the city’s blessedly depopulated precincts; visiting the Orientalist madhouse that was the Holland Park studio dwelling of the Victorian artist Frederic Leighton; taking the Tube to another little-visited gem, the Dulwich Picture Gallery; dropping in to the subterranean Portobello Road arcade called the Admiral Vernon Antique Market, where the antiquarians with their moth-eaten cardigans and crooked toupees seem every bit as odd as the fascinating old oddments they sell.
I made my usual beeline to Chelsea and John Sandoe (Books) Ltd., an independent bookseller where 24,300 volumes, most single copies, are stacked wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling, in places two deep on the shelves. I acquired for myself several presents, among them Letters from London and Europe, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the Anglophile Sicilian aristocrat and genius whose novel, The Leopard, must rank among the finer literary achievements of the 20th century.
The view from my hotel window was of a watery sky and some housing blocks set behind Buckingham Palace. The cozy interior landscape was of a bed heaped in hillocks of books with, on a side table, a glass of Chablis from Fortnum & Mason’s Food Hall and a tin of ginger cookies. But for the wine, it was the kind of selfishly indulgent holiday you might have dreamed of in childhood.
As a concession to the religious centerpiece of the season, I took a taxi on a drizzly evening to midnight mass at the Temple Church, set within the venerable walled complex of the Inns of Court. It was pleasant enough, though the choristers seemed bored, and when the hymns and homily had ended, I ducked through the gates and walked back to the hotel along the Victoria Embankment, arriving in the first hours of Christmas morning to flop into bed.
In place of the paranoia or creeping dread I sometimes experience at this time of year, I felt contentment. Before leaving home I had ticked off the names on my lists, posted presents, and sent Christmas cards, and it cheered me to imagine friends and family back home enacting familiar rituals. It was not displeasing to know I would be spared the white meat versus dark meat debate, the toasts and the yawning empty hours between Christmas lunch and a late-night turkey sandwich eaten in the light of an open fridge. In a few hours I would occupy a coveted table at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, toasting the holiday with friends over a delectably unseasonal meal of fish that was a Christmas present from me to me. And in the meantime, I could walk around London as if in an empty museum, taking in the momentary stillness that struck me as the most wonderful and unanticipated gift.