London Christmas then and now


Christmas in London is a fun time these days, with lots of sparkling lights, great events, pantomimes and open-air ice rinks. But the way the capital has marked the festival has changed and developed down the years. There is plenty of eating, drinking and merriment these days, but that is nothing new. Back in medieval times such activity was commonplace and this kind of debauchery led to the celebration of Christmas actually being banned during the Puritan period following the English civil war.

However, the celebrations soon returned and a range of traditions became commonplace in London as they did elsewhere, such as the German practice of Christmas trees, something introduced to Buckingham Palace by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and soon adopted by Londoners all over the city, as well as becoming a global tradition. Ironically, it was Germany’s defeat in the Second World War that sparked another London Christmas custom. Norway’s gratitude to Britain for the help given during the war (including a safe haven for the Norwegian royal family) has been to deliver a huge pine to act as the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree, an annual tradition that has continued to this year.

The 19th century was a time when many modern Christmas traditions began in London. Solicitor William Sandys wrote Carols Ancient and Modern in 1833, including classics like The First Noel and God Rest You Merry Gentlemen. Sir Henry Cole introduced Christmas cards in 1843 and four years later Thomas J Smith introduced the Christmas cracker, with these originals containing his sweets rather than the toys, paper hats and terrible jokes we see today. Most notably of all, this period saw Charles Dickens write A Christmas Carol, a classical tale that remains a favourite to this day and does more than any other book to evoke the image of a Victorian Christmas.

Christmas Day could also be a good day to see football, both in London and elsewhere, as a great sporting tradition that lasted until 1971, when the law changed and December 25th became an official public holiday. Since then matches have traditionally been played on Boxing day. So while there will always be carols, tinsel, food and drink, Christmas in London has changed a lot down the years – and who knows what new traditions might emerge in the future.

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