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IT IS CHRISTMAS

Eat, pray, shop

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London is one of the world's great, vibrant cities at just about any time of the year, but at Christmas the city comes alive in a seriously amazing way.

Of course, Christmas is of huge significance to Christian believers, but it is, let's not fool ourselves, also a hugely important commercial event. Since you traditionally give people presents at Christmas, you need to shop, and shopping is what London does brilliantly. You see people of every religion and race, thronging Oxford Street to ooh and aah at the Christmas lights and see the much anticipated seasonal window displays in the department stores. The stores have ever-later opening hours as December 25 approaches, and in a cunning move, the post-Christmas sales are now increasingly pre-Christmas.

For many residents, who have been bombarded with Christmas merchandise and Christmas music for several months before the big day, it all gets a bit too much, but for visitors, it is just magical. Windows festooned with lights and holly and displays of snowmen and Santa Claus. Christmas Carols playing. Presents stacked high. Traditional food on sale.

The famed theatre world of London's West End gets into the Yuletide seasonal spirit with traditional ballets and pantomimes. That ultimate Christmas ballet fairytale, The Nutcracker, is a much-loved, perennial fixture. The story of a nutcracker coming to life on Christmas Eve and leading the toys in a battle against the rats is staged every year, always performs to packed houses, and woe betide anyone who tries to tinker with the production. We all want The Nutcracker to be exactly the way it was when we were children, and thus pass the magic on.

Pantomimes are a British specialty, and are only performed during the Christmas and New Year period. Once again, these are age-old, formulaic productions and no-one wants them to change an iota. The "panto" is the ultimate family, holiday entertainment, and is a rather oddball mixture of song, dance, totally harmless cross-dressing, and lots of expected loud audience participation. Generations of children have grown up shouting out warnings to the hapless hero on stage, and even though the "panto" always incorporates topical jokes, the structure stays the same. There is always a baddie, but he's never seriously evil. There is always a happy ending. "The Dame" is always played by a man. The hero is always played by a woman. That's the harmless cross-dressing bit.

There is no need to fret too much about the weather when you are in London over the winter. Yes, it will be cold and yes, it gets dark early (about 3. 30 pm) and yes it may/may not rain/sleet/snow, but you knew that, didn't you? You don't go to London in December for good weather, and since everything is toasty warm - buses, shops, restaurants - it's just a question of layering for those brief forays into the December chill.

Regardless of the weather - because often it doesn't actually freeze - you can still enjoy iceskating in London over Christmas, thanks to amazing venues such as the Natural History Museum, Somerset House, Hyde Park and even the Tower of London that become home to seasonal ice-rinks. These are hugely popular, so it is wise to book online. There can be fewer classier settings for learning how to skate than in the moat of the Tower of London.

So, you have shopped for presents, perhaps even getting some early bird bargains. You have shopped for traditional food - mince pies and Christmas pudding and Christmas cake. You have wandered along Oxford Street, Bond Street and Regent Street admiring the lights and the decorated windows. You have even made the pilgrimage to Carnaby Street to see the special Rolling Stones 50th anniversary decorations.

Perhaps it is now time to temper all that consumerism with a little timeout discovering the true spirit of Christmas. No matter what one's religion, the Christmas story is an appealing one on a human level: a tiny baby is born on a freezing cold wintery night in a stable, because there was no room in the inn for his parents, his crib is the animals' hay-filled feeding rack, and his first visitors are poor, local shepherds. This timeless scene is represented in churches and homes by a crib - a depiction of the nativity. Statues of the Holy Family and the shepherds are set up weeks before Christmas, and can range from small simple statues to lifesize images.

You cannot escape Christmas music in London, since it is played everywhere, in shops, in supermarkets, in the streets, but if you have the chance to attend a carol concert, do go. The carol concerts in Westminster Abbey are sensational.
To sit and listen to a choir singing traditional songs is a very moving, experience: the haunting music puts all that wonderful glitz and shopping in a different context.

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