I know for many people, Christmas can be a stressful time. The extra money needed to buy gifts or attend added social engagements, the cooking, the pressure to have the perfect family Christmas as seen in various films or TV ads. No wonder the build-up often leaves us frazzled and then disappointed with the reality.
Knowing all this doesn’t dampen my inner elf in any way. I’m a sucker for all things to do with the festive season – carols, Christmas films, gingerbread biscuits, a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, port, decorating the tree…in fact, stick a string of fairy lights on it and I’ll LOVE it.
But even my sanity is tested when I end up saying “yes” to too many social engagements, trying to cram in seeing EVERY friend and family member before Christmas as if it’s the last time I’ll ever see them again. Also (note to self), baking gingerbread biscuits for loved ones may sound like a lovely, crafty thing to do but when it’s midnight (because you’ve no time left) and you’re desperate to go to bed but can’t because once you’ve finished baking you’ve got to RINSE THE BATTER OUT OF YOUR HAIR(!) then the cursing begins and it’s not so much of a white Christmas as a blue Christmas…
If you recognise yourself in this scenario then my top tip is to try to squeeze in at least one Artist Date in the run-up to Christmas. (Maybe two if you’ve got the in-laws staying). Turn your back on the shopping and the gift wrapping for just a few hours and take a little slice of time in the day/eve just to do whatever will restore your spirits and regain a sense of equilibrium. Take a breath. Head to a park and have a brisk walk on a frosty morning. Put on some music and with face-pack applied, soak in the bath for a while. Go and join in some carol singing or just sit somewhere quiet (a church, a park bench, a library) and reflect on what Christmas means to you. If it doesn’t hold much meaning for you, then you can also reflect on the end of one year and make a mental list for what you’d like to happen in order to create a positive New Year ahead.
Christmas is about spreading Good Will to all – something which is easier to do if you’re not sleep-deprived, stressed or pressured into spending money you don’t have on gifts you’re not sure they’ll want. It’s about spending time with loved ones and that can (indeed should) include yourself.
For my Artist Date, I’m hoping to have a walk, once it’s dark, to look at the Christmas lights. It’s free and relatively stress-free if you can avoid the crowds (that means not going on late night shopping nights and trying to avoid Oxford and Regent Street). There are some lovely displays within the capital, so wrap up warm and with a hot beverage of choice in hand (eggnog latte, ginger tea, mulled wine), have a wander and a gander at the lights and Christmas displays. Not sure you’ll manage to avoid the crowds entirely but here are my top 5 in no particular order:
1) Covent garden - a giant Christmas tree, massive silver Reindeer and a full-sized Santa and his Reindeer made out of LEGO. Not to mention all the market stall vendors selling unique gifts under cover (an added bonus if it rains). Start out at Charing Cross where you can check out the huge Christmas tree (Norway’s gift to London each year) in Trafalgar Square. Walk along the Strand turning left up Southampton Street towards Covent Garden Piazza. Once you’ve explored that area, head up Neal Street then hang a left up Shorts Gardens to check out the pretty lights at Cambridge Circus and Seven Dials.
2) Southbank – always one of my favourite walks. Get off at Waterloo and head to the Southbank’s Winter Festival where you’ll find fairy lights galore, a Christmas market all along that stretch (perfect for stopping off for a snack along the way) and huge, glowing, white rabbits (yes that’s right!). I’m not sure what they have to do with Christmas (not much, really, as they’re part of an art exhibition by Amanda Parer) but they still look lovely lit up at night.
There’s also an old-fashioned express train and a Christmas Tree maze. Check out their list of events here.
3) There’s a peacock theme going on in Bond Street. You might have to endure a bit of Oxford Street to get to New Bond Street but when you get to Bond Street tube it’s also worth checking out St Christopher’s Place which is tucked away off Oxford Street and often has fun and colourful decorations. There are plenty of places to eat round there as well, like Ping Pong and Carluccio’s.
4) Marylebone – I love having a mooch round Marylebone as it feels a bit like London-of-Old. It’s classic and understated in an “old-money” sort of way. There are some lovely independent shops – the bijoux (but slightly ridiculously priced) Monocle shop and a nice mix of high-street shops and more high-end clothes and lifestyle stores. The Conran Shop is in the most fantastic building and has a huge range of interior design products for all budgets.
There’s also the Cabbages and Frocks market (opposite the Conran Shop), selling British- made food and fashion. Along the high street you’ll find Skandium and the terrific Edwardian bookshop, Daunt Books and a number of lovely eateries. Time Out has produced a comprehensive list of restaurants and cafes in the area (see here). It’s worth visiting the charity shops along the high street as you can pick up some designer pieces for a good price.
5) Carnaby Street – for good fun and bright baubles, Carnaby Street is the place to go. Come out of Oxford Street station and take the side road down towards Liberty’s (which usually has great displays). Carnaby Street may not be a patch on what it was during the swinging 60’s but it still has plenty of buzz and atmosphere and lots of little interesting boutiques and bars just off it. I would keep walking all the way down till you hit Piccadilly Circus and then go down Piccadilly itself towards Fortnum and Mason which always do amazing and creative window displays. Various items in the food court (tins of lovely biscuits, crackers, jams) make nice presents for those hard-to-buy-for people.
In order to brace yourself for the whirlwind that is usually the Christmas season, make sure you factor in a little bit of time for you.