London Celebrates a Dickens of a Christmas

Charles Dickens…: The title page of the First Edition of A Christmas Carol, 1843 (Public Domain)

By Marilyn LaRocque

With the possible exception of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the most cherished, popular fictional Christmas story ever written. Not surprising, therefore, that London celebrates a Dickens of a Christmas.

Dickens’ fans have something spectacular to celebrate this holiday season, the reopening of the Dickens Museum after a £3.1 million makeover of what is his only surviving London home. The Heritage Lottery Fund provided £2 million for the project, a high roller bet that the whole world wins!

(Clockwise) The kitchen at the Charles Dickens Museum. Photo by Andrea Artz, courtesy of The Charles Dickens Museum. | Charles Dickens’ study at The Charles Dickens Museum Photo by Andrea Artz, courtesy of The Charles Dickens Museum | Charles Dickens and his family lived in this Georgian Terrace House 1837-1839. Photo courtesy of The Charles Dickens Museum

The Georgian terrace home at 48 Doughty Street, where Dickens (1821-1870) and his family lived from 1837 to 1839, is where he put the finishing touches on Pickwick Papers and wrote Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist. The museum is a treasure trove of original Victorian furnishings, books, papers, and the family’s personal belongings. You can even poke around the attics and explore the kitchen. It’s a perfect place to begin a nostalgic holiday visit to London. (www.dickensmuseum.com)

Although you can’t really describe Walt Disney as an “author,” his animated telling of fairytale classics are as much a part of the holiday season as Tiny Tim and Ebenezer Scrooge. Ten of his princesses and heroines have found a fabulous new home for the holidays…the windows of world-famous Harrods of London in Knightsbridge. (www.harrods.com) They won’t be hard to find because 11,000 light bulbs adorn the iconic façade of this amazing five-acre shopping mecca of over 330 departments. For their festive turn in the spotlight, these beloved Disney “stars” wear exclusive gowns created by such famous designers as Oscar de la Renta, Versace, and Elie Saab.

Thousands of lights illuminate Harrods, Knightsbridge, during the holiday season. Fireworks officially launch the celebration. Photos courtesy of courtesy of Harrods, London.

Designer gowns drape Disney princesses for Harrods’ holiday windows… Mulan by Missoni | Photos courtesy of courtesy of Harrods, London.

Designer gowns drape Disney princesses for Harrods’ holiday windows… Cinderella by Versace | Photos courtesy of courtesy of Harrods, London.

Designer gowns drape Disney princesses for Harrods’ holiday windows… Ariel by Marchesa | Photos courtesy of courtesy of Harrods, London.

Once you’ve satisfied your fashionista passions, it’s time to sate food and wine cravings at Harrods seven legendary Food Halls. What began as a small grocery shop in 1849 now equals the size of 14 tennis courts. You’ll think you’re in a time warp because the aura is vintage London. Sales people wear striped aprons and stiff straw “boater” hats banded with wide grosgrain ribbon.

Vintage décor showcases the food at Harrods Meat Hall. Photos courtesy of Harrods, London.

The decor is pure fantasy. Spectacular Doulton tile decorations designed in 1902 by artist William Neatby are so extraordinary they’ve been “officially” declared “important historical artifacts” and can’t be altered. Marble, stained glass, sculptures, friezes, ceiling decorations, and themed chandeliers complete the sensational decor. Each hall specializes in a particular category of product…fish, meat, poultry, produce, confections…a cornucopia of temptations.

Seafood at Harrods seems to be posing for a still life. Photo by Marilyn LaRocque

The ultimate indulgence is a Harrods Christmas “hamper,” which begins with a simple presentation of Christmas pudding and Brandy Butter made with cognac and Courvoisier (£25) or port and Stilton (£50), pauses at £125 for the Rose Prince gift basket containing a cookbook, pudding, Christmas fruit cake, and mince pies, and escalates to The Opulence, £10,000 of gourmet extravagance from caviar to Krug champagne in a leather-like trunk.

At the Wine and Spirits shop, the selection is staggering; the staff, expert. If money is no object, indulge in rare single malts, French wines, and a vertical collection of Château Petrus, 1969-2008, for just under half-a-million dollars.

Harrods Port and Stilton Cheese, the quintessential British holiday pairing. Photo courtesy of Harrods.

The Opulent Hamper: At £10,000, Harrods’ Opulent Hamper covers the gourmet gamut from caviar to Krug Champagne. Photo courtesy of Harrods, London.

Harrods wine Shop stocks some amazing wines. Photo by Marilyn LaRocque

You’ll find another shopping adventure with Christmas flair at Regent Street in the West End. Bracketed by ritzy Mayfair and trendy Soho, it’s famous for its Christmas illuminations. In honor of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games held in London, medal winners from both competitions ceremoniously switched on the lights. Regent is no slouch in the retail rankings, with such illustrious emporiums as Burberry, Apple, Ferrari, Bose, Esprit, and Jaeger lining the street.

Opera star: Opera star Noah Stewart and Great Britain's Olympic and Paralympic team medal winners help launch the 2012 Regent Street Holiday festivities. Photo courtesy of Regent Street

Regent St. Lights: Regent Street sparkles with lights from one end to the other. Photo courtesy of Regent Street

Whatever the time of year, but especially during the holidays, London’s most sparkling jewels are its castles and palaces. Start at the top. Visit the State Rooms of Buckingham Palace from December 22, 2012, to February 3, 2013 on selected days, mostly Friday through Sunday. What an incredible way to spend New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day! After that you’ll have to wait until late summer/early autumn, August 3 to September 29, 2013. What makes Buckingham Palace unique among castles and palaces, besides its grandeur, is it’s a functioning royal residence, not a museum.

The Blue Drawing Room. Buckingham Palace Photo by Andrew Holt from The Royal Collection © 2012, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

You become a part of history as you ascend the Grand Staircase following in the steps of dignitaries from around the globe, as you stand in the Throne Room that’s regally adorned with crimson brocade and the setting for important ceremonies, as you walk through the grand hall where state banquets have honored world leaders. You’ll overdose on antiques, art, and gilded splendor. Opulence is also beneath your feet in beautiful floors and carpets and overhead with gilded, painted ceilings and sparkling chandeliers.

The White Drawing Room, Buckingham Palace: Photo by Derry Moore from The Royal Collection © 2012, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

If your trip to London doesn’t mesh with Her Majesty’s schedule, during most of the year you can still feast your eyes on the magnificent carriages and State motorcars at the Royal Mews adjacent to Buckingham Palace. If they’re not enjoying a break from the rigors of royal transport, the horses, Windsor Greys, which draw the Queen’s carriage, and Cleveland Bays may greet you. Astounding pieces selected from the Queen’s Royal Collection are displayed in the Queen’s Gallery, a former chapel.

Book tickets online in advance at www.royalcollection.org.uk. It’s a wide-ranging resource.

Queen’s Ballroom at Windsor Castle. Photo by Mark Fiennes from The Royal Collection © 2012, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

King’s Bedchamber at Windsor Castle. Photo by Mark Fiennes from The Royal Collection © 2012, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

For more of the royal lifestyle, head out of London to Windsor Castle, the world’s largest inhabited castle and a weekend and summer favorite of Her Majesty. You may recall that an horrendous fire gutted parts of the castle in 1992. The good news is it triggered the opening of Buckingham Palace to visitors to help pay the cost of restoration.

State Apartments, gilt, rich fabrics, and marble staircases inspire wide-eyed awe. St. George’s Chapel is magnificent. New Knights of the Garter are invested in the Garter Throne Room surrounded by portraits of monarchs in their “Garter Robes,” from George 1 to Queen Elizabeth II. The spectacular porcelain collection defies description. However, also “think small.” Queen Mary’s Dolls House is a masterpiece in miniature, with elaborate, elegant tiny detail.

During the holidays, Christmas trees deck the Lantern Lobby and Crimson Drawing Room, and the table in the State Dining Room is set for a Victorian Family Christmas. Victorian-themed decorations also adorn the Octagon Dining Room. You’ll enjoy a bonus during the winter months (through March 31, 2013), when five Semi-State Rooms are also open to the public. www.royal.gov.uk

Hampton Court Palace: The imposing entrance to Hampton Court. Photo courtesy of Olympics Source

Travel back in time at Hampton Court, which is synonymous with Henry VIII. However, it was built as the palace of Cardinal Wolsey. (www.hrp.org.uk/HamptonCourtPalace) When the Cardinal fell out of favor with Henry, the king took over Hampton Court. Although the entire Tudor castle is fascinating, the focal point are the gigantic “Abraham” tapestries, which drape the Great Hall, the largest room in the palace. Commissioned by Henry VIII, they were first hung in about 1546. Considering the tapestries’ beauty and value, you would think the Great Hall would be a frequent gathering place for the royal court. Not so. Except for State occasions, the tapestries were rolled up, and the Great Hall became the dining room for the staff of approximately 600 people.

A Regal bedroom at Hampton Court | Photo by Marilyn LaRocque

King William III commissioned the sweeping King’s Staircase in 1699. It’s decorated with allegorical combat murals by Antonio Verrio. It’s adjacent to the Guard Chamber, where nearly 3,000 of the fighting implement known at that time form distinctive artistic designs on the walls. There’s a strict cleaning schedule to make sure they’re always shiny. In King William’s royal red bedchamber, clusters of plumes top his bed’s canopy.

His wife, Queen Mary II (hence William and Mary), enjoyed comfortable apartments; however, Queen Caroline (1734) decreed the sumptuous style seen today. Artwork for her Grand Staircase is an enormous painting depicting her as the goddess Britannia. Brussels tapestries hang in both the Queen’s State Bedroom and Queen’s Gallery. A refreshing contrast are blue and white Delftware tulipières, the unique tulip “vases” for which Delft is famous.

Cooks prepare a meal in the Tudor Kitchens at Hampton Court. Photo by Marilyn LaRocque

Fire cooked the food in Hampton Court’s enormous Tudor kitchens, and rising smoke painted sooty paths up the towering walls. Wine casks, not bottles, lined one cellar.

We visited on a day when costumed chefs and kitchen workers were recreating the royal recipes. Under such conditions, “Top Chef” chef’testants would switch careers.

Although Tudor costumed yeomen and courtiers, including Henry, stroll around the grounds of Hampton Court year ’round, in winter, choirboys in their bright red robes fly around the skating rink, a holiday attraction that’s great fun, especially at night when the façade of the castle is illuminated.

Hampton Court choir boys whiz around the skating rink. Photo © Historic Royal Palaces, Courtesy of Hampton Court Palace

Allow time for a side trip to the Winter Wonderland at Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, a phenomenal place to visit anytime but especially festive with a vintage carousel and St. Nicholas’ Christmas tree decorations and, on weekends, roasted chestnuts, mince pies, and mulled wine to enjoy. The gardens themselves feature seasonal highlights and a “Twelve Trees of Christmas” winter trail. And, of course, there’s holiday shopping. (www.kew.org)

Hampton Court’s façade provides a handsome backdrop for the skating rink. Photo © Historic Royal Palaces, Courtesy of Hampton Court Palace

The more subdued Kensington Palace, which recently completed an $18.8 million renovation, leads a dual life, with part of the palace a museum, the rest, a residence. It was the home of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, and, in 2013, becomes the home of Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. The museum wing houses collections tracing the royal progression, with the rooms covering Queen Victoria and Prince Albert especially poignant, revealing details of their lives, both royal and personal. Equally touching is an exhibit displaying some of Diana’s trend-setting gowns. www.hrp.org.uk/KensingtonPalace.

The massive Tower of London stands guard over its moat turned into an ice rink. Photo © Historic Royal Palaces, Courtesy of Tower of London

The Tower of London, which dates back to the Normans, is a vast complex with many buildings and lots of cobblestones. Although it’s a “palace,” it’s more famous for beheadings than it is for accommodating the living. Today, it guards the Royal Jewels. However, they’re no longer in the Tower, which was much more atmospheric and picturesque, but in a marvelous new multi-room display sponsored by DeBeers. The only drawback is that you view many of the most astounding pieces from a moving walkway and can’t make a U-turn. There’s “ice” of a different kind in the moat in winter, another “royal rink.” www.hrp.org/TowerOfLondon.

A Tower of London Guardsman takes a break on the ice rink. Photo © Historic Royal Palaces, Courtesy of Tower of London

Although Blenheim Palace, ancestral home of the Dukes of Marlborough, isn’t a royal residence, it was built by Queen Anne in the 1720’s as a gift for the family. Now that’s worth a huge thank you note! It’s where Sir Winston Churchill was born and married. (www.blenheimpalace.com)

Peacock feathers add holiday glamour at Blenheim Palace © By kind permission of Blenheim Palace

Royal or not, luxury reigns. In the four-story Great Hall, marble columns reach upwards. Tapestries lavish the State Rooms. The State Dining Room, the Saloon, certainly fit for a king or queen, comes to life only one day a year…Christmas Day, when the table is dressed with gilded tableware and peacocks and jewel-encrusted golden palm trees adorn the room. The Christmas story of the Three Kings’ journey unfolds throughout the magnificent manse. Even the Café reflects the season with festive menus.

Holiday opulence abounds in the Saloon at Blenheim Palace © By kind permission of Blenheim Palace

Two stately Christmas trees welcome holiday guests in Blenheim’s Great Hall © By kind permission of Blenheim Palace

An antidote to all this opulence is the room in which Winston Churchill was born, the unassuming former chaplain’s quarters best described as “homey,” with floral wallpaper, simple brass bed, and porcelain water pitchers and bowl on a marble-topped side table. Although an enormous white marble monument/tomb for the First Duke and Duchess of Marlborough and their two sons overpowers the chapel, the space itself is painted pale yellow with a subtly embellished ceiling. If you visit on a sunny day, try your luck at the maze, the largest in the world.

South Front: Blenheim Palace is surrounded by gorgeous grounds, including a maze © By kind permission of Blenheim Palace

Santa gets in the act when a snowman comes to life in the Sadlers Wells production of The Snowman. Photo courtesy of Sadlers Wells

Royal Albert Hall is a palace of a different kind…a palace for events and entertainment envisioned by the consort of Queen Victoria. (www.royalalberthall.com) Its elliptical shape creates a unique performance setting; and, although we initially had our doubts about sitting on the curve above the magnificent Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s percussion section and not far from the astounding organ at an organ gala, we basked in waves of glorious sound. During the holiday season, RAH resounds with music. It was, by the way, the venue of the 25th anniversary performance of Phantom of the Opera which aired on PBS-TV.

During December, you may join in with more than 3,000 voices singing Handel’s Messiah—or listen to a chorus of 500 perform the masterwork—applaud your favorite player in a Master’s Tennis Tournament, or marvel at the voice of operatic superstar and “Dancing with the Stars” alum Katherine Jenkins. The great hall doubles up on many days with the Rockette-resembling Jingle Bell Christmas in the afternoon and Messiah at night. The month-long celebration concludes on Christmas Eve with Carols by Candlelight, a concert by the Mozart Festival Orchestra wearing full 18th Century costumes joined by the Mozart Festival Chorus and soloists. Hallelujah!

Slava’s Snowshow clowns around at the Royal Festival Hall. Photo courtesy of Slava’s Snowshow/Royal Festival Hall

All around the city, performing arts brighten the holidays with a smorgasbord of entertainment. Battersea Arts Center, whose mission is “to invent the future of theatre,” produces Midnight’s Pumpkin, a cheeky spoof of Cinderella. www.bac.org.uk Hansel and Gretel follow the trail of breadcrumbs to the bewitched gingerbread house in the National Theatre’s production of the Brothers Grimm fairytale. (www.nationaltheatre.org.uk) Clowns take center stage at the Royal Festival Hall at the Southbank Centre for Slava’s Snowshow, headed by super-clown Slava Polunin. You won’t need a shovel but will wind up, literally, knee deep in snow! (www.southbankcentre.co.uk)

Sadlers Wells dancers leap and pirouette in the charming Snowman. Photo courtesy of Sadlers Wells

Sadlers Wells is on its toes with Matthew Bourne’s reimagining of the classic ballet Sleeping Beauty, which transports the heroine from the gothic to the modern world. Performed by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre at the Peacock Theatre, The Snowman portrays the adventures of a young boy and his snowman who comes to life on Christmas Eve. (www.sadlerswells.com) Shrek The Musical is at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane (www.shrekthemusical.co.uk). The English National Ballet performs The Nutcracker at the Coliseum from December 12 to January 5, 2013, followed by The Sleeping Beauty from January 9 to 19. (www.ballet.org.uk)

For one of the coolest holiday experiences in London, pack your ice skates. Castles, palaces, museums, and parks have frozen over moats, courtyards, and parking lots, strung miles of sparkling lights, and set up cozy nooks where you can rest and warm up with your favorite libation. In addition to the Tower of London and Hampton Court, try Somerset House (www.sommersethouse.org.uk) and London’s famous “Eye” overlooking the Thames. If you can’t make up your mind if it’s too cold to skate outdoors, super-mall Westfield London keeps you cozy indoors while Westfield Stratford City’s open-air rink offers skating under the stars. Kids, or anyone whose ankles drag, will be elated to know they offer Penguin “stabilizers” you push along in front of you. (http://uk.westfield.com/uk/)

Over 76,000 lights surround the huge ice rink at the Natural History Museum in London. Photo courtesy of the Natural History Museum

At the 1,000-square-meter rink at the Natural History Museum you’ll skate around a huge tree which grew at the Windsor Estate. Trees surrounding the rink sparkle with 76,000 lights. “Junior” skaters get out of the fast lane at a rink of their own. You can take a break riding the beautiful fairground carousel. Starbucks has gotten into the holiday spirit serving Gingerbread, Pumpkin Spiced, and Toffee Nut lattes and Peppermint Mocha. The Café Bar pours headier beverages.

Hyde Park morphs into a Winter Wonderland featuring a Magical Ice Kingdom with not only the UK’s largest outdoor ice rink but over 500 ice and snow sculptures, as well as a big top Zippos Christmas Circus and, for thrill-seeking audiences, Zippos Cirque Berserk. The Bavarian Village serves bratwurst and mulled wine. A gigantic Observation Wheel lifts you high above the magical scene. Back on the ground, tackle your gift list at the Angels Christmas Market. (www.hydeparkwinterwonderland.com)

The Nutcracker Eyeskate Launch courtesy of The Official London Eye

Of course the most spectacular bird’s eye view of London, at least until February 2013, is from the glass-enclosed pods of the 433-feet-high London Eye, or Millennium Wheel, on the South Bank of the Thames. The gigantic wheel glides slowly and smoothly (if there’s no wind) for a half-hour revolution. (www.londoneye.com) Since you can walk around inside the pod, you can track your favorite view. You’ll easily identify Buckingham Palace surrounded by lots of green, the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, St. Paul’s, and other notable landmarks. In February, across the Thames, “The Shard” opens and claims bragging right for panoramic views. A totally glass-clad irregular pyramid, it pierces the sky at 1,016 feet (87 stories) and is the second tallest building in Europe. From its open-air observation deck on the 72nd floor (804’), you reportedly can see for 40 miles, assuming it’s a clear day, not a sure bet in London.

No matter the month, visiting London’s museums is an extraordinary gift to the mind and spirit, whether they dress up for the holidays or it’s business as usual.

At the quaint Geffrye Museum, which occupies a restored former almshouse, its period rooms depicting English middle-class lifestyle from 1600 to today are festively decorated. As you stroll from era to era, you’ll discover the origins and meanings of holiday feasting, dancing, and kissing under the mistletoe and learn about playing parlor games, hanging up stockings, sending cards, decorating the tree, and throwing cocktail parties. (www.geffrye-museum.org.uk)

Christmas Past, 1630: Christmas decorations add holiday cheer to the 1630 parlor at the Geffrye Museum. Photo by Jayne Lloyd, Courtesy of the Geffrye Museum

Two incomparable museums, the British Museum (www.britishmuseum.org) and Victoria and Albert (www.vam.ac.uk), rank at the top of any “must do” list any day of the year.

The most famous “ornaments” of the British Museum are the “Elgin Marbles” and the Rosetta Stone. Ownership of the “Marbles,” 247 feet of the magnificent Parthenon Frieze, is still a rancorous tug-of-war between England and Greece. Only one original Caryatid remains in London. For massive-impressive impact, and a brief rest, sit down on one of the benches in front of the Nereid Monument, c. 380 BC, a tomb building from Xanthos, Lykia, southwest Turkey.

(Left) The mammoth Nereid Monument from Turkey dates back to 380 BC. (Right) 1021: One of the six caryatids from the Erachtheion Temple of the Acropolis is at the British Museum. Photos by Photo by Marilyn LaRocque

Pound for pound, the importance of the Rosetta Stone possibly outweighs both of these historic treasures combined. At first glance it looks like a large black rock covered with chisel marks, which it actually is, a stele. The decree chiseled into its surface, one of a series, affirms “the royal cult” of King Ptolemy the Fifth’s (204-181 B.C.). Although it’s historically important, what’s really priceless is it unlocked the code of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. How? It was written in three languages—priestly hieroglyphs, Demotic (a native script for everyday language), and Ancient Greek (the language of administration). If you know one language, Eureka, you can decipher the other two! Greek was the key.

Many pieces of elaborately crafted silver are part of the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Photo by Marilyn LaRocque

Entering the Victoria and Albert museum (1852) is like discovering a pirate’s lair. The gems of decorative arts and design it contains number four-million-plus and cover over 2000 years—a surfeit of riches—gold, silver, furniture, fashions, jewelry. Even the staircases are artistic statements—friezes, inlays, carved stone, tile, and marble, with ceiling paintings. Special exhibits heighten the excitement. From now until January 27, 2013, a Hollywood Costume Exhibit showcases the clothes of over 100 unforgettable characters from over 100 years of Hollywood films—“Dorothy,” Indiana Jones, Scarlett O’Hara, Jack Sparrow, Holly Golightly, James Bond, the Terminator, and Darth Vader, to name a few.

(Left) Fine design transcends the ages as an ornately carved and painted church architectural element overlooks a Chihuly sculpture. (Right) Stairways at the Victoria and Albert Museum are elaborately decorated. Photos by Marilyn LaRocque

You unearth 250,000 years of London’s history, from prehistoric to 21st Century, at the Museum of London. The museum is horrendously hard to find. Look for a large, blackish circular building in the middle of a roundabout with bridges arching to surrounding office buildings, from which you enter. History comes alive. There’s an offshoot, the Museum of London/Docklands that is also fascinating. What ensures the growth of the two museums is what development contractors probably find aggravating. All of London’s new construction projects must undergo an archaeological “dig,” and the “finds” have been amazing. (www.museumoflondon.org.uk)

This barely taps London’s wealth of museums…add the National Gallery, The Tate, Tate Modern, National Academy of Arts, Sir John Sloane’s Museum, the spartan underground Churchill War Rooms where then Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his advisors strategized Britain’s World War II military effort and from where he made his famous radio broadcasts. (http://www.iwm.org.uk/visits/churchill-war-rooms). Warfare, especially WWII, is the focus of the Imperial War Museum London. (http://london.iwm.org.uk)

(Left) Father Christmas is comfortably settled in his “grotto” at the Museum of London. (Right) Xmas in Sailortown: Garlands of greens decorate a Sailortown vignette at the Museum of London/Docklands. Photos courtesy of the Museum of London

Still in military mode, take a short, scenic sail down the Thames to Greenwich, home of the National Maritime Museum, bastion of British seagoing history. At the Royal Observatory, you can straddle the Prime Meridian, the 0° longitude line, with one foot in the Eastern Hemisphere, the other in the Western. Ansel Adams’ amazing photography decks the halls of the National Maritime Museum through April 28, 2013. (www.rmg.co.uk) The magnificently restored Cutty Sark, the last surviving tea clipper, the fastest and greatest of them all, recalls the history of England’s iconic beverage trade. How the crew survived in perilous conditions and lived in such cramped quarters is unfathomable. (www.cuttysark.org.uk)

Greenwich Market (December 10-24) is the place to find handcrafted toys, art, fashion, and jewelry, with ample food and drink available to fuel your shopping energy. (www.shopgreenwich.co.uk) Robin Hood and his “merrie bande” cavort in an all-singing, all-dancing pantomime at the Greenwich Theatre. (www.greenwichtheatre.org.uk)

Brightly painted and elaborately carved maidenheads decorated the prow of British sailing ships. Photo by Marilyn LaRocque

If you’re one of the zillions who watched the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, you’ll recognize the O2 Arena, also on the Greenwich Peninsula. (www.theo2.co.uk) It’s the building with all the “drinking straws” protruding from its roof. If you’re adventuresome, strap yourself into a safety harness and climb the roof. Less precarious are productions of “Walking with the Dinosaurs” and “Aladdin, A Wish Come True.”

And there’s so much more! The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben; shopping—designer originals, the hottest, trendiest fashions, rare antiques, and silver vaults. When you’re hungry, there’s an endless array of restaurants to choose among, from neighborhood pubs to three-Michelin-star celebrity chef restaurants.

However, to embrace the essence of Christmas, nothing surpasses Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Although Westminster Abbey’s Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Carol Services are totally booked, other services and events are possibilities. Just immersing yourself in this glorious sanctuary is reason enough to visit. (http://www.westminster-abbey.org)

Yuletide Choir boys courtesy of St. Paul's Cathedral

The survival of St. Paul’s Cathedral (www.stpauls.co.uk) amidst the bombing of London in World War II verges on the miraculous, and a visit is inspirational. Some holiday programs are ticketed; for those that are open seating and free, early arrival is essential. One of the most unique, and amusing, events is the Tuba Carol performance by 100 tuba players on the Cathedral steps to raise money for charity (December 16). Carol services include Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, and there are two services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

For the ultimate personal Christmas carol experience, head to Trafalgar Square December 11-22 when choirs from around London and its environs will perform and expect you to sing along.

To quote Tiny Tim’s timeless message…“God bless us, every one.”

Dicover more of London at www.visitlondon.com

Check out more of our favorite dining spots in London here

Food, wine, and travel writer/editor Marilyn LaRocque has visited the seven continents, experiencing not only sights and sounds but also foods and wines. In Paris in May, she was named Vice Chargée de Presse Nationale, Des Etats Unis, of Les Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, the world’s oldest and largest food and wine society. She was Senior Food & Wine Editor for LUXURY Las Vegas magazine for nearly 10 years and immersed herself in the cuisine scene in this over-the-top city. She knows and has written about celebrity chefs, their restaurants, and food and reported dining trends not only in Las Vegas but throughout the world, from South Africa to Scandinavia, New Zealand to South America. She knows master sommeliers and mixologists and has written extensively about wines and spirits, particularly California, as well as Oregon, Virginia, and Kentucky (Bourbon) and Tennessee (Whiskey). She has dined at globally celebrated restaurants such as Taillevent (Paris), Noma (Copenhagen), Restaurant Gordon Ramsay (London), Per Se (New York), and French Laundry (Yountville). She has served as a judge in culinary competitions, been guest lecturer at Le Cordon Bleu, Las Vegas, and served as PR consultant for the 2012 UNLVino, Nevada’s oldest and largest wine event. Photo by Jim K. Dekker