A very English Christmas

As a child of the tropics currently studying in London, I’m often reminded by my friends and classmates that I missed out on the wonders of a ‘white Christmas’ growing up. For most of them and many others in the northern hemisphere, Christmas is a very wintery affair involving long walks in the snow, warm log fires, mulled wine and roasted chestnuts. I, on the other hand, associate Christmas with long walks on the beach, the warm Indian Ocean, chilled wine and coconuts. If anything, the white sandy beaches of Diani and Vipingo make for a whiter Christmas than the one idealised by my friends in England, where it rarely snows in December. This year, though, I swapped the Kenyan coast for the English countryside, and spent Christmas with my girlfriend’s family in the city of Winchester.

This ancient capital of England lies about 100km south-west of London, and is a city steeped in history. Its present form dates back to the 9th century, when King Alfred the Great demolished the old Roman street plan in favour of a new grid to provide better defence against the Vikings. ‘Alfie’, as he is fondly referred to by local ‘Wintonians’, now stands cast in bronze in the city centre in recognition of this contribution.

Winchester’s rich heritage is also expressed by an array of Medieval and Georgian buildings, of which the most renowned is the impressive Winchester Cathedral. Another remnant and great symbol of medieval mythology is King Arthur’s Round Table, which hangs in the Great Hall of what’s left of Winchester Castle. Though less historically significant, but revered with an equal measure of pride and identity, is the claim that Winchester holds the record for the most pubs per square mile in England. While this has not been confirmed, there are definitely lots of them.

As is common in the UK towards the end of the year, Winchester was given an instant makeover for the festive season. Its streets were adorned with intricate light displays, and an open-air ice rink and market stalls were set up against the picturesque backdrop of the cathedral. Many parts of London, too, were festively decorated – on a much bigger scale. Covent Garden’s famous cobbled piazza, for example, was aglow with fairy lights, giant red baubles and an enormous silver reindeer (and real live reindeer too if you went on the right day of the week). A corner of Hyde Park was transformed into the annual ‘Winter Wonderland’ – a festive fusion of fairground rides, German Christmas markets, ice skating, Santa’s grottos and hundreds of people dressed up as Santa Claus.

Elaborate displays also lit up Oxford Circus, Regent Street, Bond Street, and other areas in the heart of London’s central shopping district. Typically, these were switched on well in advance of Christmas. The 1,778 glowing white orbs that hung above Oxford Street, for example, were switched on in early November, a whole 48 days before Christmas Day. These decorations seemed to have the desired effect, as Oxford Street was crammed over the festive period with thousands of shoppers looking to take advantage of the Christmas sales. Bob Geldof can rest assured that Londoners know it’s Christmas every year.

It was a welcome relief, then, to spend Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day in a farmhouse in the open countryside of Winchester. I quickly realised that there were rules and regulations to Christmas in the Waugh household (the family that kindly took me in), which I had to abide to as an orphan and foreigner of traditional English Christmas habits. Christmas Eve, I was informed, typically involved a casual winter stroll into the fields adjacent to the house, before settling into a wonderfully decorated living room warmed by a log fire for a film and numerous rounds of mulled wine and cider. As there was a youngster with us we also left out a glass of sherry and a mince pie by the fireplace as a treat for Father Christmas, as well as a carrot for his reindeer. And to prove that he had come down the chimney, we fashioned a couple of snowy footprints of salt next to these treats – which had magically disappeared by the morning.

We kicked off Christmas Day with a continental breakfast and Buck’s Fizz – a blend of orange juice and Prosecco, before opening up our presents. While this is very typical so far, the same can’t be said for our vegetarian Christmas lunch, of which the highlight was an excellent Russian coulibiac layered with mushroom risotto, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, cabbage and tomatoes. This was accompanied by another pie and the more traditional spread of roast potatoes, buttered sprouts with walnuts, maple syrup glazed parsnips, honey glazed carrots, gravy and, of course, plenty of wine.

This massive meal was then followed by a hazy mix of games, napping, and more eating and drinking, before recovering in the morning of Boxing Day and doing it all over again in the afternoon. In this respect, Christmas in the UK was not so different from what I am used to. The warmth of my hosts also reiterated the value of family at Christmas, regardless of the setting.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation