The Origin Story: About three months after we landed in Bangkok back in 2007, we realized that our new country of residence wasn't going to be very Christmas-y at Christmas. For one, it's a Buddhist country. Two, it's hot and very green every single day of year, so it would never "feel" right to us. We discovered that London was a mere 12-hr direct flight from BKK, and our first overseas Christmas tradition was born.
It really was a tradition – we've spent four of the last six holiday seasons in London. It's a fabulous place at Christmas time – it's cool enough to wear lovely sweaters and warm jackets without being freezing, there are decorations and Christmas fairy lights everywhere, turkey dinners and mince pies are easily procured.
This year we get to participate in the "we're not traveling for Christmas" tradition, and while it will be fantastic for my kids not to wake up in a hotel or worry about if Santa left something under the tree in SE Asia for them to open later, there are a couple of things about our UK Christmases that I'll always be fond of:
The Christmas Grotto: So, Santa is called by the very dignified name of "Father Christmas" and Father Christmas lives in a grotto instead of a fenced-off area of a shopping mall. We somehow managed to visit the Grotto at Harrod's when Madeline was just three years old, and it was a totally magical experience. Father Christmas was the loveliest version of Father Christmas ever – I honestly do think that all of the grandfatherly actors in the UK who very narrowly beat out by Michael Gambon for the role of Albus Dumbledore went to work in the red suit instead. I'm totally not kidding.
Father Christmas chatted with our shy three year-old for more than ten minutes (during which we forgot all about the hour we probably spent waiting in line), leafed through a gigantic book housing the nice/naughty list to look up her name, asked her about her Christmas wishes. We were all charmed, and of course we bought the over-priced souvenir photo. It made visiting Harrod's during Christmas week worthwhile, which is saying a lot. A very big lot.
Grottos are everywhere. We never returned to Harrod's because they've gone to an appointment-booking system that users access based on what tier their Harrod's loyal card is. Last year we took both of the girls to the Victorian Grotto at the Museum of the Docklands. It was a timed entrance, and the wait in line was still long, but the little reconstructed Dickensian front room where my kids met Father Christmas was charming in it's simplicity and the Man in Red was perfectly grandfatherly and their visit was not rushed at all. I hope that Madeline and Sadie haven't forgotten.
The Holiday Panto: So, pantomimes are musical stage productions that spring up all over during the holiday seasons - they're very campy and family-friendly at the same time. Most of them seem to be based on familiar stories , like Cinderella or Aladdin or Snow White or even the Gruffalo (first one we saw!). Sadie was two years old the first time we took her – the production was Dick Whittington's Cat and she sure danced in the aisle when Dame Edna Everage lead the closing number of "Born This Way" (the whole thing was quite the spectacle).
We've managed to find a couple of pantos to check out this month that are near Calgary and it's feels kind of nice that we can continue one of our holiday traditions.
The grottos and pantomimes aside, there were other things that made London an awesome place to go to for some Christmas cheer. Madeline's old enough to take to the West End theatres, so she and I went to see Wicked one year (her dad went to see Paul McCarntey). My kids got to practice their skills on outdoor -skating rinks, which would have been impossible in Saigon's climate.
I have no idea if we'll be sent to live overseas again, but my fingers are crossed and resuming our Christmas in London tradtion will feel like a lovely and familiar reunion.