“We were on tiptoe, craning to get a better look. Around us thousands jostled for the best view of the dazzling Christmas tableau on the first storey of Anson’s, the biggest department store in prosperous 1980s Manila. It was the most important time of year for devout Roman Catholic Philippines and there were church bells pealing everywhere.”
But as this was a country that knew how to have fun too, there was much glitz and bonhomie. A visit to see Anson’s automated Christmas display was part of our family’s annual ritual. In the middle of the crush, one balmy evening in 1983, were three Indians—my mother, four-year-old sister, and me. We watched in wonder as nimble elves danced to the rousing sounds of an illuminated choir of angels, in a swirl of fake snow. Then a cheer went up as a blur of red and gold jingled into the midst of the tableau. Santa had arrived—rotund, rubicund, and jolly—with his retinue of frolicking reindeer. It was exciting for us little girls and for our mother, but the day was waning and with a festive dinner waiting for us at home, we had no choice but to tear ourselves away from that magical spectacle.”
I interrupted my story as my children’s attention was momentarily caught by a vendor in elf costume rolling a trolley full of seasonal goodies past us. On a frosty morning in early December, we were on the Christmas Special train from Nottingham to Lincoln for the biggest Christmas fair in Europe. A month ago we had decided to take our kids there to enjoy a truly classic British Christmas. The togged-up train put us in the Yuletide mood, and my story of Christmases past reinforced the festive feeling. “Tell us more,” said my young son.
“We got home to the delights of a traditional Filipino Christmas dinner—honey and cinnamon-glazed ham, chicken adobo, cuts of lechon (roast suckling pig) and sticky-sweet coconut lumpias. Gathered around our modest but twinkling tree after dinner, my parents caught up on their reading while my sister and I kept a close eye on the gifts beneath the tree.”
Glimpsing the soaring spires of Lincoln Cathedral, I pushed ahead with my story. “A few years later we returned to Calcutta where, despite my mother’s best efforts, recreating those fabulous Filipino Christmases proved impossible. We would scour Gariahat unsuccessfully for Christmas trees and baubles as New Market felt a tad distant. And while Park Street was very merry come Christmas, the rest of Calcutta didn’t necessarily follow suit. Still, my mother was a great believer in festive fun, whatever its antecedents, so Christmas in our home continued to be celebrated with delicious food, good company, and even carol singing. But the splendour was missing and so was Santa with his capering crew. I felt like I might never ever experience a perfect Christmas again.”
I wrapped up my account as we walked into Lincoln’s central square. Though their brows had furrowed at my story, the children were instantly swept up in the thrill of the Christmas fete. The fair swamped the city of Lincoln. Its cynosure is its ancient cathedral with Tudor luminaries buried within. Parliament was held there in the 14th century, and The Da Vinci Code was filmed in its halls. Just across the cobbled square was Lincoln Castle, a drab museum with a magnificent facade. Walking past the ruined abbey and rows of pastel-coloured homes, we stopped for a one-sided natter with the statue of Lincoln’s favourite son, Victorian poet Tennyson. But the kids were quick to remind us why we were there. So we plunged into the packed heart of the fair, dipping into festive stalls, picking up Swedish baubles, German cake, and quick gulps of Irish cream (hot cocoa for the kids) to keep warm on the icy day. In a narrow snicket, we were ambushed by ladies in Regency dress, who arm-twisted us into buying their cinnamon-spiced nuts, cooing over the children all the while. And then our little girl spotted the most magical carousel shimmering at the end of the street. She was awestruck by the antique carriages, each of which was a red-and-gold sleigh.
The following weekend we found ourselves at majestic Chatsworth House in the Derbyshire Dales. The Duke of Devonshire’s estate is considered the grandest in Britain, perfectly placed in green, rolling Derbyshire. It is also believed to be the mansion on which Jane Austen based Darcy’s estate Pemberley. With its extensive gardens, immense orangery bursting with every kind of flora, Elizabethan hunting lodge, and ornate Italian fountains (their waters frozen into sparkling crystal shards on that bright winter’s day), it was dazzling. Four and a half centuries ago, Mary Queen of Scots was incarcerated here by her jailor and lover, the Earl of Shrewsbury. Our own Warren Hastings’ Chatsworth connection is evident in the rooms full of purloined Oriental treasure.
In the spectacular entrance hall stood a massive, magnificent Christmas tree. The red-carpeted stairs had glittering tinsel and holly around each balustrade. Chatsworth was celebrating a Georgian Christmas and everything from furnishings to festive decor, to the sheets of music at the grand piano was in keeping with the theme. Even the dinner laid out in the vast dining hall was Georgian.
In the farm shop, there were festal favourites on sale—cranberry sauce and chestnuts, sage and sausage stuffing for the Christmas turkey, fruity festive cake and mince pies, bottles of eggnog and mulled wine. And to the children’s delight, shelf upon shelf of elf-, snowman- and Santa-shaped chocolates. Returning to the car with more goodies than we could consume in one Christmas, we found ourselves embroiled in a snowball fight with a group of children, ducking and diving behind the frost-laced bushes of the icy parking lot. Relieved to have held on to our wobbling pile of luscious purchases through the boisterous snow battle, we went home dripping but delighted with our hoard.
But Christmas isn’t complete for kids without a session with Santa. For this, we travelled to the splendidly shabby Calke Abbey in Leicestershire. That year, they were playing on their gone-to-seed wartime look. The intriguingly melancholy dining room was arranged to look as if a bombing raid had sent the family scurrying to the cellars, leaving their festive dinner untouched. The dust-covered furniture was askew, the shutters off their hinges and the walls had damp patches so elaborate they looked like art. Up the hill to the quiet family church there was a joyful trail of traditional decorations. The freezing winter wind loped up the hill with us, ringing the bells in the trees, rocking the little wooden sleighs that led to the church door. We found Santa in the Victorian stables, smelling of damp and hay. Yet, so warm were Father Christmas and his helpers with their genial chatter and thoughtful presents, that the odour and bone-rattling cold were quickly forgotten. We all agreed that Calke Abbey with its heart-warming conviviality easily outdid grander places in festive cheer.
However, no Yuletide outing can finish without food, so we braved more mud and biting wind to join the bustle in the large barn. Alongside handcrafted wreaths, spirits and chatter were tables piled high with Calke’s famous reindeer pies. Finding a warm corner, we were ready to tuck in when we noticed our children’s reluctance. “Is Santa’s reindeer in there?” our son asked anxiously. Despite our reassurance that these were made from farm-reared reindeer and that Santa’s squad with its gift-transporting duties was far too important to ever become pie, they were clearly not convinced.
We couldn’t let the festivities end on that sombre note, so we plumped for an impromptu trip to Edinburgh to see the year out. Edinburgh is an elegant city with grand old architecture, mouth-watering seafood and the wettest, windiest weather in the British Isles. In the depth of winter, we knew it would not be comfortable but the annual Christmas market and Hogmanay festival did promise colour, excitement and the perfect end to our classic British Christmas. Bundled up in our warmest woollies, we jostled with thousands for a safe perch on Edinburgh Castle’s medieval walls just as the torchlight procession began. To the beat of drums and pipes marched Vikings, Romans, and men in Tartan kilts, the national costume of Scotland. There were even a few “Bravehearts” in blue face paint. As night fell, Edinburgh lit up like an enormous firecracker. In fact, there were colossal crackers going off everywhere, the noise mingling with the cacophonous warbling of drunken revellers. Manoeuvring our way out of the crowd, we returned to our room where a scrumptious dinner and bottle of bubbly were waiting.
Just before midnight, with the kids asleep, my husband and I stood at the Victorian sash windows and listened to the countdown from the square, clinking glasses as the clock struck 12 and the cheer went up. I knew then that I had found the perfect Christmas I had been looking for since I left the Philippines.
The Vitals 1-4 December; hours vary; entry free; lincoln-christmasmarket.co.uk.
Getting There Finding parking in Lincoln city centre during the Christmas Market is difficult. It’s convenient to take one of the special trains that are organised from most U.K. cities to Lincoln during the fair. Or use the Christmas Market park-and-ride service, which operates from the Lincolnshire Showground on the A15 just north of Lincoln. There is a dedicated park-and-ride service for people with disabilities.
The Vitals From 5 November-3 January, except from 24-26 December and 1 January; hours vary; house and garden entry for adults £20/₹1,705, children £12/₹1,023, family (2 adults and up to 3 children) £55/₹4,690; www chatsworth.org.
Getting There Chatsworth is in rural Derbyshire, a 30-minute drive from the nearest town Chesterfield. When tickets to the house are booked online, car parking is free, otherwise it costs £5/₹426 on weekdays and £10/₹852 on weekends. There are a number of buses to the estate, including direct ones from Chesterfield and Sheffield, and National Express or Transpeak services from London and Manchester.
Note Additional activities cost extra.
The Vitals From 5-19 December; prices vary; www.nationaltrust.org.uk/calke-abbey.
Getting There There are no direct buses so it’s best to drive down or take a train from the nearest city of Derby or the closest town of Burton-on-Trent.
The Vitals 31 December, stages live from 7 p.m.-1 a.m., no entry after 11 p.m.; entry £25/₹2,132 including booking fee; www.edinburghshogmanay.com/events/street-party.
Getting There Scotland’s capital is a major travel hub and there are night coaches from major U.K. cities as well as many trains to Edinburgh’s Waverley Station.
Note The party takes place at Princess Street and surrounding streets, against the backdrop of the Edinburgh castle. There are live bands, DJs, giant screens, outdoor bars, and fireworks.
Walk on a magical Christmas trail through the gardens. The Christmas Village and market are free, but only open on Illuminated Trail days. Santa’s Woodland Grotto, Victorian Carousel, and rides cost extra.
The Vitals From 23 November-2 January; open 5-10 p.m.; entry for adults £20/ ₹1,716, children £12/₹1,029 (free under 4 years), family £58/₹4,976; www.kew.org.
Entry to this well-known and much-loved attraction is free but visitors need to purchase tickets for the rides. Entry to popular attractions like the Ice Rink, Magical Ice Kingdom, and Giant Wheel can be booked online.
The Vitals From 18 November-2 January; open 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; entry free; hydeparkwinterwonderland.com.
Food archaeologists revive Tudor kitchens of Henry VIII’s court with traditional recipes. The popular Ghost Tours are available until February 2016 (adults only, £27.50/₹2,360).
The Vitals From 21-23 December, 27 December-1 January; open 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; entry for adults £15.50/₹1,330; children between 5-16 years £7.75/₹665; family £40.80/₹3,500; www.hrp.org.uk/hampton-court-palace/whats-on/elizabethan-christmas.
Soak in the Christmas magic watching this stage production of the famous children’s book by Raymond Briggs at the REP in Birmingham’s Centenary Square, an hour and half by train from London.
The Vitals Playing from 11-15 January; multiple shows; duration 1 hour 45 minutes, including one interval; tickets from £15/₹1,287 per head; www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/whats-on/the-snowman.html.
Appeared in the December 2013 issue as “A Winter’s Tale”. Updated in November 2016.
Shreya Sen-Handley is a columnist and illustrator for the British and Indian media. Her short stories have been published in three continents and her HarperCollins India book, 'Memoirs of My Body' is out now.