A white X'mas in a vanishing England

It is a tug between the old and the new and the only thing that seems constant is the snow

London: Like many members of the Indian elite in Britain, Kartar Lalvani and his wife Rohini will be going to India for Christmas. “I have a home in Mumbai,” Dr Lalvani, head of Vitabiotics, the vitamins supplements company, pointed out. Indeed, many Indians with second homes in India spend December catching the Indian sun and see the New Year in by attending a party in Goa.

Father Christmas in Oxford Street
Santa-tic: Father Christmas in Oxford Street

They will return to the UK in mid-January, sun-tanned and refreshed. But they will also have missed Christmas in Britain, which is still magical. To be sure, it has become fashionable among a section of the intellectual elite to deride Christmas in a country which they say has become essentially secular.

There used to be a comedy sketch on television which showed a man going into an off-licence with the intention of stocking up for Christmas. He bellows out his order: “20 cases of Carlsberg; 10 bottles of Teacher’s; six bottles of champagne; six bottles of gin; 12 bottles of red wine; 12 of white wine; three bottles of soda — and don’t forget, three of the big packets of the onion-flavoured crisps.”

The man then adds with a shrug of the shoulders: “If it weren’t for the children, we wouldn’t bother.” But for a part of the British population, even those who are not religious, Christmas begins — as it has since 1918 — on December 24 with a “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” broadcast live from the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. This starts, as always, with a mellifluous rendering of Once in royal David’s city/ Stood a lowly cattle shed...

These days it has become common practice to send Christmas greetings by email as a sort of mass circular. This is also a lot cheaper because a first class stamp now costs a staggering 62p (Rs 61) while second class has gone up to 53p (Rs 52). Cards with religious themes, such as Madonna and child, are less easy to find than ones without, apparently to avoid giving offence to Muslims and people of other faiths. Thus, recipients now receive non-committal “Greetings of the season” rather than wishes for a “Merry Christmas”.

But it is important not to exaggerate Britain’s slide into a godless society. The spirit of Christmas is still alive. London looks exceptionally pretty at this time of year, with Old Bond Street to my mind worth a walk at night just to take in the elegant decorations.

The big department stores, which have struggled during the years of recession, know Christmas is a time when they can catch up and so they make a huge effort with their window displays. In Oxford Street, there is a great deal of competition between, say, Selfridges, Debenhams, John Lewis, Dorothy Perkins, House of Fraser, Marks & Spencer, Russell & Bromley, Topshop, Zara and the like. If it weren’t difficult enough to move with the heaving crowds, passage is rendered even harder with scores of shoppers glued to the windows and capturing the Christmas glitz with their mobile phones. And on any patch of Oxford Street chosen at random, you will find an Indian family.

This is a personal opinion, to be sure, but Fortnum & Mason, an old-fashioned department store in Piccadilly, seems to me to have the most tempting window displays in town, offering as they do such treats as a whole variety of Christmas puddings, cakes, crystallised fruits and mince pies. Inside the store, there is a bewildering selection of honey.

The basement offers the finest wines — under instructions I bought a pink champagne but decided the dessert wine, Sauternes at £42 for a half bottle, would be too indulgent. To get shoppers into the right frame of mind, there was a choir gathered by the second floor banister, going through such popular carols as, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing...

I caught up for Sunday lunch with an old friend at the Oxford and Cambridge Club in Pall Mall, five minutes’ walk away from Fortnum and Mason. He had just attended a carol service at the Chapel Royal in St James’s Palace, where one of the carols had been O Come, All Ye Faithful.

This had been originally written in Latin as Adeste Fideles, my friend revealed — he gave me a few of the lines in Latin, not that I understood. But it brought back memories of a vanishing and gentler England.

That older England, as imagined by people in India whose vision of the country is fashioned by A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and such like, hasn’t completely disappeared. There are snow scenes after a blizzard though these occur less frequently in southern England. The frosty mornings as the sun rises is something only a Constable or a Manet can capture.

Some things don’t change. People still like to buy a Christmas tree. In Trafalgar Square, there is always a tall one, a gift from Norway as a thank you to Britain for help rendered during the Second World War. The Queen held a lunch, as usual, at Buckingham Palace for her family, including great-grandson Prince George, who is all of 16 months. The Christmas tree outside 10, Downing Street was switched on by David Cameron. Members of the royal family and politicians send out Christmas cards bearing their own images.

In Indian homes through the UK, families will be tucking into turkey with all the trimmings, even though the poultry is a little dry for Indian taste. Muslim children, like their peers, also demand turkey which explains the brisk trade in halal turkey. Indian restaurants try and cash in by offering tandoori turkey.

For most people Christmas is a time of conspicuous consumption, even over-consumption. But the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, who has just returned from a trip to Africa, has put the government in a thoroughly bad mood by expressing shock at the number of people going hungry in Britain and forced to go to charitable “food banks”.

“In one corner of a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo was a large marquee. Inside were children, all ill. .... they were hungry. It was deeply shocking but, tragically, expected,” he said.

“A few weeks later in England, I was talking to some people — a mum, dad and one child — in a food bank,” he went on. “They were ashamed to be there. The dad talked miserably. He said they had each been skipping a day’s meals once a week in order to have more for the child, but then they needed new tyres for the car so they could get to work at night, and just could not make ends meet. So they had to come to a food bank. They were treated with respect, love even, by the volunteers from local churches. But they were hungry, and ashamed to be hungry. I found their plight more shocking.”

All this has provoked the satirical magazine Private Eye to put Welby on its Christmas cover: Archbishop Backs Food Banks. A bubble has Welby saying: “We’re the only banks the Tories don’t like.” For readers there is an extra treat: “Inside: Free Loaves and Fishes.”

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