Tuesday, December 18, 2012

City vs Country: Which is more Christmassy?

SantaCon 2012. Photo: Luke MacGregor, explat.wordpress.com
At the best of times, I can’t make up my mind as to whether I'm a city or a country girl at heart. But at Christmas, this is like Sophie's Choice; how could I ever choose between hot chocolate and champagne? A Boxing Day bender or a brisk seaside walk?

Minor though these dilemmas might seem, I can't help but wonder which is the definitive Christmas experience - the city or the countryside?

City Christmas

London was made for Christmas, proudly throwing on its festive lights like a dazzling party dress, as mulled wine stalls and ice skating rinks pop up in abundance next to every historical landmark.

Somerset House. Photo: Henrietta Rosselli
It’s impossible for even the most cynical of Londoners not to start feeling Christmassy a few weeks before the rest of the world. Even way back in November, a stroll down the South Bank was like being slapped in the face by Santa with a stockingful of glitter.

Having been listening to Christmas songs pretty much exclusively since the 1st December, I had thought I had reached optimum levels of Christmas spirit. But then this weekend, I took it to another level entirely...

On Saturday, we joined an army of santas (santae?) to take part in SantaCon - part flashmob, part bar crawl, part demonstration.

Is it a political statement, asked curious passers-by? Is it for charity? Is it some kind of religious gathering? Even Stephen Fry was confused on Twitter: "Never in my life seen so many people dressed as Santa. It’s currently like a Father Christmas convention in Soho. Was Santaday declared?" he asked. What on earth was it in aid of? The answer is nonsensically simple: Christmas!

For one day, in 276 cities ranging from Dubai to New York, millions of people dress as Santa and run amok - for no reason, other than it's Christmas. With just the right balance of naughtiness and niceties, we surrendered to the mob mentality to join in with gift giving, carol singing, amaretto swilling, sprout pelting, hugging strangers and general Santa banter.

SantaCon 2012. Photo: Luke MacGregor, explat.wordpress.com
SantaCon culminated in a final gathering point at Trafalgar Square, resembling a scene from Where's Wally (above). There were Mexican santas, cowboy santas, pimp santas, scantily clad santas, lost santas, several elves and the odd turkey. But for the most part it was a sea of traditional red and white bearded santas, clambering around on Nelson's Column and the monumental lions, chanting "What do we want? Christmas! When do we want it? NOW!"

The following day, one might have predicted that a brutal hangover would be inevitable. But lo, a Christmas miracle! I awoke feeling fresh as a blanket of recently fallen snow (ish).

I even felt well enough to spend Sunday evening watching The Goonies at the Enchanted Pictures in the cavernous Old Vic Tunnels – an atmospheric subterranean venue complete with fairy lights, log seats, a home-made alpine forest and volcanic lake, and a gorgeous surprise sprinkling of fake snow falling from the ceiling at the end of the film. And the greatest gift of all? We saw Matt Cardle. Yeah. You don't get that in the countryside...

Country Christmas

If you can't already tell, I really like London. And I really like Christmas... But combine these two famously expensive phenomena and there's a slight problem - my bank balance.

So, in what should be the biggest week for partying in the year, I and many others have reached a pre-payday lull - living on stale bread and water so that I can still get people presents and buy the odd glass of hot buttered rum.

The country girl’s answer is to make your own edible gifts - the smell of Mum’s vat of bubbling zesty chutney on the hob is pure Christmas. And therein this fragrant memory lies the answer to the question of where is most Christmassy. Christmas means home and family traditions. For many, that is synonymous with the city. But for me, home is a Vicar of Dibley-esque village in rural East Anglia.

Worlington, Suffolk
In our family, Christmas is picking the (real) tree from the farm shop, it’s the village carol service, it’s being demoted to the ‘kids table’ every year, it’s chilly Boxing Day dog walks, it's having to ask Mum for lifts back and forth to the pub, and braving the cold to collect as many damp logs as you can carry over from the garden shed without dropping them all over the carpet.

I got a headstart on my cosy country Christmas this year, having been on a girly weekend to the Peak District. Our quaint little rented farmhouse, Loscoe Farm, with its wood burning stove and rustic beams, also benefited from a pimping hot tub, sauna and pool table, and a paddock with a ‘bring your own pony’ policy (ah, the simple life). It was the countryside, but not quite as I knew it.

We briefly left the farm to visit Chatsworth House - aka Pemberley
This gave us the perfect setting for a big Alternative Christmas dinner. Admittedly it was a bit ‘Kerry's gone to Iceland’; to the horror of mothers everywhere, we sacked off cooking a turkey in favour of chucking some sausages and all the (frozen) trimmings into an oven - but that seemed apt, given it was a University reunion.

After a magical long weekend, we felt like the ladies of the manor and were sad to leave our winter country retreat. Surely if we all pitched in, we could just keep the farmhouse and start our own girly Christmas commune... please?

The winner

London offers a full-throttle Christmas experience to the masses. However if the city isn't your natural habitat, you may just find yourself frazzled, broke and lamenting the total lack of taxis on the last Saturday night before Christmas.

Likewise, loyal city-dwellers who think it will be novel to escape to the countryside for Christmas usually look about as comfortable on their country walks as a bedraggled cat in the bath, and are likely to return to London feeling weatherbeaten, confused and probably with a few fire-related injuries.

The 'real' Christmas - as opposed to the mythical Christmas of John Lewis adverts and Love Actually - is about everything that's cosy, warm and familiar to you - whatever and wherever that may be. So as much as I've loved squeezing every second of festive fun out of London these past few weeks, there's only one place I want to be on the Day - home sweet home.

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