I couldn’t put up a Christmas tree because my shared flat was too small to find a niche in which to place it. My ocd rogue-trader flatmate was even getting nervous at the idea of a wreath and some tinsel here and there.
The days before Christmas I wandered the West End not in search for presents (I hadn’t two pennies to rub together) but simply marvelling at rich lighted decorations and at the incredible animated window displays (such as the ones at Selfridges and Hamleys). Masses of people were sailing up and down the high streets, loaded with packets and large gift bags.
Everywhere I turned my eye it was a triumph of light, music, winter flowery arrangements and a lot of business going on: it was such a glitterly, sparkly whirlwind the details of which I struggle to recall. There was almost no “presepe” around, the popular Nativity scene which is a staple in my country, Italy.
I knew that on the very Christmas day I would be off from work – unusual for me as an air stewardess-, since London City Airport, the tiny facility on the docks of London where I was employed, is actually closed on Christmas, contrary to Heathrow and Gatwick which are bursting and buzzing with tourists departing for exotic destinations or just people trying to make their journey home for the festivities.
Public transport in London is not working on Christmas day, otherwise I would have taken advantage of it to explore a city almost deserted, for once sitting in an equally deserted carriage. Some dare to take a cab to move from point to point but what for?
It’s Christmas and the absence of public transport is an excuse for the hectic Londoner to stay in and enjoy some family warmth. Because of this public transport hiatus London is completely still at Christmas, quiet as if muffled by a thick blanket of snow.
It was not snowing that year but I remember waking up to absolute, peaceful silence and stillness; I was alone in the building and, like any other day, I awoke to my alarm -set just a bit later than the usual- and started tidying up the home like on any sunday morning.
I took a garbage bag to dispose of into the in-house rubbish yard and there I was saluted, like a positive omen, by my first encounter of the day. It was not some neighbour expressing his Christmas wishes and not even a carol-singing group but a fox… up to no good on her way to cater herself for her own Christmas lunch. Like in a dream she stopped an instant to look at me and then scurried off not in fear, just absorbed in her mission.
After helping myself to a solitary meal of turkey, stuffing and some trimmings -since I wanted to experiment a traditional although precooked British festive meal- off I went well bundled up in a huge coat and a floppy hat which made me resemble to a Dickensian character. My destination? St. Paul Cathedral.
I wanted very much to reach the West End by foot, to see if there was any sign of life “on the other side” ( at this point I should mention that I was living in Bethnal Green, East End) but, due to the cold and rigorous weather I settled for St. Paul, midway of my original destination but still a significant place.
My journey set off from St John on Bethnal Green, a diminutive but dainty church located just opposite the Tube station entrance. I started walking towards the City and through the places in which Jack the Ripper once raged and lenghtnening my pace at the only thought.
Then I reached The City itself, with empty mastodon buildings and empty streets -not even a parked car in sight-, surreal almost like a movie setting… without the extras. A really unsettling sight which I must confess slightly perturbed my mood in that yet peculiar day in London.
I exhaled a sigh of relief when I saw the well known outline of St. Paul’s Cathedral on the horizon: after little less than one hour I was there.
It was the church I had studied in many history books for coronations and burials but above all it was the Cathedral in which my idol Lady Diana wed into the British Royal Family thus becoming not only a Princess, but The Princess.
Henry Mayhew, writer and philantropher of the Victorian era mentioned St. Paul several times in his book “London Labour and the London Poor” but the passage that came to my memory at that time, observing the Cathedral from the base of its steps and being not able to ascend them in restraint, was the following “Against the railings of St Paul’s Church are hung baskets and slippers for sale, and near the public house is a party of countrymen preparing their bunches of pretty coloured grass—brown and glittering, as if it had been bronzed.”.
Being the place once again deserted after the Christmas Sung Eucharist, I could rather imagine the victorian tradesmen, pedlars and layabouts, a picture of activity and toil so simple that almost brought a tear to my eye.
Of the way back home I can’t recall much, such I was lost in a stream of thoughts and imagining how every corner and every street I was walking through would have looked like almost a century before: not only the buildings and the topography but above all the humble inhabitants and their stories which have never been told in books or such.
This is was my first Christmas Day in London, very atypical and quite lonely I must recognize, althought surrounded as I came to feel by some nature, some history and also some friendly ghosts from the past I didn’t feel alone at all.
Chiara is an Italian air stewardess and travels quite a bit letting herself be inspired by places and people. She loves researching and writing, with the Victorian Era, the British Royal family and the United Kingdom in general being her main areas of interest.