When she lived in New Zealand, Elle Hunt never really understood the fuss about Christmas. That all changed when she moved to London, she writes in the latest instalment of her Elleswhere series about life as a New Zealander in London.
“36 degrees? Yes thank you I WILL get 97% of my legs out,” my friend wrote below his thirst trap on Instagram last week, and as I double-tapped to like – 97% of his legs looked great – I felt a pang of wistfulness for the Southern Hemisphere. Here in London, after a dizzyingly warm and not-at-all-concerning summer, we have entered that time of year when the city is covered by a heavy blanket of grey that light never penetrates.
It is not so much bad weather – I’ve had worse Wellington winters, or at least worse Wellington flats – as the absence of weather at all: 8am looks much the same as 1pm, and 5pm, indistinguishable from midnight. Shorts, as a concept, are less real to me than the rat-king of black tights that emerges from my washing machine each week.
The greyscale, months-long monotony of it does get you down. But at this early stage we still have one reason to be cheerful between now and the sun’s return in – if we’re lucky – May, and that is Brexit. Only joking! It’s Christmas.
If I’m being honest, I never got on board with the southern hemisphere Christmas. Sure, time off work, presents, and eating three to four times your daily basal metabolic rate are great no matter the season. But it becomes a real beacon when bookended by months of dark and cold, and the suggested accompaniment of peaceful introspection and gratitude exercises is made more compelling by the strong desire not to go outside.
Not to mention, when the sun sets at 4pm, you really get your money’s worth out of those lights.
I try to avoid Oxford St wherever possible, it being the only place in London where I realise that there actually are 8m other people living here, and all of them are in line for this returns desk at Uniqlo – but the illumination of the Christmas lights strung over the street feels like a real occasion. In Auckland in mid-December, it’s 9.30pm before you can tell there’s anything festive about Franklin Rd.
Of course, a late-night stroll to ooh and aah at the snowflakes and Santas and incongruous set-dressing as though it is not still 28C closing in on midnight might be your annual tradition. If you celebrate Christmas, you have a personal blueprint for how to do so, probably set in childhood.
Having settled in New Zealand when I was 12, 25 December was already established, in my eyes, as presents pre-noon; 2pm turkey with bread sauce (sort of like a delicious wallpaper paste); a walk after lunch, weather permitting; and something restful – maybe Attenborough or a BBC Agatha Christie adaptation – on the telly by the time it’s pitch-black at 5pm.
Even in New Zealand, my family followed these traditions, the turkey in the oven sending the temperature ever higher and the bread sauce mix procured by post from the UK or, on happy occasion, the World Foods section of Pak N’ Save. We did not embrace the New Zealand model of cricket, or fish, or pavlova, or eating outdoors, or, if the ads are to be believed, Wattie’s on all of it – not out of any particular objection, but because Christmas traditions Die Hard. Like the Christmas movie.
Last year, my first northern hemisphere Christmas since 1999, I got to recreate those of my childhood at my flatmate’s family home, watching Frasier and playing board games, except in place of the high-stakes drama of finding batteries for my Furby or installing my new computer game that had defined the day pre-millennium, I had an endless stream of G&Ts. So it was even better.
For the first time I understood why adults so look forward to Christmas. I understand that there is some traditional backstory to the occasion, but if I didn’t know better I would have guessed it was made up just to break up the six months of British winter. Festive fever builds here, eventually infiltrating every area of your life.
Beneath those lights strung along Oxford St, the shop windows are full of velvet and sequin “party dresses”, heavy with the suggestion that you should look to Taylor Swift’s Reputation world tour wardrobe for inspiration for your work do. The staff at the closest of the three Prets close to my work have been wearing Santa hats since late November; now, every sandwich has been made over to incorporate turkey and/or cranberry.
And the biggest brands – John Lewis, Coca-Cola, Marks & Spencers, Asda, Heathrow Airport, Sainsbury’s – have been locked in an arms race for the biggest Christmas ad campaign, as judged by budget, festive feeling, social chatter, and heartwarming horsepower. The effect of watching them all consecutively, as constitutes many ad breaks at this late stage of the year, is of being force-fed brandy cream while ultra-bright fairy lights are shone in your eyes.
Many of this year’s crop – “the worst Christmas ad season on record”, according to some pundits – feature precocious primary school children in school plays. John Lewis, falling back on trusty tearjerker ‘Your Song’ for the second time in a decade, draws a long bow between Elton John allegedly being given a piano as a boy and the life-altering magic of Christmas for us all. I don’t know what makes me more depressed: the fact that the ad cost about £7m; that it is airing at the same time as another ad in which John appears, for Snickers; or that it has been assessed as though it is a genuine cultural moment.
The verdict? “While not perhaps as overtly heartwarming as some of John Lewis’ past oeuvre, the nostalgic spot will likely tugs at hearts aplenty, especially those of his fans.” £7m well spent, then. On reflection, if it didn’t cost about the same to get to New Zealand in the next week, I might be glad to trade it all in for beachside Wattie’s.
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The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.