Decking the Halls
Preparing for Christmas was quite a bit different than usual. Since the only decorations we brought from home were our stockings, we had to find a way to decorate our sparse apartment. Calvin, our sneaky little elf on the shelf, must have a fear of flying because he didn’t make it here (despite packing him after digging through dozens of Christmas boxes in October in our garage to find him). Oh well, one less thing to have to be stressed about. The pressure to keep up with the creative parents out there is a bit much!
Living in the city and having no car made getting a tree a challenge. Corner flower stands have been selling the real ones, but they’re tiny and would look silly with our tall ceilings. So we went across the street to Argos to see if they had one. When you go into Argos, all you see are catalogs and computer screens. You look up whatever item you want from furniture, to toys to and everything in between. You write down the item number and take it to the register where they retrieve it in a warehouse underneath the store or order it to be shipped to you. They happened to have an 8’ artificial tree that we hoped we’d like since it was non-refundable and we couldn’t see it until we put all 137 or so branches on. Thankfully it wasn’t hideous. Cade insisted on carrying the heavy box home and up to the 5th floor since Lynn was gone. That boy can be determined when he wants something.
Next were the lights. We’re used to grabbing a bunch of cheap $5 boxes from Target, but that’s not the case here. The lights are these fancy LED things with 8 functions that twinkle, fade, flash, etc. and they cost about as much or more as the overpriced tree. The boys and I made the trek out to Home Base to get garland, wreaths, ornaments and stocking holders that we stuffed into backpacks and lugged home on the bus. I’m really missing my car about now. And all my decorations we’ve collected over the years. But we’re excited to have an English Christmas, so we’re making due. Thankfully we got some fun ornaments in Paris and Germany representing some of our adventures to add to the tree. My mom sent some cute London ones too.
Going to Munich was wonderful because it really got us in the Christmas spirit. When we got back, Tyler was able to go with a friend to a Christmas concert at Royal Albert Hall and did caroling with the youth group. We enjoyed our church’s Christmas program and loved watching the primary children perform the nativity later that night. A homeless man interrupted and scared the kids with his profanity before being escorted out by the bishop. Just another reminder we’re living in a big city with all sorts of people. The kids have really seen a lot of strange and interesting characters I doubt they would ever have experienced in their lives.
It was a crazy couple of days before Christmas with Lynn working long hours for the year-end push and me trying to last-minute shop in one of the busiest, tourist ridden places on the planet. Especially since I was relying on public transportation and had to cart everything home in my arms. Amazon.uk saved me with its one-day shipping. Just seeing the store window displays is worth going out in the sea of people, I can’t believe I didn’t take a single picture of any of them! They are absolutely amazing!
A few days before Christmas, I took the boys to Hamleys, the oldest (and one of the largest) toy stores in the world to get their brother gifts for each other. I wasn’t prepared for the insanity of seven floors of overwhelming toy chaos with demos of toys flying, racing, beeping and talking all around as crowds pushed to find the perfect gifts. Of course all the Legos were on the top floor, but worth the effort since they had exclusive sets and life-size models of the Royal Family, telephone booths and soldiers the kids had fun with. We enjoyed a root beer float and candy at the soda shop up top before distracting the kids while I bought everything.
That evening, we took the bus over to Westfield Mall in Shepard’s Bush to get last-minute gifts. One foot in and Lynn was ready to leave. It was so crowded and unbelievably huge. He avoids the mall like the plague and usually goes just once a year at Christmas. I think he lasted 30 minutes before taking all four boys back and leaving me for hours by myself. Merry Christmas to me!
I’m not used to cooking a full Christmas Eve dinner since we’re either at my parents or Lynn’s and just bring a side dish or two. So we did what the locals do and went to the Borough Market over by Lynn’s office to pick out our feast. Getting there was the tricky part. A major wind and rainstorm rolled in as we started across the Blackfriars Bridge crossing the Thames River. The two umbrellas we brought were useless and snapped in the violent gusts of wind leaving us blown to pieces and blinded as we squinted and ran to meet Lynn at his office. He laughed when he saw us until he stepped out in it himself. The trash cans along the street were overflowing with broken umbrellas. It was hilarious.
We found a nearby bus that dropped us off right at the market, glad to see it was still open. What an awesome mixture of fresh produce, pastries, cheese, prepared ethnic foods, meats and deliciousness. I can see why it is London’s most renowned food market. We picked out the perfect fresh British turkey at a friendly man’s booth. The boys wanted to try pheasant and rabbit too, which I agreed to cook but not eat. After eating a few samples and buying a few more items, Lynn went back to work and Tyler held the 20 pound bag as we made our way back home in the storm. As we were riding home on the tube, Cade yelled out something, disturbed the turkey’s leg had broken through the bag and scared him! We must have been quite the show for the poor people around us.
Besides going through withdrawals not having a Costco or Target nearby, I am really missing my holiday baking. I went out and bought a mixer just so I could make cookies for a cookie exchange at church and was mortified by the way they turned out. The ingredients here are so different, I can’t even find powdered sugar anywhere. So we will miss our favorite frosted sugar cookies, caramels, and homemade Oreos among other traditions.
What I didn’t know, was that in London, you have to make an appointment to see Santa and get your picture. We should have gone when we had the chance at Harrod’s, but the elves were freaky and they wanted to go elsewhere. Everywhere else I tried, they were sold out until next year. So we went to the only other place I could find on the final day he was there – Winter Wonderland at Hyde Park. We had been in the evening and didn’t stay too long. I couldn’t believe how massive it was during the daylight. There was an ice rink, loads of rides, all the Christmas markets, an ice palace made completely of ice, a circus, and tons of other things. If it were warmer, we would have stayed and done more rides.
The storms had lessened, but one was on the horizon. We grabbed our surviving umbrellas and waited in line out in the freezing cold and drizzle for over an hour to let Father Christmas know we had moved and to make sure he knew the little boys’ wish list. Seeing Nathan’s confused face as Santa asked if he’d been a good boy made me laugh. I was glad he was worth the wait—he looked like the real deal! Lynn met up with us and we checked out a few Christmas markets and ate some goodies before heading home. A few more errands later amongst insane amounts of people and we were ready.
Exhausted, we decided to go out to eat and save our feast for Christmas day. Unsure of where to go, we just walked down High Street Kensington and found a darling and delicious French restaurant right up the street. Since the Europeans eat late, especially with midnight mass, we lucked out and got in just at the right time. Dinner was wonderful. I discovered the pure awesomeness of French butter. Yikes.
When we returned back to our apartment, we noticed the front door’s peephole was missing. The boys thought it must have been the elf trying to sneak in and deliver their Christmas pajamas. Sure enough, they found their packages on their bed and wondered how he got in through such a small hole.
It felt strange not to have our traditional Christmas Eve nativity re-enactment, piñata, carols around the piano and favorite foods with family this year. We watched a few spiritual Christmas messages online and let the boys open one gift as usual. It was simple and nice to connect and hang out.
If we had been more prepared for the evening, we would have attended the local midnight mass at the beautiful church on the corner, but we had too much to tackle and tired kids. We tucked them all in and got to work. My tradition of watching “A Christmas Story” while wrapping and arranging was not to be. The viewing selection here is not the greatest. Even with a downsized Christmas, we didn’t make it to bed until 2 am.
Our idea of waiting until 8:00 am didn’t work. At 7:00, the kids were ready and anxious to see if Santa arrived. We spent the day opening gifts, eating, listening to Christmas music, napping, building way too many Lego sets and connecting with loved ones. We loved seeing grandma and grandpa Jenkins on Face Time. The kids showed them all their new gifts. Here’s a few of them.
Cooking the turkey we got at the market took twice as long as expected. With both ovens going, I didn’t realize the larger one with the turkey had turned off, so we ate pretty late, but it was good. Dinner included turkey, herbed potatoes, gravy, roasted beets and carrots, green beans, rolls, mini steak and ale pies, coconut shrimp and chocolate yule log cake with ice cream for dessert.
We ended the day with smiles and grateful hearts for all the wondrous blessings in our lives.
Boxing day is the day after Christmas here and Lynn had the day off. We avoided the sheer madness of all the retail shoppers. Just seeing pictures of how crazy it was, made me glad I stayed home. It looked worse than any Black Friday I’ve ever seen.
I think the kids stayed in pajamas for two days straight, just playing with their new toys and watching the Star Wars trilogy on tv. We kept up the traditional movie outing to “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” which I loved.
The house of carnivores loved the pheasant and rabbit I roasted the next day, even if it took a few times to get it done. I wasn’t going to try it, but their rave reviews convinced me to have a small bite, and they were right.
As the year comes to a close, we have reflected as a family on the amazing opportunities and blessings we have experienced in 2013. It’s going to be a hard one to top, but we’re looking forward to making many more memories and experiencing the joys of life together. We miss our dear family and friends and look forward to going home to Seattle next month for a few weeks too! Best wishes to all for a healthy, happy, wonderful New Year!!