Yes, that's right, it's Christmastime here in the UK, even though the weather patterns make it seem more like early spring. In the US, Christmas traditionally begins shortly after Halloween, with a brief break in late November for Thanksgiving. Here in the UK, however, there's roughly a month-long celebration of Guy Fawkes Day (the 5th of November) that ushers in the start of the winter holiday season. Around mid-October, you know that Guy Fawkes day is imminent because the grocery stores begin selling fireworks and other incendiary implements in preparation for bonfires and effigy burnings and other activities that threaten the integrity of both your home and those of your neighbors. Fireworks are let off with increasing frequency as the month of October draws to a close, and the week that centers on Guy Fawkes Day sees a frenzy of nighttime explosions with, of course, a spectacular display (or multiples thereof) on the 5th itself. This is followed by a roughly two-week period during which you are less and less likely to be given a heart attack as an unexpected firecracker explodes next door at 2 AM.
The final two weeks of November are a long and painful slog. Every morning, you hear the radio announcers talk about how they can't wait until they're allowed to play Christmas music. Every evening as you walk home, you see council employees hanging unlit Christmas decorations in preparation for the day when they can all be turned on. Slowly, television advertisements begin to feature scenes with snow and songs with jingling bells; shop windows are trimmed with giant paper snowflakes and baubled trees and fake garland. And then one day, when you leave work to walk home in the dark shortly after the 4:30 PM sunset, this is what you see:
The spectacular light display of Penryn. You'll notice the traditional Christmas goat on the left (clearly not a reindeer, otherwise it would have actual antlers), and his calligraphic scribble of a companion on the right. This can only mean one thing: It is the first of December, and the Christmas season has officially begun in Britain.
One thing I love about Britain is the quirky nature of the infrastructure. I have no idea why there should be a little alcove along the main road through Penryn, but someone thought it would be a good place to put a miniature Christmas tree with a single strand of "fairy lights," as they are called here--and, voila, a little dose of Christmas cheer.
You know that you are in a coastal town when Christmas decorations involve anchors and ships' steering wheels--and when said decorations are hung by no less than the local church (which, admittedly, did also feature an angel elsewhere in its display).
This was the scene that greeted me in Falmouth on the evening of the 1st. For weeks I'd been watching the council workers laboriously make their way up Falmouth's main drag, attaching seemingly miles of colored lights to the buildings. They had an interesting mixture of styles. The photo above features the single-line, zigzag, colored-light arrangement, which was interspersed with a fan-shaped, multi-stringed, LED arrangement in a seemingly random fashion. The complete lack of symmetry makes me wonder if they either ran out of materials at some point, or were better able to attach certain styles in certain places. Regardless, the entire street is completely lit up all night, and the effect is rather magical. The weirdest decoration is hung over the center of the Moor, where a giant star is surrounded by individual strands of light arranged in a circular radiating pattern--rather like the spokes of a wheel around the central hub. In the dark, you can't see the wiring by which the lights are attached to nearby structures, and so the entire display appears to be suspended, unassisted, in midair, rather like a net about to fall on unassuming passers-by. Or, if you are feeling more charitable, kind of like a heavenly microcosm in which each light represents a star.
What I only realized at the last minute--because I happened to overhear my students discussing it--was that there was an actual lighting ceremony planned in town on the first day of December. I have no idea how long-standing of a tradition this is, but I certainly don't remember such a thing from last year. The event was over and done with before I made my way into town from work, but I could get a general sense of the festivities by drinking in the aftermath. There had obviously been some sort of procession that culminated in the lighting of the Christmas tree--or, perhaps, trees, because there is one on the Moor as well as one in Events Square outside our apartment. Almost all of the shops were open well past their normal closing hours of 5-6 PMish so that people could begin their Christmas shopping and take advantage of the holiday sales (I keep hoping that the Brits will one day learn how lovely it is to be able to buy things until 9 PM, and adopt it as a normal practice, but I'm not holding my breath on that). What's more, there were vendors pushing around carts from which they were selling Santa hats, cotton candy, and glow sticks. Given that glow sticks are normally reserved for raves, and cotton candy is--in my mind at least--found mostly at circuses and fairs, you can imagine that the overall effect was quite...festive, especially when nurtured by a few cups of the mulled wine that everyone was carrying around.
But you know what? I do feel Christmas cheer, and here is one big reason why:
That and all the great presents.