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15 December 2013

London at Christmas: listen to the silence of the city

Walk around Manhattan on Christmas morning and nothing, really, is very different from any other weekend day. But even in the 21st century, go for a Christmas Day walk in London and you will find a resonant stillness.

By Erica Wagner

My mother used to tell me about the blizzard of ’47. She was 13 years old, my son’s age now, when nearly 27 inches of snow fell on New York City. My mother wasn’t especially close to her father, my grandfather, but she always remembered vividly how on that day – it was just after Christmas – the two of them went out for a long walk in the silent city, the trees of Park Avenue cloaked in the drift, Central Park a wilderness of swirling white. His office was downtown, on Wall Street – and, wrapped up warm, that’s how far they walked, half the length of Manhattan Island. Decades later my mother told me how it seemed on that morning that they were the only two people left in the place.

I had my own New York blizzard a few decades later – in 1978, a great nor’easter that paralysed the coast from New Jersey to Vermont. It was early February – my school was closed for days. These days, when “snow days” strike, the schools email out yards of work to be done at home: not back then. I had hours to stomp out castaway-style messages (“HI MOM”) in the drifts, which could be seen from our balcony on the 25th floor. Lucky for me that Moon Boots were the cool thing that year. It was bliss.

Here in London, my son hasn’t been so lucky with snow days; he won’t have any great blizzard stories to tell his kids (though I did manage to take him to my home town just in time for Hurricane Sandy last year). After decades in London – a city I love – finally, the thing I miss the most is a New York winter.

First of all: how is it that here in Britain it is both less cold and, at the same time, somehow colder? I will never forget the first winters I spent in the Fens, sitting helplessly in front of a gas fire and turning like a pig on a spit, trying to banish the freezing damp from the very marrow of my bones but to no avail. It was cold that had the quality of a spell cast over the landscape: setting out along the lanes and fields in the early mornings, the ground was hoared over, near-frozen moisture catching the weak sun and balefully gleaming. No run could warm me, no matter how many miles I travelled; my eyebrows would rime with frost.

Of course, the city is different. But the winter quiet, especially around Christmas, still haunts me: still lets me know that I am, finally, a stranger in this place. Christmas in New York is a noisy festival, a great shindig of commerce, and a city that’s always raucous seems even more so as the days get shorter; the descent of darkness banished with a million brilliant lights.

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I remember being so excited one Christmas Eve – I must have been five or six – that I couldn’t sleep; and so my parents, in a bid to tire me out, walked me from West End Avenue to the East Side, where all the windows of the great department stores were lit for the holidays: Bonwit Teller, Lord & Taylor, Bergdorf’s, Bloomingdale’s. There was the towering Christmas tree at Rockefeller Centre – the first one was erected the year the buildings opened, 1933, the year my mother was born – and the ice-skaters swooping and twirling beneath its glowing boughs. Yes, of course there are department stores in London; and Fortnum’s windows are beautiful. But it’s not the same. There is a silence, underneath.

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When I first came to this country, I struggled with that silence. Walk around Manhattan on Christmas morning and nothing, really, is very different from any other weekend day. But even in the 21st century, go for a Christmas Day walk in London and you will find a resonant stillness. Starbucks is closed. On Christmas morning we will walk west into the City, the dome of St Paul’s rising like a blessing over all. The streets empty, as if a blizzard had cleared them, though there is no snow; we might not see another soul until we get to the precincts of that great church. And yes, here is the damp chill that burrows under hats and scarves and jumpers to find the base of your throat, your breastbone, your heart.

Shops being shut, trains not running – all that seems clearly connected to this most secular country’s established Church; Christianity dictates that we visit houses of worship, not commerce, on this day. But the silence and stillness seems much more ancient than that – it stretches right back into humanity’s first imagining of how we are all born anew out of the midwinter dark. In his absorbing new book, Pagan Britain, Ronald Hutton demonstrates how it is nearly impossible to know anything at all about what the people who first lived in these islands believed, or how they behaved to express those beliefs; and yet his book also demonstrates that where there is mystery there is space for the numinous.

Prince Albert first brought over Christmas trees from his native Germany as late as the 19th century: but surely, from humankind’s earliest days, sprays of greenery and the red berries of the holly tree have brought hope of warmth and light in the long, cold, dark days of winter. “The process of conscious and unconscious replication of the ancient,” as Hutton has it, connects one generation to another – and it is just this that I have learned to hear in the British winter silence. That ancient whisper is part of what brought me here in the first place, and it’s why I’ve stayed. It’s often very hard to hear. But listen to the winter – it’s there.

Erica Wagner is Eccles British Library Writer in Residence and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize