"London for Christmas?" a friend asked. "But why?"
I was stumped momentarily. Other places are more obvious — fairy-tale Vienna or pious Rome with its candlelight Masses or any German city that has a Christmas market.
Aside from Father Christmas, who dates to the 15th century, and Charles Dickens, whose redemptive 1843 novella "A Christmas Carol" put some of the spirit back into the season, what exactly does London have to offer that makes it quintessentially Christmas?
I took her by the elbow and began our quest to find the heart of the holiday in my hometown.
Since 2007, the sprawling Winter Wonderland fair has taken over Hyde Park, near the city center and one of London's largest green spaces. We joined the throng heading through the main entrance and followed the lights of the giant Ferris wheel glowing against the night sky.
The Wonderland's German Christmas Market is as big and bright as the ones in Cologne or Nuremberg. Stands were laden with gingerbread men, handmade chocolates and candied apples, but on a cold December night in London, I wanted only one thing: Glühwein, or mulled wine. Here, the festive drink is made properly: red wine heated with orange and lemon and spiced with cinnamon sticks and cloves.
Each of us cradled a cup, passing up the colorful rides, until we reached the Magical Ice Kingdom. The frozen kingdom and its castle are fashioned from nearly a quarter-million pounds of ice. We were met by sculptures — some of snow, some of ice — that included a hulking dragon and benign-looking reindeer. Fifty artists from around the world worked more than two weeks on-site, where temperatures are kept at 14 degrees, to make this magic.
Wonderland is also home to Zippos Christmas Circus, which this year takes place in the Mega Dome, said to be the biggest circus tent in Britain. We popped in for a sample of Cirque Berzerk's assorted thrills (expect fire-eaters, daredevils and stunning acrobatics), then repaired to one of the big timber-beam barns full of revelers drinking on rustic benches. We scarfed juicy German sausages and washed them down with beer in hefty steins. A certain glow prevailed.
Southbank Centre's Winter Festival
Winter Wonderland is but one of the Christmas markets here, some focused on food, others on crafts. My favorite is at the Southbank Centre along the banks of the Thames near Waterloo station.
The market's little wooden chalets sell hot chocolate and seasonal nibbles, and the nice-quality handicrafts at the boutique-style stalls can help whittle down your shopping list.
The highlight is Slava's Snowshow (www.slavasnowshow.co.uk), a theatrical celebration of winter using special effects and an artificial blizzard (which is helpful because we haven't had a white Christmas in my lifetime). It's staged in the Royal Festival Hall; tickets begin at $30.
For many in England, Christmas wouldn't be complete without a spin around an ice rink. I think the country's most beautiful one is at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. The rest of the year, families flock to the neo-Romanesque building for the enormous dinosaur skeletons as well as the extraordinary collections of fossils, artifacts and interactive exhibitions exploring the history of life on Earth.
But in winter, beneath the branches of enormous trees strewn with fairy lights, the grounds are frozen for skaters, a sparkling Christmas tree aglow in the center. It's as enchanting on skates as from a ringside seat at the cafe bar, which is where we ended up after falling a few too many times.
Kew Royal Botanic Gardens
The sentimentality of the season begins to wear as Advent wanes. But a walk in Kew Gardens restores the balance.
This botanical treasure in leafy Richmond, on the city's western fringe, is a highlight for nature lovers in every season, but beginning in late November, it gets dressed up for Christmas.
We walked the new Tunnel of Lights, a mile-long trail through trees illuminated by lanterns, different-colored spotlights and elaborate light-filled sculptures, all set to dreamlike music. We stood in awe at the Palm House, a glass palace illuminated with pink and blue lights mirrored in the small Kew Gardens lake.
We even followed the kids into the Princess of Wales Conservatory, temporarily masquerading as the Snowflake Grotto, to meet Santa among water lilies, orchids and ferns.
You can't avoid it. The obvious place to start in London is Oxford Street, the capital's main shopping thoroughfare. With the renowned Selfridges and other famous stores, the street becomes frantically full as the big day nears.
But detour if you will to nearby Regent Street, which I find more appealing, especially since a $1.6-billion makeover that restored some of the buildings and made way for larger international shops.
It's decked out in glittering Christmas lights, decorations and even fake snow in December, and the nationally protected buildings are handsome venues. Don't miss the 19th century building that houses the historic Liberty shop (www.liberty.co.uk) with its collection of designer clothes, jewelry, bags and beauty products, or the fabled toy shop Hamleys (www.hamleys.com), both among the city's most best-known stores.
Perhaps feeling the need to atone for the feverish consumerism that had seized us, we headed to St. Paul's Cathedral and settled into a pew to admire the architecture of this masterwork by Christopher Wren.
It is, I think, the most beautiful church in London, with its Neoclassical, Gothic and Baroque elements and, of course, a dome that's synonymous with London's skyline.
It holds special services throughout Advent. As a choir of little angels sang hymns heralding the coming of the Savior, I forgot about the markets, Glühwein and gardens.
I knew we would get back on the commercial merry-go-round that dominates 21st century Christmas, but for the moment, we enjoyed a blessed respite.