Christmas is all around us these days. The lead up to the big day is peppered with lighting ceremonies, elaborate window displays, and Christmas parties, full of mulled wine and the infamous booze-soaked doorstop that is Christmas pudding. There is a palpable excitement in the air in London. Unlike the US, where most people don’t jump into the deep end of the Christmas pool until after Thanksgiving, here in the UK, without needing to carve a turkey at the end of November, the holiday spirit starts at the beginning of the month.
A full two months of Christmas cheer.
For me, the lights on Oxford Street are nice, and the Selfridges windows are admittedly beautiful, but I always think of Fortnum and Mason when I think of Christmas. The legendary store has been doing business continuously since 1707. Think about that for a second. That is over 300 years of tradition and history.
Almost a full 70 years before the US Declaration of Independence was signed and the same year that England Scotland united to form Great Britain, Fortnum and Mason has been around to celebrate the holidays.
What makes Fortnum and Mason so lovely this time of year is its attachment to its traditions. The entire staff still wear bright red blazers with full tails, no matter what they happen to be responsible for. The stairs leading to the 4 floors above the ground level entrance are deep, dark wood, with intricate carvings, making it feel like more like an old, grand hotel than a department store. Crystal chandeliers dangle above the displays, and the floors remain a bit creaky and undulating.
It is not sleek and modern. It’s actually rather stuffy and old fashioned, which is why I love it.
The store gets fully decked out for the holidays, inside and out. Every exterior window has a distinct display and at every entrance you are met with at least one fully decorated tree. The railings are covered in wreaths, while ribbons and holly dangle from the ceiling. Christmas music fills the air, as you browse the chocolate counter. Nothing is tacky or overdone.
It is tasteful and respectful. Very British.
Fortnum and Mason celebrates everything that is classically British on the ground floor. The tea counter, with the bulk tea, available to be purchased by weight, is attended by a gentleman wearing white gloves (and the aforementioned coat with tails). There is a massive wall dedicated solely to jams, preserves and marmalades, a necessity for any proper afternoon tea. A large table holds an array of honey, just what you need for your cup of tea. The annual Christmas spiced tea is on full display around every corner, the aroma of cloves, nutmeg, orange, and cinnamon permeating the air. Tables are piled high with an array of mincemeat pies (a British holiday staple, full of dried fruit, not meat. Thank god).
The first floor also now holds the famous Fortnum and Mason Christmas hampers, a Christmas tradition (hampers are English-speak for a gift basket). Fortnum and Mason arranges a variety of hampers, available to ship around the world, chock full of the most traditional British delicacies. English mustards, jams, clotted cream, biscuits, tea, Christmas pudding. Whatever you want in your hamper, the team at Fortnum and Mason can arrange. Of course, Fortnum and Mason is not a discount retailer, so don’t expect any deals.
Even the most basic hampers start at £55 and can go upwards of £300 if you so desire. Christmas doesn’t come cheap here.
Unlike modern department stores, with their glossy, shiny marble floors, towers of escalators, and perfume area that assaults the senses, Fortnum and Mason presents itself as refined. No one hawks free samples or tries to entice you to try a new product. You are left to your own devices, to explore the shelves of canned and jarred goods, the sweets counter, the tins of tea.
The Christmas season is no exception. No over the top Santa exhibits or crowds clambering to get the “must buy” gift of the year. The queues are organized, the masses calm. Fortnum and Mason provides the holiday spirit of yore, before the times of Black Friday sales and the horror stores of rabid patrons stampeding over each other to get the best deal.