Posted in Personal life, Travel

O, Flower of Christmas!

When I was a child growing up in a London suburb, one of the highlights of our festive season was to sing carols around the huge Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square.

Although this may sound like a very English tradition, the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree is not British at all, on two counts.

  • Firstly, Christmas trees only caught on in Britain after Prince Albert introduced the concept from his German homeland in 1848. You may be surprised to realise that the quintessential portrait of the Victorian British Christmas, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, does not contain a single Christmas tree.
  • Secondly, the tree in Trafalgar Square is a gift from the people of Norway. They have sent one every year since 1947 to thank Britain for its support during the Second World War. (An interesting aside: the word “quisling”, meaning traitor, derives from the name of Norwegian Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling, who from 1942 until 1945 led the German-friendly government while the King of Norway took shelter in Britain.)
Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square
By Diliff – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Evergreens of other kinds, such as holly, ivy, and mistletoe, have been part of a British Christmas for centuries. Borrowed from pagan winter festivals, they symbolise the promise of new life, whether in the form of spring or the birth of Christ.

The poinsettia, however, is a relative newcomer to the traditional Christmas canon of plants. Until recently, I’d assumed the only reason it pops up in shops in December is because of its festive colours. Not so.

The connection comes from a sweet Mexican legend…

image of a poinsettia
By André Karwath aka Aka – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

A little Mexican girl was fretting because she was too poor to buy a birthday gift for Jesus, to lay at her local church’s manger scene, in keeping with village tradition. Suddenly an angel appeared, telling her to gather weeds from the roadside, because what mattered was not the cost of her gift, but what was in her heart. Her neighbours were scornful when she brought a bouquet of green weeds to the church, but in a heart-warming Christmas miracle, as she set them down on the altar, red flowers sprang up among the green leaves in the shape of the star of Bethlehem.

My first slightly frivolous thought on hearing the story was that it’s a Mexican take on my favourite carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter”: “What can I give him, poor as I am? I know, I’ll bring a poinsettia.”

As you probably know, the red parts of the poinsettia technically aren’t flowers at all, but leaves that have turned red. Its flowers are the tiny yellow buds at the centre of each cluster of red leaves. But modern botanical definitions don’t detract from the power of the legend.

While the name we use for the plant commemorates the American diplomat, Sir Joel Roberts Poinsett, who first imported cuttings from Mexico to the US in 1836, in Mexico, it’s known as flor de Navidad (Christmas flower) and flor de Nochebuena (flower of the Holy Night). The closest the Mexicans have to a Christmas tree is a decorated cactus.

Whatever greenery you choose to decorate your home this Christmas, I wish you joy and peace this festive season, and a New Year full of new life and hope.

This article first appeared in the Hawkesbury Parish News, December 2021

Further Festive Reading

Whether you are still Christmas shopping or you would some lighthearted and uplifting books to read during the holidays, you might like to take a look at these seasonal reads.

I’ve provided buying links in case you’d like to order them, but if you have any problems placing orders online, just let me know and I’ll arrange to send them to you myself.

cover of Murder in the Manger

Murder in the Manger – the third Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, a gentle, feel-good story that kicks off when the nativity play penned by Sophie goes somewhat off-script…

Order the paperback

Download the ebook

cover of Stranger at St Bride's

Stranger at St Bride’s As the staff and girls at St Bride’s prepare for their annual Christmas Fair,  stranger turns up to lay claim to the estate, and the fight to save the school is on!

Order the paperback

Download the ebook

cover of Stocking Fillers by Debbie Young

Stocking Fillers – the antidote to pre-Christmas stress, 12 funny stories about different aspects of the festive season, easy quick reads that make the perfect Secret Santa present or indeed a gift to self!

Order the paperback

Download the ebook

Cover of Lighting Up Time

Lighting Up Time – this short story is set at the winter solstice, available in a slim paperback the size of a picture postcard

Order the paperback

Download the ebook

Posted in Personal life, Travel

Let’s All Go Down the Strand (Bananas Optional)

Tube map, Oyster card and bunch of bananas
Why the bananas? I can hear my non-British friends wondering. I explain at the end of the post.

How the emptiness of one of London’s busiest roads, The Strand, near Charing Cross Station, caught me by surprise on Saturday morning

When I was a little girl, I lived in a leafy south-east suburb of London. Sidcup, to be precise, which is on a train commuter route half an hour from Charing Cross, technically the centre of London. Stepping out from the Charing Cross Station forecourt onto the Strand meant hurling yourself into a heaving metropolis, streaming with traffic of both pedestrian and vehicular.

Never Stationary

Later, I worked in central London in a couple, in one job round the corner from Victoria Station, in another a brisk stroll from London Bridge. (What is it about my career and train stations? Suddenly my life is starting to sound like a game of Monopoly.) Every day on my way to work, I’d automatically brace myself to wade purposefully through the crowds. It’s just what everyone does in rush hour, and no-one thinks anything of it.

Village Contrast

Since I moved to a small Gloucestershire village on the edge of the Cotswolds 25 years ago, a walk down the street has become rather a different experience. Here, you may not see many people – sometimes none at all – but each that you do see will say a friendly hello, and you’ll probably know most of them by name. Whenever I return to London now, I’m startled by the crowds, until my brain reboots into its former Londoner setting.

Photo of the Strand with no traffic or people
No bananas here – the very empty Strand, London, at 8.30am on a Saturday morning

So it came a huge surprise to me to discover last month that early on a Saturday morning, the Strand is deserted. Twice in January I had to be there at 8.30am on Saturdays, and I don’t think I’ve ever been there at that time of day at the weekend before. There was scarcely a vehicle to be seen, and the only people about were homeless people sheltering in shop doorways. What I first took to be a large gathering of them outside a theatre, I later realised to be a queue for cut-price tickets released early in the day. (I thought it was odd that one of them had a Cath Kidston handbag.)

Do I Know You?

Another surprise came when someone called out a cheery hello to me. It turned out not to be someone I knew, as it would have been back in Hawkesbury, but a young, very grubby chap of about 30, huddled under a blanket outside McDonalds. I stood him a cup of hot chocolate by way of a thank you.

Photo of man with bird of prey in Trafalgar Square, London
Feeding the birds – to the bird – in Trafalgar Square, in front of Nelson’s Column, with Big Ben in the background.

The only other person I spoke to was a little beyond the Strand, on Trafalgar Square, where I strolled to kill time, waiting for the friend I was due to be meeting at 9am. My attention was drawn to the jingle of bells as a hawk flew down from the National Gallery to return to this chap’s wrist. They turned out to be there on official business, paid to patrol the Square for three hours a day as pest control. Gone are the days when tourists were encouraged to buy bags of birdseed from street vendors to feed the pigeons. Mary Poppins’ persuasive song calling us to “Feed the birds” suddenly took on a whole new meaning.

Why the Banana?

Speaking of meanings, I owe my non-British readers an explanation of the banana. In 1909, a Cockney Music Hall became a smash hit, called “Let’s All Go Down the Strand”, in which that line was followed by the refrain “Have a Banana”. I’ve always wondered what the significance of the banana was, other than the obvious connection of what was then a fruit market in nearby Covent Garden. Coming from Charing Cross, in search of a banana, going down the Strand would be a reasonable route.

I hesitated to research the meaning of the banana, knowing that most music hall songs are filled with bawdy double entendres. It turns out that “have a banana” wasn’t part of the original lyrics, but may just have been added by enthusiastic, tipsy crowds as it fitted the musical phrase that followed the first line of the verse. The rest of the lyrics are largely forgotten by most people these days. I’m not sure I ever knew them, but you can find the original lyrics here, if you’re interested. But there’s not a a banana in sight, nor are bananas relevant to the theme of the song. (Sorry if that news makes me sound about as much of a killjoy as a High Court judge.)

The Banana in the Room

Cover of Cabin Pressure box set
Turning the banana of Edwardian Music Hall into sublime 21st century comedy

But the banana in the Strand is like an elephant in the room. (No, I’m not talking about the Elephant and Castle, another district of London – I’ll save that for another day). It simply won’t go away. if you play “word association” with most British people of a certain age, and say “Let’s All Go Down the Strand”, “Have a banana” will be the first thing that comes into their heads. There have even been cover versions of the song recorded this century by – wait for it – Blur. (Listen to their version here, if you must.)

For a much more authentic and hearty demonstration of how the banana line should be sung, check out this extract of BBC Radio 4’s  smart sitcom Cabin Pressure, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephanie Cole, Roger Allam and John Finnemore, its genius writer. As the suave scoundrel Douglas (Roger Allam) might put it, the banana is in play.