Londoners have always loved Christmas, from Samuel Pepys feasting on ‘ribbs of beef roasted and mince pies’, to Charles Dickens, whose ‘Christmas Carol’ popularised the greeting ‘Merry Christmas!’ Oliver Cromwell tried to ban Christmas in 1645, but plucky Londoners rioted, forming a crowd and sticking a rebellious sprig of holly on a water fountain at Cornhill. Luckily we are now allowed to celebrate the season freely, the city is bedecked with sparkling lights and the shelves are heaving with Yuletide merchandise. Here are 15 suggestions for some of the more unusual ways to mark the festive season.
1. Drift into a fairytale
Westfield, Shepherd's Bush
Jelly impresarios Bompas & Parr have created a fairytale experience in Shepherd's Bush. Board a boat and glide across a 60-foot lagoon, past waterfalls, islands and mythical beasts. The perfect cure for shopping mania.
2. Climb into a Christmas tree
The Churchill Arms, Kensington
The verdant Churchill Arms on Kensington Church Street becomes one enormous Christmas tree each December. This year the cosy local pub has strapped 80 trees to its exterior walls and decorated them with 18,000 fairy lights.
3. Pick up decorating tips
V&A Museum, South Kensington
Every year, the V&A asks a designer to create a Christmas tree installation. Alexander McQueen, Gareth Pugh and Kaffe Fassett have all had a go. This year StudioXAG has unveiled a Victorian-inspired display of trees and hanging garlands across the museum.
4. Freeze your giblets
The Serpentine, Hyde Park
Every Christmas Day at 9am, a shivering gaggle of swimmers lines up along a narrow jetty in Hyde Park and dives into the Serpentine. This chilly 100- yard race is known as the Peter Pan Cup, because JM Barrie used to present the trophy. To enter, join the Serpentine Swimming Club, the oldest in Britain.
5. Make crackers
Homemade London, Marble Arch
Christmas crackers were invented on Goswell Road: confectioner Tom Smith began selling exploding bonbons in 1847, which evolved into the familiar bursting bonanzas. Make your own at Homemade London this Saturday.
6. Dream of snow
You can bet on it being a white Christmas: the wager is whether a single snowflake is observed falling on to a small patch of roof at Buckingham Palace on Christmas Day. Most Christmases are white according to this definition, but only four in over 50 years have seen widespread snow on the ground in London.
7. Feed the animals
Horse Guards, Whitehall
In a long-held tradition, the men of the Household Cavalry take pity on the equestrian statue of Prince George, Duke of Cambridge, which stands outside their barracks in the middle of Whitehall: they give his horse a nosebag of straw on Christmas Day. Toss him a few oats as you pass by.
8. Wrap presents
Drink, Shop & Do, Caledonian Road
Leaving the wrapping till the last min? Think again. The 'Modern Christmas Wrapping' workshop this Saturday will teach you an array of wow-factor folding techniques, origami flourishes and the wherewithal to produce embroidery tags.
9. Dress up and dance
Prince of Wales, Brixton
Pull on your glad rags this Saturday and head to the rooftop winter garden at the Prince of Wales for its warming annual Christmas Carnival. Expect a rum shack and sizzling jerk barbecue with a festive twist. Line-up features Jus Now, Hipsters Don't Dance and DJ Illness.
10. Deck the halls
Geffrye Museum, Hoxton
Each room at the Geffrye Museum recreates a different domestic interior from the past 400 years, and at Christmas it's adorned with period decorations. Trace the origins of parlour games and steal a kiss under the mistletoe, before picking up some vintage craft ideas to try at home.
11. Hunt the Ghost of Christmas
Past Dennis Severs' House, Spitalfields
Eighteen Folgate Street tells the story of a family of Huguenot silk weavers living from 1724 until the nineteenth century. At Christmas it's filled with decorations and crackling fires. Attend a candle-lit 'Silent Night' to explore the house in total silence.
12. Buy a wreath
On Sunday mornings Columbia Road is flooded with fragrances and colour. The weekly flower market is a treat any time of year, but in December it's the best place to pick up festive essentials: trees, holly and handmade wreaths.
13. Get cooking
In London Every year over 10,000 volunteers help at Crisis centres across London over Christmas. Volunteer to be a kitchen assistant, helping to prepare and serve some of the 29,000 hot meals that Crisis provides over the festive period.
14. Meet Father Christmas
Sutton House, Hackney
The National Trust's wood-panelled Tudor house in Hackney gets an eccentric annual festive makeover. This year it has been festooned with 'fragments of timeless pantomime tales'. Most excitingly you can meet Saint Nick himself in his double-decker caravan outside, the Surreal Santa Sleigh.
Henry Eliot and Matt Lloyd-Rose are the authors of 'Curiocity: In Pursuit of London', Penguin Books, £30.
Illustration: Mike Hall