London isn’t short on seasonal traditions – clinging to the side of the Natural History Museum’s ice rink, haggling over turkeys at Smithfield’s Christmas Eve meat market, watching swimmers brave the Serpentine on December 25. And one of the first signs of the festive season isn’t the John Lewis TV ad, but the Christmas lights switch-on at Kensington boozer The Churchill Arms.
The pub is defiantly sticking to the programme this year. ‘We always make a big effort for Christmas and it’s a tradition we want to maintain,’ says manager James Keogh. ‘We’ve been doing it for 32 years and we didn’t want to have one year where we didn’t do anything.’
The pub’s first display was in 1987, when the building was decked out with 12 fir trees. It’s become increasingly elaborate over the years, and in 2019 it peaked at 100 trees covered in thousands of twinkling lights. It’s really earned its reputation as London’s most Christmassy pub.
This year, it’s going big on lights, with 68,000 bulbs, plus 22 trees and, instead of the usual Christmas banners, 12 NHS flags. The switch was flicked last week and the pub streamed it on Facebook for those who couldn’t make it. ‘We didn’t want to let anyone down,’ says Keogh. ‘We’re keeping up the traditions. We want to celebrate in some way. People need the uplift and the extra festive cheer this year.’
Unsurprisingly, given the shitshow of a year we’ve had, people’s enthusiasm for Christmas seems to have kicked in early. Grosvenor Square restaurant 34 Mayfair put up its 14,000 decorations in October, pubs serving takeaway mulled wine in Lockdown 2.0 did a storming trade and Christmas tree sales are up by 24 percent compared to last year.
Keogh hopes that The Churchill Arms will bring some much-needed joy to Londoners. ‘People would be disappointed if we didn’t have anything. It’s important to the regulars and the customers. We wanted to give something back for all their support, especially through the difficult times this year.’
Want more festive cheer? Check out our Christmas gift guide championing independent makers
If you're strapped for cash, try our 15 brilliant Christmassy things to do that cost a Londoner nothing