The first day of Christmas.

Saturday, December 16th, 2000

Yesterday was the first really wintry day that we’ve had here. We’ve had blustery days, and really stormy days, and chilly days, but yesterday was the first day that I stepped outside and thought, “It feels like Christmas.”

The lack of Christmas feeling around here isn’t only due to the fact that it simply hasn’t been that cold. It’s also due to the fact that Brighton doesn’t seem to “do" Christmas. There are a few lights strung up in the center of town, and most of the stores are decorated in some Christmas-y fashion, but there’s something missing. There aren’t enough Christmas trees in windows or Christmas carols blaring from storefronts or something. There isn’t even a big town Christmas tree, for pity’s sake.

I find myself comparing Brighton with Freiburg at this time of year, which isn’t very fair because nobody does Christmas like the Germans. In Freiburg at this time of year, there are little white lights up and down every street in town. There’s a wonderful, crowded Christmas market that fills the town hall square with the smell of frying sausages and spiced wine. There are people selling Christmas trees at the farmer’s market and on street corners throughout town. There are lots of candles, lots of sparkly lights, lots of pine cones and nuts and berries. It’s all very traditional, ultra-tasteful, extremely cozy, and just plain nice. The Germans really have it wrapped up in the Christmas department (no pun intended). No one else stands a chance.

And I shouldn’t be too hasty in judging Christmas here in England. Brighton is no more representative of the rest of Britain than London is - that is to say, it’s not representative at all, in my opinion. I’m sure that there is a lot more Christmas spirit to be found in the towns and villages surrounding Brighton, more lights in windows and all that. I get the feeling that Brighton is just too young and hip to be into Christmas. Christmas isn’t very cool.

Nonetheless, the temperatures have plunged and suddenly winter - and hence, Christmas - is in the air, even in Brighton. We left the house late yesterday afternoon, after the sun had already started to go down, and the first thing that struck me when I stepped outside was the cold; it was bitingly cold, the kind of brittle, dry cold that you only get in the heart of winter. The second thing that struck me was the smell of coal and wood fires, those archetypal winter smells.

The sky was clear and the air was fresh and still, so we decided to stroll into town along the seafront (something you physically cannot do when it’s as windy as it has been lately - the wind comes off the water and stops you in your tracks). There were people all along the seafront: families walking with children, couples walking dogs, kids on skateboards, guys playing basketball on a tiny little court by the beach. Most of the cafes and clubs and fish and chip shops along the beach were closed (for winter, I suppose), but the few that were open had tables and chairs set up outside. Despite the chill, there were people sitting out at them - lots of people, in fact, some together in groups, some alone, some young, some old, some drinking espresso or beer, or eating chips wrapped in big greasy sheets of newspaper. I appreciated the tenacity of the people sitting around outside.

We were just in time to catch a gorgeous sunset. Everyone faced the sea to watch the sky turn golden pink and the sun turn brilliant copper as it dipped towards the horizon, scattering the few lingering pastel clouds and gleaming through the empty skeleton of the magnificent old West Pier. There was an incredibly serene atmosphere along the beach, and I felt a sort of camaraderie with the all the other people who had come to watch the sun go down. It was somehow comforting to see that even the hip young Brightonians appreciated the beauty of that sunset and the peacefulness of the beach. I was extraordinarily content, and as I walked along I simply thought, “I like this place.”

It’s not Christmas-y, but I like it.

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