City Shutdown

Piccadilly Circus on Christmas Day. By Justin Bramwell of the BBC

I wouldn’t have imagined that it would be possible for the capital city of a supposedly liberal Western democracy to completely shut down, even if it were for a day. The extent to which London shut down yesterday on account of Christmas proved me wrong, and the only parallels I could think of were Bangalore on the day after Rajkumar died in 2006, and Gurgaon on the day of Holi in 2009.

Considering that the latter two instances were essentially a response and a pre-emptive response to hooliganism, I was surprised to see London reach the same levels of shut down on an otherwise peaceful day.

There were no shops open through the day. A handful of restaurants were open, but only for those with reservations. A pub (short for “public house”) close to home had a signboard saying “for reservations only. Not open for public”. Most other pubs and restaurants were shut.

Even the small versions of large chain-stores that open from early morning to late night on most days were shut. So were the mom-and-pop stores that are “off-license” and hence not subject to Sunday trading restrictions (another irritating thing I find about Europe, coming from India where Sunday is the busiest day for shopping). Public transport wasn’t running. There wasn’t much private transport either – the streets were mostly empty. I didn’t pass by many medical shops but those too weren’t open.

Thankfully we realised that the shutdown was impending – I don’t really know how we realised, but by Monday it was clear that yesterday wouldn’t be a “normal day”. We duly stocked up on all essentials and non-essentials, especially given we have houseguests. The kids wanted to go to the park in the afternoon, and we weren’t sure if that would be open either (it was). A lone Starbucks in the area was open and it did brisk business.

I don’t know if there’s regulation that states that stores ought to close on Christmas in London (given “sunday trading rules”, I wouldn’t rule that out). To me this shut down illustrates the fragility of a city with one very dominant culture (yes, London is multi-racial and multi-national, but curiously everyone shuts down on Christmas). While Bangalore, where I’m from, has few foreigners and is majority Hindu, there is some low-level multiculturalism in the city that means that the whole city doesn’t shut down on the same day (unless there are riots, that is).

It’s possibly because in India we have so many festivals that there is no one festival that is the “major festival” for everyone. So while people for whom the day is the major festival go on holiday, others for whom it isn’t that major a festival remain open for business and profit from the reduced competition. In some sense, establishments “take turns to go on holiday”. Public transport runs (albeit at reduced levels) on these holidays.

Again, all of India isn’t like this. As I mentioned at the top of the post, Delhi virtually shuts down on the day of Holi – the result of one dominant culture in that city. Similarly, the memetic fitness of the Ganesha drowning event in Mumbai is so strong that that city shuts down on the drowning days as well  (again there’s an element of hooliganism present) – though not to the extent to which London shut down yesterday.

There are a few odd people in London who don’t shut down for Christmas, though. This one photographer from the BBC goes out every Christmas to chronicle the empty streets of London.

Oxford Circus. Source: BBC


3 thoughts on “City Shutdown”

  1. It’s more a cultural thing, than a religious thing. Once we get over the unusualness of it, it’s quite an enjoyable experience. A day to spend at home, with F&F, with nothing else calling.

    As you guessed correctly, Sunday trading laws also apply, though ok boxing day. Christmas day is usually a full shutdown.

    In London, the shutdown is further enforced the tube not running.

    When I was in London, I used to go running or cycling in Christmas morning. It’s beautiful to enjoy the city without people. For one, made me realise how wide some of the roads are – specially the ones we feel are too narrow due to heavy traffic.

    In Guildford, I go for a run, and meet lots of families out for a Christmas walk in the countryside ( something they can all do when there’s nothing else they can do;)

  2. In North India, Diwali is the biggest festival. Even io that day, except for late evening, a huge minority of shops are open. And it’s not multiculturalism as well. The town where I grew up is as homogenous as they get. Yet, people would open shops for most of the day on Diwali (likewise on holi).
    There’s just no culture of ever switching off.
    Guildford is just as homogenous, and similar sized. Yet, the shutdown here is even more complete than London.

  3. In the US, Chinese and other Asian restaurants are traditionally open on Xmas Day. American Jews famously eat Chinese food on Xmas. I ordered food for take-out from a Sichuan place and when I went to pick it up, it was super crowded. The rest of my American city was closed.

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