“It was pretty hardcore. There were 15 of us at an apartment in Hoxton with a lot of food and alcohol. S*** got crazy – there were Boris bikes involved - and we had a lock in, playing drinking games with inflatable ten pin bowls. We stayed up drinking till about 5am.”
This is not a description of a Saturday night student party in London – it’s how my boyfriend spent his first ever Christmas in the UK.
As a 26-year-old New Zealander recently arrived in London five years ago with his nearest relatives more than 11,000 miles away, he was one of the many foreign ‘orphans’ floating around the country at Christmas.
With no family around, and tickets home costing up to £1,000, these orphans (as they call themselves) are unable to spend traditional Christmases with their loved ones. So instead they organise their own alternative Christmases and get seriously drunk.
Welcome to ‘Orphans’ Christmas’ – an annual celebration held by people who are unable to spend the day with their family or relatives.
It isn’t an official event, though sometimes certain venues do host lunches and dinners on Christmas day specifically for orphans, but instead takes place at various flats and student houses all over the country.
“For me Orphans’ Christmases are where the unwanted have their own special day,” explains Matt, a 30-year-old Australian. “It can be all rather formal including a Secret Santa-style gift giving, but then after lunch, s*** gets cray.”
Not every Orphans’ Christmas is as intense. 29-year-old Lauren, who moved to the UK from NZ more than two years ago, had a smaller – more civilised – version last year. “My fiance and I spent it with a few friends who didn’t know each other. We cooked roast lamb and a pavlova and just sat around drinking champagne and watching TV.”
It sounds similar to most people’s family Christmases - but she expects this year to be different: “There’s going to be dozens of us at a friend’s house in King’s Cross. We’re all dividing the food, so everyone brings a different dish, and we’re doing a £10 Secret Santa. But things will probably get a bit rowdy. It will definitely be my first proper Orphans’ Christmas.”
Orphans’ Christmases have a reputation of being famously wild with parties that can end up doubling, even tripling, in size as more orphans turn up to join the festivities. Matt tells me of one that went on for several days last year. But that doesn’t mean they’re all just fun and games.
“The real truth is it’s not the same as home,” says Lauren. “We’ll Skype our family on Christmas Eve when it’s Christmas Day for them, so when it gets to 25th December for us, it’s just trying to fill a day. I’ve got quite a big family at home so I miss that, but friends are the family you have here, so that’s why we do this.”
Curtis Atkinson, another Kiwi, suggests the parties are just a way to make up for being away from their families at Christmas.
“I think it’s all about trying to recreate Christmas at home,” he says. “In NZ we've got a lot of the same customs as here so a big roast is a must and then a day of drinking with mostly other Kiwis who are in the same boat of not having family around.
“The biggest thing I miss about home at this time of year is the little things. The rituals that are probably only specific to my family. Like me and my dad used to make the stuffing every year.”
This year he and his girlfriend will be avoiding a traditional Orphans’ Christmas by spending the day up in Liverpool with their friend whose family is taking them in. ‘Adopted’ Christmases like these are the other main option for foreigners celebrating in the UK.
Australian Gretel Oehme tells me: “I’ve been lucky enough to get adopted by friend’s families each year I’ve been in London. My first year here (2013) I spent Christmas in Teignmouth, a small coastal town in Devon where there is a sudden Gen Y influx with everyone coming back home Christmas. Being a small town, everyone knows everyone so we spent a solid five days drinking – turns out people in Teignmouth love to drink.”
Last year, she ended up in West Sussex with another friends’ family, even visiting their grandma in the local nursing home. This year she’ll be in Cambridge with another friends' family at their home.
“Obviously these are quite a contrast to Christmas pool parties and BBQs back at home,” she says. “It’s sad not being around my family but also really nice to see how different families spend their Christmas and getting involved in all their Christmas traditions.
“This year I will be competing in the famous Gibbs Family Christmas wrapping competition where you have to create, make or perform a unique present unwrapping. Previous winners include – setting fire to presents in fireproof boxes, presents ridden in snowmen and ice cubes, even a Christmas rap song.”
Being ‘adopted’ or getting merry at an Orphans’ Christmas party is still a far cry to the beach barbecues and sunny family Christmases they’re all used to, but as they all point out: “It’s the next best thing to a family Christmas."