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The director of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and BBC Singers, on hunting for hidden presents, ham sandwiches for breakfast and his family’s Christmas movie mystery


What epitomises Christmas in London for you?

The shop windows – I always love those, and when the Advent Carol Service kicks-off the season in St Paul’s Cathedral. It’s not often that I get to go but it’s wonderful. It is theatrical in a way, but it has meaning, and I love that.


What’s your earliest or best Christmas memory?

When I was a kid, my dad used to work for Schweppes in Colwall, the bottling plant for Malvern spring water. It was a small branch and it had a family feel about it that was magical at Christmas, and they used to have a Christmas party for the kids of employees in the canteen. I remember being there with this huge Christmas tree and cotton wool balls stuck on the windows to look like snow, and the unbearable excitement as we waited for Santa Claus to come and give out gifts. One year Santa was my dad and I didn’t realise it was him! I also remember that as a kid I was a terrible hunter for gifts; I’d find them and peer in between the wrapping paper to see what was inside. My parents used to hide them all over the house to stop me poking and squeezing them, trying to work out what they were.


What smells and tastes do you associate with the festive period?

The usual ones: nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and orange but also eucalyptus leaves. I can’t really account for this, but it is a distinctive smell that makes me feel Christmassy – perhaps from happy times spent in Australia.


Do you prefer Christmas pudding, Christmas cake or a chocolate Yule log?

Not the log… Christmas pud. When my gran was alive, she made the most delicious Christmas pudding with a sixpence inside and whole almonds, and she’d use Mackeson stout for extra richness. Mum makes a delicious and very boozy Christmas cake too, and she doesn’t put marzipan or icing on it as I’m not keen on them, so that’s also a favourite.


What’s on your Christmas list to give and/or receive from The Royal Exchange?

To receive: Penhaligon’s have this little gift set: For the Jolly Gent, which is a set of five tiny bottles of scent. As I travel a lot, it’s perfect for hand luggage. Or a Smythson soft cover, lined notebook. I never travel without a notebook, so I can write things down in meetings and, these days, not forget anything! Then Fortnum’s is a great place for gifts. You can get things for kids and adults there – they have the most delicious wild garlic & leek chutney, and amazing chocolates. I think that getting a luxury food item that people wouldn’t normally buy for themselves is a lovely idea for a present.


What’s your Christmas gift-wrapping style?

I’m a good wrapper. I’m slightly OCD – I like everything to look neat and tidy. And because I was such a nosey little child I wrap things well so that you can’t put your finger in and see what’s underneath! My presents are all sealed up. I have tiny children in the family too, who are more interested in the paper than the content, so I make sure I choose fun paper for them.


Do you have any special, unique or unconventional Christmas traditions?

When we are at home we always have ham sandwiches for Christmas breakfast – my mother always cooks a ham. Then after we’ve exchanged main gifts, had lunch and perhaps gone for a walk, we have Christmas tree presents, – little gifts you place in the tree; only little things, like a pair of socks or something silly, but the tree presents are an annual ritual.


Do you own a Christmas jumper?

No but I’ve got a rather gorgeous red velvet Santa hat. It’s very hot and a bit itchy, but I bring it in when we’re singing carols in the office, or when I join the BBC Singers in the plaza outside Broadcasting House for carol singing. Most of my team here at the BBC are musicians, and it’s lovely when we break out the Carols for Choirs and slip down into the studio to sing together. A lovely tradition in the orchestra at this time of year is that, as it gets towards Christmas, at the end of a rehearsal the brass ensemble will break into a Christmas carol arrangement. They do this every day for the last week. I just adore it – it doesn’t matter how serious the program is that we have been rehearsing, they’ll just start up with some jolly Christmas tune, like Good King Wenceslas or God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.


What’s your favourite Christmas film?

Miracle on 34th Street, the original 1947 version. Also, my family used to enjoy horror movies, my mum particularly. Years ago, she recorded a film called Black Christmas on video but when we came to watch it, we found that the ending hadn’t recorded. To this day we’ve never seen those last 10 minutes, and it’s remained something of a family unfulfilled ambition to see it! The one we watched was made in 1974, and since then there have been two remakes and it’s almost impossible to find the original.


Do you have a favourite Christmas song?

Nat King Cole singing The Christmas Song. Cheesy but I love it – and Santa Baby by Eartha Kitt.


What signifies the start of the festive season for you?

We start recording Christmas music for the BBC singers in July, but that’s a bit early. For me, it’s when you start seeing turkey and all the trimmings on the BBC canteen menu.


What do you think is the best way to help others at Christmastime?

I think it’s letting others know that you’re thinking about them. If there are people you don’t see often, rather than send a Christmas card, pick up the phone and just have a conversation with them. It’s very important to let people know that you have them in your thoughts – generally, but at this time of year in particular.
Paul Hughes studied piano from a young age before attending Trinity College of Music, studying as an accompanist and joined the BBC in 1999