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PEOPLE OF THE CITY: Vanessa Vallely

The founder and managing director of WeAreTheCity explains why Christmas is all about food and traditions, and tells us about her duties as the Pearly Queen of the City of London


What epitomises Christmas in London for you?

The lights going up in Oxford Street. The dark misty streets of the City and our famous bridges are also beautiful around this time of year. I absolutely love Christmas shopping in London, seeing everyone wrapped up in winter coats and scarves, laden with bags of gifts for others. I am also a big fan of festive shop windows. I could spend hours just browsing the displays. I love the colours of Christmas, the spirit of the season, the focus on family, time to unwind and reflect on the past year. Then there is the food. Let’s not forget the food!

What’s your earliest Christmas memory?

Christmas was quite quiet for me as a child as there was just my mum and me. We didn’t really have much in terms of a tree and decorations, and if we did have any they were those hideous foil garlands that hung from the ceiling light. My very first memory of Christmas was getting a blue-and-white cradle for my doll from my dad and a Christmas Day outfit from my mum, which was all burgundy (even the shoes!). It was no fashion statement.

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

Lemon, orange and cinnamon all remind me of Christmas. For drinks, mulled wine, eggnog and Moscow mules. Food wise, from the beginning of December it’s all about hearty Christmas fare in the Vallely household. Warm and filling foods such as pies, roasted vegetables, casseroles and stews. I like a lot of colour on my plate so Christmas is the perfect season for me. I love red cabbage, real Brussels that you peel off the stalks, chantenay carrots and roasted potatoes with baked shallots covered in rosemary. We are not great meat eaters at home, but we do make an exception for two members of the family and our parents for Christmas Day. I am lucky that my husband is a fantastic cook, so each year he comes up with some culinarily masterpiece that puts my attempt at cooking to shame.


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

Believe it or not I am not a fan of any of those. Every year my mother-in-law makes us a Christmas cake and my husband is the only one who eats it (I really hope she isn’t reading this). If I was really forced to choose between the three, it would be the chocolate Yule log, but just a small slice.


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

I would start at Hermès, as I love their scarves. I would like to buy a men’s scent for my husband, and I absolutely love Hermès’ blends. If anyone fancied treating me (husband, take note) I would like to add to my collection of Montblanc jewellery for women; I particularly like their onyx and silver pieces. I would then make my way to Smythson for a few notebooks for friends. Next stop would be Penhaligon’s to buy presents for my sisters-in-law. Each year they do a wonderful festive box of lots of different scents. I would definitely pop in to Fortnum & Mason for jars of Christmas delights and biscuits to add to the hampers I make at Christmas time. Finally, on my wish list would be a pair of Pretty Ballerinas pumps. As someone who spends a lot of time running around the City in heels, flats are a must.


What’s your Christmas gift-wrapping style?

I am the most useless wrapper in the world. The tradition in my house around wrapping is that we make a nice evening of it. We put on a festive radio station, open a nice bottle of wine, talk about Christmases past and we wrap until it’s done. My husband does put me to shame on the wrapping side as he is very creative. It’s all ribbons and bows and specially chosen paper for each person. We play to our strengths in our household and wrapping isn’t one of mine!


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

So many! I ban all forms of roast dinner from December onwards so we look forward to eating our Christmas dinner. There has to be a new decoration for the tree that signifies something we have done as a family that year. For example, we got a lovely French bulldog ornament the year we got our second dog. This year we picked up some Christmas decorations from Disneyland Paris to signify our family trip there for my daughter’s 16th birthday. Every year we do a London theatre day as a family. Last year was Harry Potter and this year it’s The Lion King. We also spend that day looking in shops and visiting the windows of Liberty, Selfridges and Harrods. We have Christmas Eve presents, although my husband doesn’t agree with having presents before Christmas Day. We always go to church and then to the pub for a couple of drinks afterwards. We also have a tradition of eating fish on Boxing Day – an annual treat of lobsters, samphire and the largest tiger prawns we can find. I am notorious for removing all signs of Christmas after Boxing Day. Bit by bit, all things Christmas disappear by 1 January.


Do you own a Christmas jumper?

I own a Christmas sweatshirt. It has a picture of a French bulldog on it with a squashy nose. My husband and the kids are big fans of Christmas jumpers – they come out on 1 December and don’t disappear until January. We also have a tradition of Christmas jumpers at WeAreTheCity throughout December.

What’s your favourite Christmas film?

It’s a Wonderful Life, The Grinch, Scrooged, The Santa Clause series and Love Actually.


Do you have a favourite Christmas song?

Baby, It’s Cold Outside, It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, and I do love a bit of Santa Baby, although maybe that wish list is slightly ambitious!


What signifies the start of the festive season for you?

Shop windows. Christmas songs playing in shops (far too many of the annoying 1970s ones) and the Holidays are Coming Coca-Cola advert on the TV. My children are now 16 and 18, but when they were little that advert was, for them, the most exciting thing on the TV.

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

Volunteering at Crisis. Engage in reverse advent calendars – for example, putting one thing in a box every day from 1 December and then donating it to a food bank. Ensuring those around you don’t feel lonely over Christmas, especially older folk. I am the Pearly Queen of the City of London, a London tradition that has been in my family for over 100 years. At Christmas I visit a number of old people’s homes in my pearly suit as they remember the Pearly Kings and Queens of old. It’s wonderful to spend time with them reminiscing about the good old days. I also believe in offering time and spare cash if you can donate to charities that work all over the Christmas season. It’s not all cheer for a lot of people at Christmas, so I believe you should help others in whatever way you can.


Following a 25-year career in financial services, Vanessa Vallely set up WeAreTheCity, a networking vehicle designed to help women progress in their careers. It now has over 120,000 members. She is also the founder of diversity forum Gender Networks, and author of Heels of Steel: Surviving and Thriving in the Corporate World. In 2018, she was awarded an OBE for services to Women and the Economy;