Hello Hello! My name is Zara. I am a second-year psychology student, but I’ve been in Exeter for 3 years since I also did my foundation year here. I grew up in Singapore, but I am British and spent all my summers here growing up. That being said, I feel robbed of all the Christmases I missed out on, as this is now my favourite time of year! I’d love to chat a bit about what I love about Christmas here in Exeter.

Since I didn’t spend a lot of time in the UK during the winter months growing up, all the festivity is relatively new to me, and I feel extra susceptible to the Christmas spirit. With the level of festivity in Exeter, it’s difficult not to feel the magic of Christmas. Walking down the high street, I never fail to gush over the Christmas lights. My camera roll and dwindling storage can attest to this. Exeter was established in the year 55 BCE. I think it’s one of the oldest places in the UK, so the buildings do tend to look like they’ve been around for a while, and they are gorgeous. As a minor history buff (if not psychology, I would have studied history), I adore the old buildings, and the Christmas lights make them all the more romantic. I quite enjoy the early sunsets. Since it is deadline season around this time of year, I have heaps of work to do, so the routine of walking into town during golden hour when the high street is glowing orange, settling down in a café, and doing a few hours of work before walking back through town with all the lights when it’s still not too late in the day makes me feel like I’m in my Rory Gilmore era. Drinks like hot chocolates or coffee taste better when it’s cold outside and there’s pretty glowing orbs floating about the streets, and nobody can tell me otherwise. 

The Christmas market also comes about around this time of year. I’ve been a few times to get gifts for friends and family, but also to just galivant around and peruse the stalls. One of my favourite stalls I saw there was the mead; it made me feel like I was in a Charles Dickens Christmas tale with the old buildings, wooden shed stalls, and 400-year-old cathedral right over my head. There’s a little tent in the corner that’s easy to miss; inside is a cosy fireplace and lots of benches and comfy chairs. A few weeks ago, I discovered this little nook while out with friends. We’d just finished a long 20-kilometre walk around Dartmoor, and my legs were killing me, so sitting around the fire sipping mulled wine with mince pies was definitely a great way to end the evening. There are also lots of places to get hot chocolate, if that’s more your style. The other day I heard someone say one thing they loved about Christmas was that everything was mulled, and I had to agree!

Christmas spirit is rife at social events at this time of year, which is always nice to see. Most societies will host a Christmas ball or some kind of event. Lots of my friends are in Debating Society, which hosted a lovely ball at one of the university’s most scenic buildings, Reed Hall (give it a google; it’s quite delightful!). I am in the Expedition society (weekend hiking/camping trips) myself, and while we had a ball, we also had a Christmas trip and a snowball fight against another outdoors society (who do day trips rather than weekends), so there’s been lots of festive activity going on!

As for the trip, we went for a hike around Cheddar Gorge, which is in the Mendip Hills near Bristol. We got to the bunkhouse we were staying at on a Friday and had some dinner, played some fun games, got to know one another, danced, and went on a small walk. On Saturday, we had a full English breakfast and headed out on a big 20k loop. Looking into the gorge was fantastic. It was a lovely walk, very frosty, which was the perfect vibe for a Christmas trip. There’s lots of pictures of the trip on Exsoc Instagram if you are interested! Some committee members who didn’t go on the walk spent the day cooking a massive Christmas dinner, complete with pudding, Christmas crackers, quizzes, more team games, and more dancing (though the dinner had me catatonic and I ended up laying down for a bit before I was capable of any and all movement). The walk the next day was a short one to the highest point (which was not far from the bunkhouse) and then a short hour and a half drive back to Exeter. It’s difficult to stress how enjoyable this trip was, especially as someone who will not be spending Christmas with family. The large group felt like family. The vibes were immaculate, and we all had a wonderful time.

The Christmas ball was last night, so quite fresh still! I have attached a picture as the feature image of this piece. Every ball is different, and most people will go to at least one around this time of year. I know of some subject societies, like history and economics, hosting theirs in the Grand Mercure Hotel. I think tickets came up to around 30 pounds, so not overly expensive for a 3-course meal, drinks, and venue. Expedition society went to double locks, which across the quay was more secluded; walking 5 kilometres to get to the ball was quite on brand. At every ball, there’s also a professional camera hanging about, and pictures come through a few days after the ball. It’s good fun to get all dolled up with friends and to have nice photos of it all to remember the evening, show family, or, if I’m being real, post on Instagram. My Instagram is a highlight reel of my life for my friends and family in Singapore, so I do enjoy having stuff to share.

Lots of houses and flats do Christmas as well, I know, because that’s all I am seeing on my Instagram stories at the moment. Bereal went off during a friend’s flat Christmas dinner, so I saw that from every perspective at the table, and I almost felt like I was actually there. I was unfortunately on the Mendips trip during mine, and I was touched to find a cracker left out for me when I got back! I think the average university student probably has 3–4 Christmas dinners at this point, with society events (remember, you can be in more than one), flat or house events, then going home for another one. I may not have much experience in the British Christmas department, but I don’t think anywhere feels more festive than university, just because of the sheer amount of Christmas one will have to endure.

I was chatting with some of my friends at the old firehouse, which is one of the student landmarks here in Exeter, and we agreed that the university is quite unique in that it is quite a close-knit community. Most students live on the same few streets after their first year, and in their first year, everyone lives next to each other. Campus is centralised, meaning everyone goes to the same places on campus to work or hang out. Not to mention the size of Exeter in general; since it’s not huge, there are a few key landmarks that students go to, and it really feels like a community. I am typing this out in Devonshire House, a relaxed workspace in the forum, and I have already seen around 20 people I know. Christmas for me is about loved ones and community, and I do think the strong sense of community here adds to the festive spirit. Exeter is quite wholesome, I would say. Like most of the UK, there is a drinking culture, but I personally don’t drink, and I get by just fine and still feel a strong sense of community.

Overall, the ambiance of Exeter as a city is beautiful on its own, but it really comes alive at Christmas. While I love the scenery, the lights, and the historic/cosy feel, the community and society’s culture really make it special for me, particularly since I don’t have a lot of family here in the UK. Given what I value most, which is connectivity, balance, and Christmas dinners (I am getting five this year thanks to societies and friends), I feel rather lucky to be here!