This will be my 8th Christmas in the UK. The first few years I stood in awe in October as stores were already filled with Christmas décor and new friends were bragging by mid November that they had done all their Christmas shopping. What?? This really bothered me until I realised that they didn't have the Thanksgiving holiday to break up those long months (duh) and give the 'proper' time of when to put up your tree which is the weekend after Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year in the States. I want to give a few of the differences I have found over the years in order to bring a little education to all the non-Brits out there who may venture one day over here during the holiday season. Some of these I have learned about the hard way . . .
1) Children's Christmas Cards Growing up in the States, I have mixed memories of giving and receiving Valentines Day Cards. It was the 'day of love' and you knew you were popular when you got loads of them. Well, that second Christmas my daughter was in nursery. I thought she was so loved, outgoing and adored as she got at least 25 Christmas cards from her friends - written mostly in neat parent handwriting because the kids could only scrawl in those days. I think it was after Valentines that year (when she didn't get any cards) when I realised I was the dud parent for not giving the obligatory Christmas card to EVERY child in her class. This is for adults as well. Every year half our neighbours on our street drop generic cards through our post box. I still suck at giving Christmas cards and seem to remember at a party when I get about five from people I don't know well. Sigh. Learning lesson? Always carry at least ten cards in your purse so you can run to the toilet to fill one in after a person gives one to you.
2) The Panto The first Christmas my mother-in-law came to stay for several weeks and gave the hubs and I a few nights away. We hadn't had a get-away in a long time, and we wanted to make it special. We went to an idyllic town nearby and booked a nice meal. The town had an opera house, which sounded rather posh, so we got tickets for their Christmas performance. We dressed to the nines and arrived early enough to avoid crowds and get a glass of wine. To our dismay, everyone else was dressed in jeans and the majority of people were under the age of 12. After the first older man came on stage with fake boobs and too much rouge on the cheeks, the hubs and I figured out we were NOT at an opera.
'Today the pantomime is traditionally performed at Christmas. It is a show for children, but grown-ups like it as well. Usually a well-known story is told, e.g. Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Pinocchio, etc. There is a lot of spoken dialogue but there are also songs, and sometimes the audience join in. There are many traditions in pantomime. These are some of the main ones:
The main young man in the play (the principal boy) may be played by a young woman, and usually in tight-fitting male clothes (such as breeches).
An older woman (the pantomime dame – often the hero's mother) is usually played by a man dressed as a woman.
Risqué (double entendre) jokes, meaning that perfectly ordinary words make people think of a naughty (sexy) meaning. Often the children do not understand these jokes. They are just for the grownups.
The audience take part (audience participation). For example, they call "look behind you!" (or "he's behind you!"), and "Oh, yes it is!" or "Oh, no it is not!" The audience is always encouraged to "Boo" the villain, and "Awwwww" the poor victims, such as the rejected dame, who usually fancies the prince.
A song combining a well-known tune with different words.
The animal, played by an actor in "animal skin" or animal costume. It is often a pantomime horse or cow, played by two actors in a single costume, one as the head and front legs, the other as the body and back legs.
The good fairy always enters from stage right and the evil villain enters from stage left. In Commedia dell'arte the right side of the stage symbolized Heaven and the left side symbolized Hell.
The members of the cast throw out sweets to the children in the audience, or choose a few to come on stage and ask them questions.
Sometimes the story villain will squirt members of the audience with water guns or pretend to throw a bucket of "water" at the audience that is actually full of something harmless such as streamers.
Sometimes the comedy is slapstick, e.g. the actors throw custard pies in one another's faces.
Sometimes there is a celebrity guest star.
So there you go. Not an opera.
3) The Christmas Meal A few weeks ago the hubs and I were the only Americans at a group meal. Of course, the question of the hour from the people around us was 'So is this the same thing you would get in America for the Christmas meal?' Nope. Usually we would tell the one or two similarities like turkey with stuffing and gravy, and a side of cranberries, but usually the listener would be slightly mortified to know that we eat (and enjoy) side dishes such as sweet potato casserole topped with brown sugar or roasted marshmallows, and green beans doused in mushroom soup topped with fried onions. And then we would have a dessert of pecan or pumpkin pie. That, among other things, is not on the Brit menu.
Here is what they have as described by students from a primary school in Kent:
The traditional British Christmas dinner includes roast turkey or goose, brussel sprouts, roast (in goose fat) potatoes, cranberry sauce, rich nutty stuffing, tiny sausages wrapped in bacon (pigs in a blanket), and lashings of hot gravy. For pudding (dessert), we eat a rich, fruity pudding which is doused in flaming brandy - said to ward off evil spirits. This rich, fruity pudding is called Christmas pudding.
I've been told that you HAVE to eat the brussel sprouts and other steamed veg like parsnips. You have no choice, whether you like brussel sprouts or not, you make them and you eat them because it is tradition. I think the American equivalent is that great aunt who always brings the mystery green lime flavoured jello (jelly) filled with random things like celery, nuts and grapes. You have to eat it, it's Christmas tradition.
4) Christmas Crackers Now I really like these, and it doesn't feel like Christmas unless we have these at least five times over different meals. It's not a savoury. Rather, they are are short cardboard tubes wrapped in colourful paper. Normally a cracker is next to each plate on the Christmas dinner table. When the crackers are pulled (with a bang!) a party hat, a toy or gift and a festive joke falls out. The hats look like crowns, symbolising the crowns that might have been worn by the Wise Men. And the jokes are always bad, always.
5) Mulled Wine and Mince Pies About three years before I moved to England, my husband and I stayed with Brit friends right after Christmas. I had learned that 'mince' was the same as 'ground' specifically referring to beef that you put in your spaghetti sauce. So imagine my horror when the guy offered me a mince-pie from a box that had sat on the counter for a week. I was pleasantly surprised when I had my first one - a miniature pie/tart bursting with Christmas flavours.
Originally it was a savoury meat based pie with its Brit origins from the 13th century, now mince pies are fruity mince meat made with cooked crushed apples, oranges, lemons, raisins and sultanas spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and a splash of brandy. its best served warm with a little brandy butter. Mulled wine is warm red wine often with orange/lemon juice that has been simmering with cinnamon and nutmeg. Both can have some variations but now my Christmas doesn't feel complete without having each.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone! And if you can, have a minced pie with mulled wine after opening a Christmas cracker . . . .
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