Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Very British Christmas

by Anna Jones Buttimore

I’m almost the only Brit here. Sian is British too, but she’s lived in America for so long I think she probably counts as an honorary American. So I thought this blog might be my opportunity to talk about what I love about the British Christmas.

First of all, let me note that it is Christmas. Over here it is not called “the holidays” and no one will wish you “Happy holidays” unless you are jetting off to sunnier climes for a couple of weeks (over here the word Holiday means what Vacation means in American). It is Christmas, and not ashamed to be so.

Put away all notions of Victorian urchins scampering merrily through snow-covered cobbled streets. It never snows at Christmas. The last time we had a white Christmas was my eldest daughter’s first Christmas, and she is now 13. And even that wasn’t really a white Christmas, more a brown mushy one. Because of our damp climate, our snow isn’t the delightful powdery, moldable insulating stuff I discovered in Utah – it’s wet, slushy, horribly cold, and generally gets dirty pretty quickly. But luckily we only see it for one or two days a year, and the children love it because it means the schools will be closed.

Us Brits haven’t had a major family-sitting-round-a-laden-table festival since Easter, so Christmas is terrifically exciting and it is a Big Thing. Schools close for two weeks around Christmas, but not before putting on a nativity play, carol service (sometimes in the nearest church) and bazaar. My middle daughter played Mary in the school nativity this year (having been a sheep for the previous two years) and was thrilled to don the blue headdress.

There is often also a trip to a pantomime – a lively musical stage rendering of a well known tale (our local theatres are doing Aladdin and Snow White this year) with lots of audience participation (mostly shouting “He’s behind you!” or remonstrating with the characters, “Oh no he isn’t!” “Oh yes he is!”) and a traditional pantomime dame – see photo. The main characters are usually played by minor celebrities – former soap stars, for example, who all claim to love appearing in Panto. And I’m sure it is as much fun for them as it is for the audiences.

On Christmas Eve it’s still traditional in many families to go to Midnight Mass, a service of carols (sometimes by candelight) held at the local church around midnight, to welcome in Christmas. I used to love Midnight Mass, I only wish Mormons did it, but there is usually a Midnight Mass from St. Paul’s Cathedral on the BBC so I can at least watch it while waiting for the children to fall asleep and Father Christmas to knock on the door (our chimney has been blocked up). The children will have left their empty stockings on the end of their beds, but my daughters have always been sensibly wary of a strange man coming into their rooms at night, and have asked that Hubby Dearest and I get the presents from Father Christmas and bring them upstairs to put in their stockings ourselves. Naturally Father Christmas is always left a mince pie. In non-LDS homes he usually gets a glass of whisky too, but in our house he has to make do with milk. And after all that whisky, he’s usually quite glad for it.

There will be church in the morning – just a service of carols and scripture readings – and then we will go home to open our main presents round the tree. Lunch is always roast turkey with all the trimmings – stuffing balls, roast potatoes, bread sauce, cranberry sauce, chipolata sausages, bacon rolls, carrots, leeks, parsnips and Brussels sprouts. There will be Christmas crackers on the table (see picture) and we will pull these, wear the silly hats and groan at the jokes. Dessert will be Christmas pudding with custard. Brandy butter or rum sauce are more traditional but again, not acceptable in our home. Then we’ll all stagger to the television to watch the Queen’s speech and comment on how good she looks for her age.

Christmas television is always wonderful. The Christmas Radio Times (the BBC’s official TV guide) is always a double issue, and is published midway through December to give everyone plenty of time to plan their Christmas viewing. There’s always a blockbuster film and several TV specials. We, and most of the rest of the country, are most anticipating the Doctor Who special. So we will probably spend the rest of the day staring at the screen while eating Christmas cake and trying to find scissors to unpack the toys, and batteries to make them work.

Boxing Day is more of the same. Visiting any family and friends who didn’t come over on Christmas day, eating leftover turkey, watching the Sound of Music, or the Wizard of Oz, or whatever classic the BBC has decided to treat us to this year, and despairing at ever getting the house clean again.

And being super-organised, I will start my Christmas shopping for next year on December 27th, in the sales. But the decorations and tree will stay up until twelfth night because I love Christmas. I love it not only for the Queen's speech, the Christmas Radio Times, stuffing balls, Doctor Who and Midnight Mass from St. Paul's, but because wherever you happen to live, it is a time to remember the amazing gift God gave us and feel the joy we all share at this time of year.


Cheri J. Crane said...

It all sounds wonderful, Anna-- =) something I would like to experience myself someday.

Jennie said...

Anna, your Christmas sounds delightful. My mother who was raised by her English immigrant grandmother used to insist we leave our stockings at the foot of our beds too. Though we left them there, they always found their way to the front room by morning to rest atop whatever pile of gifts were meant for the owner of the sock. Great blog by the way.

Stephanie Black said...

Anna, it was so fun to read about your British Christmas!

We do Christmas crackers as well (my husband's influence--he served his mission in London). Except half the time I don't buy them early enough and then can't find them in the stores because they've sold out!

Gale Sears said...

How fun and magical! Having been to your home I will picture your family in their funny hats, watching your wonderful show, and eating Christmas pudding! Brilliant! What a lovely view into your life.

Michele Ashman Bell said...

Oh Anna, what a wonderful way to celebrate "CHRISTMAS!" I am sad our country is trying to not only take Christ out of Christmas, but Christmas out of the holidays. You have such special traditions and I'm so glad you shared them with us.