Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A British Christmas

[This is the text of an article I wrote and which appears in the current edition of Latter-Day Woman magazine. Apologies for not coming up with something original - at least this version has more pictures.]

Why would anyone want to go to Britain for Christmas? Let’s face it; it’s a cold, wet, overcrowded  island and it’s a ten-hour flight away. All the tourist attractions will be closed, and even when they are open you’ve got less than eight hours of daylight each day to enjoy them in. The perilously narrow roads and roundabouts will be icy and even more treacherous than usual, and a night at a London Marriott for a family of four will cost you over $1,000 per night.

 And if you like festive fluffy snow at Christmas, stay in Utah. Snow is relatively rare in Britain in December, and when it does fall it’s the wet, mushy kind that chills you to the bone, refuses to form into snowballs, and soaks anyone stupid enough to try to make a snow angel in it.

So why come to Britain in for Christmas?

On this side of the Atlantic we haven’t had a big whole-family-gathered-round-turkey-feast celebration since last Christmas (as opposed to last month) so we are ready to party, especially since Christmas decorations have been in the shops since September sparking a slow-build of glorious anticipation. (Not to mention some rolled eyes and complaints about over-commercialised consumerism.) We don’t do Halloween with quite the gusto the Americans do, our version of Thanksgiving is a barely-there harvest festival in September only really acknowledged in primary schools, and we don’t have 4th of July. (The calendar jumps straight from the 3rd to the 5th.) So if you want to get that sense of Christmas being the absolutely second-to-none best ever day of the year, you need to come to Britain.

Over here it’s not “the holidays” or “the festive season”. We only wish people “happy holidays” when they are flying off to sunnier places (almost anywhere). We are not afraid to offend others by wishing them a “Merry Christmas”. Recent attempts by politically-correct types to stop schools doing nativity plays (we are allowed to sing hymns and say prayers in schools) have largely failed because the Muslim, Sikh and Jewish parents were quite vocal about enjoying this long-standing tradition. So if you want a group of six-year-old shepherds with dressing-gowns and tea-towels on over their school uniforms to wish you an unashamedly Merry Christmas , you’ll have to come to Britain.

Growing up, my mother always made the brandy butter on Christmas Eve while listening to Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge on Radio 4. Most churches, including LDS Wards, have a carol service on Christmas morning, and many have several other special services in the prelude to Christmas. The most popular, however, is Midnight Mass, a vigil service to welcome in Christmas day. This is generally fairly well attended, despite the fact that only 6% of Brits go to church regularly. Possibly it’s because the Parish church is a warm place to go when the pubs close. If you want to enjoy the candlelight, singing and anticipation in a church which has stood on the same spot since 600 AD, you’ll have to come to Britain.

Apparently Father Christmas used to wear a green suit trimmed with white fur, but at some stage he saw himself depicted wearing red in a Coca-Cola advert and decided that red suited him far better.  My own children have always been rather afraid of him. I think, being people of the twenty-first century, they are very suspicious about a man who likes to creep into children’s bedrooms in the middle of the night, even if he did claim to be doing so in order to leave presents in the stocking on the end of their beds. My eldest asked her father and I to wait up for Father Christmas, divert him from the chimney, and take the presents into her bedroom ourselves for her to open noisily at 2 a.m.  With heavy sighs, we agreed. Unfortunately Father Christmas is very ageist and he doesn’t come to adults, so if you want to wake up to the amazing feeling of your legs being weighted down with wrapped gifts, you’re out of luck.

Christmas lunch is almost always a huge turkey (which will yield several days’ worth of leftovers) with all the trimmings – roast and mashed potatoes, roast parsnips, Brussels sprouts (sometimes with chestnuts), sausages and pigs in blankets, roasted onions and those old stalwarts, carrots and peas. Naturally there will be stuffing both in the turkey and in little roasted balls, cranberry sauce to go with the turkey, bread sauce to go with everything and oodles of thick gravy.  Before we can carve our turkey, however, there are Christmas crackers to be pulled. These guarantee immediate bonding as you pull them with your neighbour at the table, hoping for a satisfying crack. Crackers always contain a paper party hat, a really corny joke, and a small cheap novelty such as a plastic spider or a keyring. Once silly hats are on heads and jokes are groaned over, the feast can begin. But if you want to enjoy a roast parsnip smothered in bread sauce, or pull a cracker, you’ll have to come to Britain.

Christmas day dessert is a little complicated for a Latter-day Saint. The traditional dishes of Christmas pudding, Christmas cake and mince pies are all laced with copious quantities of alcohol. Instead I make a yule log – a swiss roll covered in chocolate buttercream icing – and I usually make it on Christmas eve. I must remember, this year, to listen to Nine Lessons and Carols on Radio 4 as I do so. If you want to enjoy the moist, chocolately goodness of my yule log, you’ll have to … email me for the recipe. I have nine people to cook for this year, I’m not inviting you too.

After lunch we waddle into the lounge and switch on the television. The Queen’s speech is shown on several channels simultaneously, and in our house at least is greeted by everyone commenting on how old she looks, forgetting that the pictures they are used to seeing of her – on notes, coins and stamps – are somewhat sympathetic or just plain out of date. Following the Queen’s speech, the BBC generally pulls out all the stops with the biggest family film of the year. I’m predicting the latest Harry Potter this year. The BBC is funded by everyone in the country having to pay for a television licence, so there are no commercials. So if you want to settle down with the family to watch a great film with no one trying to sell you anything at crucial intervals in it, you’ll have to come to Britain.

There are always Christmas specials too. Doctor Who is the most eagerly anticipated, and it seems not to have occurred to the nation that it’s rather contrived for an alien time-traveller to insist on spending Christmas in London every year. (Perhaps he’s read this article.) There may also be a new Wallace and Grommit, or hilarious motoring show Top Gear, and the BBC’s mandate mean there will have to be a high-quality religious offering, but it will all be fabulous family viewing to guarantee that everyone spends Christmas afternoon and evening glued to the television. There’s nothing else to do after all – the shops will be closed for another two days at least. If you want to spend your Christmas afternoon browsing the sales, you’ll have to stay in America.

Tea on Christmas day is cold turkey sandwiches. Assuming anyone can eat. And then on Boxing Day (the next day, and another public holiday) it’s the same again. Television, and turkey curry/fricassee/casserole. Because Christmas day falls on a Sunday this year we then get another public holiday in lieu on Tuesday 27th. So if you want to … no, why would you? Who needs three days off over Christmas anyway?

You might then like to pop up to Scotland for Hogmanay. I hear that’s very good too. 

1 comment:

Gale Sears said...

I would love to spend Christmas in England! It sounds wonderful! Hope you have a Happy Happy Christmas!