Saturday, January 23, 2010



This is going to be unseasonable, but trust me, the lead-up has a purpose. All the glitz of Christmas is over, but I still remember the season with fondness, and the differences between British Christmas traditions and their American counterparts are still vivid in my mind. (part 1/2)

Because, obviously, there is no Thanksgiving, there is nothing holding British retailers back from starting to advertise for Christmas right after Halloween (to be sure, Thanksgiving doesn’t stop American retailers from doing the same). This is when mince pies begin to enter the shelves, and they won’t leave until mid-January. I’m a big fan of mince pies. In fact, you might say I’m a huge fan of mince pies. Because we don’t really have them in the US, after I had my first pie I realized that I liked it very much and I must eat as many as I could when they were available as who knew when I would next taste one? This creates an ongoing tactic of mine to buy up all the mince pies after Christmas, the ones up to 70% off their original price, and brighten up my January by devouring them. Oh, and I shouldn’t neglect to dispel a bit of confusion: mince is the British word for hamburger (ground round) meat, but it also refers to a pie with fruits and sweet stuff in it (at one time containing meat and some of them still do).

You can’t have mince pies without sherry; it’s a cardinal sin against Christmas if you do. I remember my first year in Britain in 2006, going to a Christmas reception at the Egypt Centre, where I volunteered. I had my first tipple of sherry, and discovered, like mince pies, I liked it. Sherry is more easily had in the US but it’s not necessarily a Christmas drink and likely to be consumed by 86-year-olds. It seems to me in recent years things are getting a bit more stingy; I remember December gallery openings where sherry was offered for free, but you don’t see that happening anymore.

There are no candy canes at Christmas! While I’d read the origin stories for candy canes I didn’t realize they hadn’t translated, like so many things, to Britain. Of course there is no egg nog either. There’s a pub not far from me that serves mulled wine. (You may recall Clarence the Angel in It’s a Wonderful Life asking for mulled wine at Nick’s in George Bailey’s vision.)
Christmas pudding is rather prevalent, though. Not omnipresent, however, as different families seem to have different customs for their Christmas dinners—including the dessert (or the pudding, the generic English term for dessert, which is confusing!). I had my first proper Christmas pudding this year, and I have to say, again, I enjoyed it very much (though it is rich). Similar to, but not the same as, is Christmas cake, which is similar to the American fruitcake which gets so much flak. It’s in a rectangular shape whereas American fruitcake is usually circular, and it has a layer of marzipan under hard royal icing. (Blegh.) I had a Christmas Yule log (in January of course, for 75p!) which was delicious. (Similar to the French bĂ»che de noel.)

If you can believe it, the first place I ever heard of Christmas crackers is The English Patient. The scene is Christmas in the late 1930s in the desert. Trying to preserve their traditions, the ex-pat English people have their Christmas traditions, including crackers (represented by Ralph Fiennes looking rather cute wearing a paper hat). Crackers are another 19th century phenomenon and everyone has them. They are small paper thingees you tear with another person at the table and they pop. Inside is a paper hat (I love them, the sillier the better), a toy (ranging from the useless to the almost-cool), and a truly awful joke. Again, it’s possible people go overboard considering none of the stuff in the cracker gets used and is most likely thrown in the bin/recycling with all the other Christmas trimmings. Charades are often played in tandem with the Wearing of Silly Hats.

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