Saturday, January 23, 2010




The calling of Santa Claus by his British name of Father Christmas is becoming rarer, though I admit the fact he inhabits a “grotto” to have thrown me for a loop the first time I heard it. Probably not without reason, “grotto” to me connotes mermaids. All a grotto is in this case is a winter wonderland of glitter and fake snow, but for awhile I wondered if Father Christmas had a Deep Sea Theme.

Christmas card exchange is, in my opinion, out of control. (I mean that in the nicest way possible.) Because charities provide boxfuls of affordable cards (which benefit the relevant charity, natch) it seems that anyone and everyone is eligible for a Christmas card. The people you’d likely not associate with card-exchanging are always the ones who will give you one at the last minute and you will be left “umm”ing and “ahhh”ing because you didn’t think to get them one. The only reason I’m being cranky about what seems like a kind custom is that everyone at the workplace is responsible for getting everyone else at the workplace a Christmas card, even if they just sign their names. This gets expensive. In the end, they all fall down the shoot in Tesco for “Christmas card recycling,” so it seems a self-fulfilling prophecy for disaster!

Hailing from the great Southwest, we have a tradition of luminarias/farolitos that really can’t be beat by anything decoration-wise from Britain. Because most British homes are multi-storied and narrow (and often semi-detached or terraced) there isn’t much room for Christmas lights (or, as they are known here, fairy lights). If people decorate it’s usually their tree in the window, and possibly some lights around the window(s). Very rarely do you see the bombastic displays that are common in my hometown, with toy trains, reindeer, icicle lights, chasing lights, Santa Clauses of every description, etc. Oxford Street in London, however, is an exception.

In Albuquerque, there is no such municipal responsibility as switching on the city-wide light display. In Swansea and Cardiff, at least, November 15th seems to be the traditional date for turning on the lights. These lights can range in number and complexity as well as design; I saw lovely giant blue stars in Cardiff this last year, and the tiny town of Chepstow had similarly sapphire enchantments. The turning on of the lights is also opportunity for a parade; in Albuquerque, I suppose, the equivalent is the Twinkle Light Parade. However, scary as it may seem, the inflatable snowmen and things are really catching on here. Most British people I’ve ever met have fake trees of plastic that sit up in the attic most of the year and come down to be assembled, with curses. In my personal experience, our tree decorations are quite eclectic and I’ve yet to see the like here—most trees follow a pretty basic color scheme with simple baubles and strings. A bit ho-hum and conservative, in my opinion.

I have never heard the Queen’s Speech on Christmas Day, but then I have never actually watched, as broadcast, Doctor Who on Christmas Day (a tradition since 2005!). Speaking of rulers, people are very miffed indeed that Cromwell abolished Christmas in 1647. Fortunately his successor Victoria did much to popularize Christmas, especially as Albert is credited as the one to introduce the Christmas tree from Germany into British households. Dickens did at least that much, if not more, to popularize Christmas and especially make it a time of joy for children; reading A Christmas Carol will certainly reinforce this idea. I recently visited the Dickens House Museum in Doughty Street which was, unsurprisingly, decked out for Christmas. There was charming decoration in the form of greenery (unfortunately plastic, as the placard helpfully informed, because real greenery would bring in insects which would destroy the museum!) and period illustrations from Christmas Carol. There was a lovely little Christmas tree, with unlit candles on its boughs, and again a placard helpfully informed that fire was a very real danger with illuminated candles in sometimes very dry, tinder-y trees—someone in each family was given the sole job of watching the tree closely every night to prevent fire.

The Dickens House also informed me that in Dickens’ time, more hymns were sung than carols (no Wham, then) and that’s why every Dickens adaptation under the sun has “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” (“Away in a Manger” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” both have different tunes but the same lyrics in the UK. Talk about confusing.) It does surprise me to hear very little in the way of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, etc, in the department store muzak—rather, there’s a limit to how many times you can hear “Wonderful Christmastime” and the Band Aid song.

In the US, December 26th is a very ordinary day. In the UK, it’s Boxing Day. Boxing Day only became an official holiday in the 1870s, but it has always traditionally been the day when servants and tradespeople were given gifts by their “superiors.” Nowadays it’s a day when most institutions are closed and so most people are at home, eating a lot and watching TV. There is nothing very official to do on such an official-sounding day (despite Mr Copper’s dubious information in “Voyage of the Damned”). Returning one last time to Dickens, until fairly recently Christmas was celebrated from December 24th through January 6th, Twelfth Night, the Epiphany, the Feast of Fools. King’s Cake was often consumed and the idea of a Christmas season was a bit more akin to Hanukah. Generally all the citywide decorations come down shortly after January 6th, and most of the mince pies are gone by then, as well.

London at Christmastime is lovely. There’s an ice skating rink near the Strand, and the municipal side of the light-decorating is taken very seriously, with the different boroughs invoking different schemes. I heard a charity singing beautiful carols at Victoria Station. The churches of Wren and Hawksmoor are at their most beautiful at this time of year.
There’s one last Christmas tradition I haven’t discussed, but we’re saving that for last.

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