Today we journey to Merry Olde England to check out their celebrations. You probably feel like you have already spent a Christmas or two in England, seeing as how A Christmas Carol is on every TV these days. Roast beef, Christmas Crackers, caroling in Ye Olde London Town… some of it is true but some of it is just what we see on TV.
My grandmother was from Liverpool, and I can tell you that we never ate figgy pudding or read Dickens aloud by a roaring fireplace. Not once did I ever sip tea next to a Christmas tree with real candles while delighting in the witticisms of a Dowager Dutchess. Never! Real English Christmas, celebrated in a normal way, has traditions that you may not be familiar with.
To get the real story, away from the cliches and TV movies, I have enlisted the help of my friend and colleague from Rick Steves, Mark Seymour. Mark leads the Britain itineraries as well as his own small group tours, and is an enthusiastic historian. He has recounted for us what his typical Christmas was like in his childhood.
Here we go….
Christmas has always been a very special day for me… it has never been about religious beliefs but about the family coming together. On Christmas Eve, family members would start to show up at the house. I come from a very impoverished background and so the kids (myself, a brother and two sisters) had made and hung all the Christmas decorations. We had strung together small loops of crepe paper and laced them together to form chains which could be hung around the walls and over the tree….. colourful and cheap.
The four of us also used to write and stage a play for our relatives, after Christmas Eve lunch…. always a lot of fun. My elder sister was very much in charge, so we three younger siblings were invariably relegated to being the elves or Santas other helpers ?
The Christmas tree became important to Britain, courtesy of Queen Vics husband Albert (a German), and it was very important in our household to uphold the tradition of having a real tree, simply decorated. Under it we’re stacked the family’s gifts.
Very early on Christmas morning ‘the kids’ woke up to find that Santa had moved our gifts from the tree to the foot of our beds. In Britain we historically wouldn’t use stockings, as you do in the States. A sack or a bag, in our case we each had a pillowcase laden with prezzies awaiting us. Over the fireplace we’d have one Christmas basket loaded with oranges and nuts. This was a relic from Britains wartime past. Rationing meant that nuts and oranges were not seen by generations of English kids and were very special indeed to us right up until the late sixties and early seventies….However, laden with pillowcases, we would all charge through the house, excitedly and deliberately trying to wake up the adults….. who were we kidding. I’m sure they’d been awake all night. Eventually we would be summoned into their bedroom and seated at the foot of their bed, we would, in turn open our gifts.
At this point, I have to say that Christmas was always about giving and not receiving. We all gave one gift to each other… six family members and therefore five gifts each…. great fun! Opening packages was always a thrilling time in our household.
After a couple of hours in mother and fathers room, we would be dismissed while they arose. We went and played around the tree.
Christmas breakfast would be a glass of sherry for all, no matter our age, and a bowl of cereal. We would then all help peel vegetables, lay the table and get ready for a late lunch. The extended family were always invited and we always looked forward to seeing them…… more gift giving would ensue.
Christmas lunch would always be roast beef, lamb or chicken, but nowadays turkey is popular as well. Brussels sprouts were always served, loathed and ignored. Around every table would be lavish quantities of crackers….. great fun ! At some point during the meal, father would turn to mother and offer her a cracker. They would both pull on each end. With a loud ‘crack’, the Cramer would explode and a plastic toy and a paper crown would fall out. For the rest of the meal we would laugh at each other….. 14/15 people all wearing paper crowns and playing with plastic penguins …. great fun.
Christmas pudding for dessert. Delicious and always served with custard…. a vanilla and cream sauce. After the meal and copious glasses of egg nog and sherry, the kids were sent out to play in the park, while the adults did….. well who knows what they did ?.
Slowly the life would ebb out of Christmas Day, at the end of which, the family would all sit down to watch one of the Beebs ( BBC) many Christmas shows, at the end of which, father would be snoring and the sherry bottles ( all of them), would be empty.
The following day is Boxing Day, my favourite day of Christmas. Historically, it’s a day where servants would give and receive gifts to each other…. they had all been serving on Christmas Day, so Boxing Day would be their day to relax and enjoy. Historically, it would be the leftovers that they would enjoy, and so it it still is in every home across the land….. it’s leftovers day.
However, it was always my job to make a potato salad with my dad…… and it was always gargantuan….! I loved it. Combined with cold meat and cold leftover vegetables, we didn’t starve. Later into the evening we’d all tuck into pickled foods. Another hangover from our history, pickling would enable people to preserve food into the depths of Winter. It’s still traditional to eat pickled red cabbage, pickled onions and eggs etc on Boxing Day. Lovely lovely lovely !
As the evening wore on, Our Thoroughly British Christmas did also…. fond memories of a wonderful family gathering.–What a lovely story. Kind of makes me want to fly to London. Instead, I’ll be carrying on some English traditions in my own house.
Dinner on Christmas at my house is almost always roast beef and Yorkshire pudding (popovers made with the beef drippings). We have Christmas Crackers at the table and usually sit around the table wearing our crowns while we eat.
Your Advent task today is to enjoy a little British Christmas. My suggestions, watch a BBC Christmas special, like Downton Abbey or Dr. Who. Try your hand at making a roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, which I’ll be doing tonight. Order some Christmas Crackers, or for the very crafty, make your own. They have kits with all the parts and you can put something special inside, like a piece of jewelry or keys to that new car. Ok, I guess I’ve been watching too many Christmas specials on TV. Time for some sherry.
Mark Seymour is a tour guide, photographer and historian. He lives in Brittany, France with his lovely wife Toni, who also leads tours for Rick Steves. He can be found at seymourtravels.com.