Having spent twenty-five years of my life in “the damp lands,” I can affirm that while the Americans cannot be beat for Thanksgiving, the English cannot be beat for Christmas.
Yes, it is true. The dour snobs in the land of Scrooge know how to pull out all the stops and celebrate Christmas in style. I doubt if any true conservative is not also at least a little bit of an Anglophile, so take a few moments to learn some of the great English Christmas customs, and do not be afraid to integrate them into your very American Christmas. You will find they add a bit of English spice, jollity, and frivolity to your festive season.
First, Festivities: The English celebrate Christmas with style because they avoid the commercial secularity of American Christmas. Christmas is a Christian festival, and you will not be snowed under with red-nosed reindeer, frosty snowmen, Santa, and songs about city sidewalks. Instead, the English still sing Christmas carols, and, believe it or not, they go house to house singing them. A high point of the season is the annual ceremony of Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings’ College Cambridge on Christmas Eve.
I was chaplain there for two years, and I can testify to the immense and immortal magic of the scene. The soaring fan vaulting of one of Christendom’s finest churches combines with the sonorous tones of the organ, the cherubic faces and voices of the choir boys, and solemn and sedate English folk all seated to celebrate the birth of Christ. You can listen to it on the BBC if you are technologically clever, or you can find the music here to download.
Other English festivities to mark the Christmas season are the school Christmas play, Midnight Mass in the village church, Christmas parties, the Queen’s speech, delivered on television on Christmas Day, and the mysteriously named “Boxing Day.”
Boxing Day is the day after Christmas and everyone quite sensibly has the day off. On Boxing Day you go for a long walk to “blow away the cobwebs,” or you pile into the car to visit the relatives and exchange useless presents. On Boxing Day you sit down to watch the films you have been given, or you pull out the dusty board games and jigsaw puzzles and spend the day relaxing. How unlike America where we all rush back to work or back to the mall to return all the gifts we do not want, and argue with the sales clerk for a refund even if we do not have the receipt.
Second, the Food – We must admit the serious and solemn truth that the English are not famous for their cuisine. The smallest cookbook on our shelf is a little pocket-sized book of fifty straining pages called The Best of English Cookery. (I tease my English relatives by calling it The Beast of English Cookery.) Nevertheless, there are some uniquely English delicacies on offer during the Christmas season. They do not bake cookies, but they like mince pies. These are little pastry shells with sweet, dried fruit jelly. The mince pie will introduce you to the English Christmas obsession with dried fruit. One can only assume that the passion for dried fruit came from the times when the impoverished peasants saved up handfuls of raisins to take them through the fruitless bleak mid-winter.
The Christmas cake is another example of the dried fruit thing. It is a heavy, dark fruitcake which is cultivated throughout the year with a strange ritual. For the perfect Christmas cake you start in January and through the year you add small amounts of booze and let it soak in. Here a little glass of sherry. There a drop of rum. Here a snozzle of scotch. There a snort of port. By Advent the cake is ready to be completed with a layer of marzipan covered with hard white sugar icing. This confection is bound by a red ribbon and topped with little figurines of deer, trees, and woodland animals to make the white icing seem like a snowstorm scene. Very quaint and very tasty. It is eaten in the afternoon with good English cup of tea. You can buy one here.
Complementing the Christmas cake is the “figgy pudding” made famous by the carol. Like the Christmas cake, this is a dark dessert made with dried fruit and flour and held together with suet. It must be steamed in a double boiler (or cheat with the microwave). To serve it you plop it upside down out of the bowl, shove in a sprig of holly, douse it with brandy, set the whole thing alight, and carry it in a solemn and riotous procession into the dining room. It is served with brandy butter. Buy the pudding from the same source as the cake and find the recipes for brandy butter here.
These sweets follow the “Christmas Lunch” at which our English cousins demolish the turkey. Alas, the Dickensian Christmas goose has almost disappeared and been replaced by the American imported bird. Christmas lunch not only features the roast turkey and stuffing, but a bowl of carrots with a sweet glaze, roast potatoes, roasted parsnips, and brussels sprouts (which will make old uncle Nigel flatulent and amuse the children.)
I cannot conclude without some instructions on the beverages. Mince pies are to be accompanied by a little glass of sherry. Ladies will prefer sweet “cream” sherry. Gentleman a dry or medium sherry. Before dinner a discreet cocktail is best. A gin and tonic is very English or perhaps a dry martini, but certainly nothing crude or rude like a Screwdriver, a Bloody Mary or a drink called “Down and Dirty” or “Lose Your Shorts.” White or red wine with Christmas lunch and afterwards a glass of port or liqueur or maybe a glass of “bubbly”—sparkling wine or champagne.
Third, the Frivolities – The English let their hair down for Christmas, and one of the oddest and most enjoyable of their festive frivolities is the Christmas pantomime or “panto.” In brief, this is a theatrical entertainment based loosely on a children’s fairy tale. In every town the local theater makes up for the year’s losses by selling out houses for the Christmas panto. Families throng to the pantomime to see “Puss N Boots,” “Cinderella,” or “Jack and the Beanstalk.” There is a “pantomime dame” who is a large actor dressed outrageously as a woman who clowns around with plenty of slapstick. The “principal boy” or hero of the plot is actually a leggy young actress while the rest of the cast are a motley crew of jesters, dancers, and varied entertainers. The English panto is something that can be experienced, even if it cannot be explained. You can’t see one without visiting the old country, but you can get a taster here.
Other frivolities of the season are the New Year’s Day polar bear swim—in which English people strip down to their briefs and bras and holler a lot as they plunge into the icy North Sea and last, but not least, the Christmas cracker. The Christmas cracker is like a cross between a fortune cookie and a party popper. The cracker is a paper and cardboard novelty placed on the Christmas table. Inside is a miniature firecracker which pops as you pull the two ends of the cracker. The whole thing comes apart as you pull and inside are little gifts—a miniature pocket knife, a comb, or a tiny toy and a scrap of paper with a bad joke, which inevitably becomes hilarious with a few more sips of wine. Also included in every Christmas cracker is a tissue-paper crown that must be unrolled and worn during Christmas lunch.
Every English person from duchess to dustman wears a Christmas cracker crown at Christmas lunch. Even her majesty the Queen exchanges her crown for a tissue-paper tiara.
The Christmas cracker crown is mandatory.
No exceptions and no excuses.
You can buy them here.
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The featured image is “Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters” by Hendrick Avercamp, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.