My Introduction to Christmas Culture Shock
My first Christmas in England was a great learning experience. I should really open up a “culture school” for people moving here from the states. Even though both countries speak English, it is a different kind of English and there are words, phrases and customs that are completely different to anything we yanks are used to.
Father Christmas v. Santa
First there is Father Christmas. We call him Santa Claus. He looks about the same in England, but interestingly enough he is quite a bit slimmer in the UK. He still brings presents to all the good boys and girls and you can still find him in malls for photo ops but the difference here is he looks more like a skinny guy in red pajamas wearing a fake beard than the authentic looking bearded fat guy in a jolly red suit like you see in the US.
It confused me for years why there were pictures of robins on Christmas cards and little fake birds on trees when I moved here. Only this year, in the middle of summer, did I accidentally learn the real reason why the robin is so prevalent to the English Christmas theme. My friend Sue told me that in legend, the robins watch you and report back to Father Christmas if you’ve been good or not.
Sprouts and Christmas Dinner
It’s not Christmas Dinner in England without Brussels Sprouts. Mountains of them. They are absolutely everywhere in the stores during the Christmas season. You can even buy them still on the stalk. I have to admit, I do like them, although they are well known for causing “wind”. They are like little teeny cabbages. The whole dinner is a bit confusing to me. They go more all out for their dinner than Americans tend to do, but this is the land of the Sunday Roast. They have pretty much this same dinner every Sunday. Granted, there is one major difference… the Christmas Pudding.
A Christmas Pudding is a boiled or steamed blob of suet, dried fruit, nuts and dark treacle all soaked in brandy. To top that off, they smother them in brandy butter. The ingredients can vary greatly. There are different degrees of this pudding from the really cheap stuff to the luxury puddings. Most people don’t like Christmas Pudding but its almost sacrilegious if you don’t have some with your Christmas meal. They light the darned things on fire when they bring them out to the table too.
This one is a favorite of my husband. It’s almost exactly like our fruit cakes that we make fun of in America but it is usually topped with marzipan icing. It still has that door stop quality that you find in an American fruit cake but the English seem to absolutely love this cake. My husband will literally fight to the death for some.
This is another favorite of my husband. These are usually little mini pies stuffed with mincemeat and sprinkled with sugar on top. I think my husband eats at least three or four boxes of them per year. It seems to be the tradition to eat one any time you pass by them. If you go to the bank around this time of year, some even have them there with a tiny thimble full of sherry. I feel about mince pies like I do about Christmas Pudding and Christmas Cake. I come from the overly processed food of America! I want chocolate and white flour in my desserts!
Pulling a Christmas cracker is a tradition of the English that I really do like. A cracker is a tube of paper rolled up and traditionally stuffed with a joke, a funny paper crown and a little gift. There is a little paper snap inside so that when each person pulls on one side of the cracker and it comes apart, it gives a pathetic little bang much like a cap gun. Tradition is, the person with the most remnants of the cracker after pulling it apart wins the prizes inside. I think in a lot of families everybody gets their own cracker though so nobody goes without. Crackers can be a lot like puddings, you can buy the cheap versions with worthless small prizes up to expensive crackers with expensive gifts like sterling silver pens inside them. I still use my pen all the time!
I really appreciate how much of a consumer society we are in America when I spend Christmas in England. People still give gifts over here, but it’s more about just being together and remembering friends and family than it is how much can I get. I’m sure that varies from family to family though. People here tend to buy one gift for each person and for people that you don’t know that well you just give them a card. Christmas cards are just as big here as they are in the states.
Boxing day is the English Thanksgiving of sorts. Tradition is that on Boxing Day, which is the day after Christmas, people used to box up their leftovers and give them to their servants as gifts for a job well done all year. There’s not much of the boxing up done any more, but the English still take the day off. Probably to digest all those sprouts!
Christmas v. Thanksgiving
Christmas is more of an event in England than it seems to be in America. They eat themselves silly in England. Not that we don’t in the states, but remember, they haven’t had a Thanksgiving just a month before. So they only get one chance to stuff themselves full of Christmas turkey before its gone for another year.
In England they tend to say “Happy Christmas” more than “Merry Christmas” like we do, but I’ve heard people say both and seen both on cards and other things. Season’s Greetings is equal across both cultures. Also across both cultures is that Christmas is a time for family and friends and being together, whether you want to or not and loving the build up to it and experiencing the relief when its finally over for another year.