Yuletide in Ole Blighty

In the United States, it is not officially considered Christmastime until the Thanksgiving leftovers have been creatively recycled during the last weekend in November. But because the history of the United Kingdom does not include that customary red-letter date on their calendar, they herald in their festivity as early as the beginning of October! Having become accustomed toYankee ways, now that I’m living and working for a year in London, I’m having difficulty readjusting. And, as the weeks have gone by, I’ve realized that the two countries are not just separated, as George Bernard Shaw quipped, by a common language alone, but also by the ways in which they celebrate a common religious holiday.

Well, they are some similarities, I will grant that. If New York lights up a giant tree at Rockefeller Center, for instance, Londoners use the lovely setting of Trafalgar Square to showcase the towering tree they receive as a present from Norway each year as a thank-you gift for the UK’s help during the war. But, whereas in New York, the ice skating rink lies just at the foot of the tree, London cannot boast a similar facility. Hence, Somerset House on Aldwych, a grand 18th century mansion, becomes the venue for the most glamorous ice-skating escapades of the season. This year, for instance, Emma Watson who played Hermione in the Harry Potter films, got all dressed to kill in a red silk scarf and black chiffon dress to switch the lights on the tree that overlooks the rink. She said that she was “absolutely delighted” to have been granted the privilege especially as her Christmases as a girl were never complete without a family skate at Somerset. Awwwww!

And then there are those Hampers. Few Brtis would consider their holiday complete if they did not give or receive one of the legendary wicker baskets from Harrods or Fortnum and Mason or Marks and Spencer brimming over with incredible edibles. Let’s take a peak, for instance, into the biggest and the best of the hampers being offered by M&S this year. Vintage champagne, Chablis and Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines; malt whiskey, cognac and vintage port; specialty iced cake and vintage Christmas pudding; champagne truffles, chocolate-coated fruit and nuts, chocolate dipped orange slices, liquid caramels and vanilla fudge; Continental biscuits, shortbread fingers, Florentines, cheddar, walnut and olive flatbreads; the finest coffee and tea, extra virgin olive oil, cut comb in Acacia honey; pitted kalamata and Queen green olives, Bramble Chutney and Piccalilli; baby pears in sweet white wine, whole mandarins in orange liqueur, mustard with mead and honey; bittersweet orange and cranberry marmalade and packs of conserves with flavors such as blackcurrant and cassis, Scottish raspberry and framboise could be yours in a single package. No, not in a wicker basket but in “twin stylish bonded leather trunks plus a bonded leather wine rack”. And pray how much does this gastronomic excess cost? Well, as the old adage goes, if you need to ask, you can’t afford it…but if you can’t contain your curiosity, it’s a paltry thousand pounds. Now you know why the gyms and diet product manufacturers have boom-time sales come New Year!

If Americans are not prone to gifting each other hampers, they are also not into gifting fruitcakes—indeed the fruitcake is akin to a pair of socks at this time of year. They have become the butt of bad jokes inasmuch as they are both considered the sort of thing you’d gift someone into whose present you couldn’t be bothered to put much thought. Indeed, Americans are not into anything fruity at Christmas—and that would include plum puddings and mince pies–which explains why they have absolutely no idea what brandy butter is.

The British, it would appear, consume chocolate by the kilogram at Christmas. Every single store is selling colossal tins of Quality Street and Roses and they are disappearing from the shelves before you can say “Peppermint Cream”. Caramels and Fondants, Turkish Delight and Nut clusters, creamy coconut, truffles and liqueurs form the centers of confections that are clothed in milk, dark and white chocolate, wrapped in shiny foil and multi-colored cellophane and stacked into velvet boxes or embossed tins or shiny glass jars and decorated with ribbons and roses.  Americans, on the other hand, bake cookies at this time of year. There are rolled cookies and molded cookies, pressed cookies and drop cookies, tray cookies and iced cookies…you name it,Yanks bake it. Many Brits, on the other hand, would not even know what a cookie is—they would, however, recognize the same goodie as a biscuit. But then, if you asked an American what he planned to do on Boxing Day, he would think you were referring to a day on which a prize fight was scheduled. The British, for their part, know that this is the day on which ‘servants’ traditionally received their presents—as if on the calendars ‘downstairs’, the Baby Jesus, was born a day later! 

And then there is the Panto! If for many New Yorkers, Christmas would not feel the same without watching The Rockettes prance and pirouette and lift their legs impossibly high while grinning like Cheshire Cats at Radio City Music Hall, for many Londoners, Christmas would lack sparkle without a visit to a theater to watch a favorite fairy tale or beloved nursery story come alive through the antics of well-known stage and TV actors. In keeping with this tradition, I’m going to my first Christmas Pantomime this year to see Simon Callow, one of my favorite British actors, play Captain Hook in a version of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. The English enthusiasm for such juvenile entertainment, including slapstick, rough and tumble and vaudeville techniques, is infectious, for I simply cannot wait to occupy my seat in Richmond.

Because it is with gusto that they celebrate their long history—something about which the Yanks can only be envious—Londoners use the twelve rooms of the Geffrye Museum in the East End to showcase Christmas interiors through the centuries. So, in these 21st century days of high tech fibre-optic Christmas trees, I think I will enjoy visiting this venue to stroll through Time and examine the interior of a Tudor Hall in 1630 all strung with fresh oranges and scented with cloves or an 18th century parlor on a country estate decorated with the spoils of an autumn’s hunts. I know I will be curious about the Victorian drawing room with its cards and trees that were first introduced as festive traditions in that era and I will linger for a long while in the Edwardian dining room as I have a special affinity for that epoch.

Eccentric though a lot of these oddities might feel, I have to admit that I am enjoying every second of Yuletide in Ole’ Blighty.