By Sarah Pridgeon
Decorations in place and gifts all wrapped with pretty bows on top, I am now enough in the Christmas spirit to be whistling “White Christmas” under my breath every time I look out of the window. The Christmas Day ahead of me, however, will be a little bit different from yours. We’re all waiting for the same jolly bearded man to visit but, back in England, we have some longstanding traditions that I’m looking forward to observing.
As Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday for us, a primary difference between your Christmas Day and mine is likely to be the presence of turkey. For the second time this year, I shall be shoveling poultry and stuffing into my mouth as fast as physics allows, although this time it will be accompanied by roast potatoes instead of mashed and pigs in blankets that involve bacon instead of crescent rolls.
The vegetable side dishes will be simple yet delicious, up to and including the inevitable Brussels sprouts. My brother will watch on with disgust as I add them to my plate, offering his usual opinion that these foul-smelling miniature cabbages are the work of the Devil himself.
I will also be gorging on mashed and buttered rutabaga, but I will be calling it by its proper name: swede. I had never heard the word rutabaga before I moved here and still can’t for the life of me pronounce it.
We will eat leftovers the next day – Boxing Day, for us – in a unique concoction called “bubble and squeak,” handily named for the noise it makes in the frying pan. Any vegetable that did not find a home on a Christmas Day plate will be mixed together, delicately squished and fried in oil until brown and sizzling and then served with cold meats and pickles. My husband calls it “the omnivegetable” and accepts that it is a pleasing way to present a green bean.
Our Christmas lunch will be accompanied by crackers, an invention that I was not aware had ever been seen in this country until a certain friend of mine brought me a set last week. I have no idea where she could possibly have found them, but I’m excited to show them off to the American side of my family.
A Christmas cracker is a tube of cardboard wrapped in a twist of colorful paper. With one person holding each end, the cracker is pulled until it splits apart with a resounding crack from the snap paper inside – hence the name – and the contents spill out onto the table.
Inside each cracker is a joke or riddle, a paper crown that will tear as you try to negotiate it over your ears and a small trinket that is generally, in the words of my mother, “a bit of tat.” If you enjoy sewing kits the size of your thumb, plastic puzzles that don’t quite work properly, unsightly key rings or napkin holders that are very slightly warped, a Christmas cracker would make you very happy.
Once I have eaten a week’s worth of food in one sitting, I will be wheeled towards the sofa to watch Queen Elizabeth II’s annual Royal Christmas Message to her subjects. This is helpfully scheduled an hour after lunch to give those of us who aren’t snoozing or playing with our cracker contents something interesting to do.
Our monarch will regale us with helpful advice and an optimistic outlook for the year ahead. She’s been doing this since her reign began, which makes 2013’s speech her 61st. Surprisingly, she still manages to find something new to say each year – last year, she even broadcast for the first time in 3D. Let it never be said that my Queen is not “down with the kids.”
The rest of the afternoon will be taken up by television specials. Almost every game show, soap opera, reality program, sitcom and drama will have created an episode intended especially for the days around Christmas, and each will be themed accordingly.
On soap operas such as Eastenders, this usually involves making a selection of primary characters as miserable as possible. Downton Abbey will no doubt follow this lead, while Doctor Who will be regenerating into a brand new actor. Gordon Ramsay might also appear to show us how wrongly we’ve been baking our Christmas cakes.
When supper time rolls around, my mother will tempt me with hard boiled eggs and ham sandwiches, which I will summarily refuse. Convinced that I could have eaten one more roast potato if I’d tried just that little bit harder (and horrified at the thought that it will be a full year until I get another crack at it), I will insist on a second full plate of Christmas lunch that I will then be unable to eat.
Sadly, there are other traditions that I will be too late to enjoy. The Royal Variety Performance aired without me last week as a batch of celebrities gathered to entertain Prince Charles (it’s a different senior royal every year) with music, comedy, drama and dance.
If you’re familiar with America’s Got Talent, you may be interested to know that it’s actually a British show and the original prize was the chance to perform for the Queen at the Royal Variety. Meanwhile, some of this country’s greatest names have appeared on the stage of the Palladium, including Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra.
I am also unlikely to secure tickets to a pantomime – another Brit tradition that baffled my husband. A pantomime is a stage show based around a fairy tale, such as Aladdin or Cinderella. It’s a comedic and silly festival of song and dance that’s intended for a family audience.
It is also the place where celebrity goes to die. These days, you can spot when a famous personality’s star is on the wane because they will appear in one or more reality shows. They will bare their souls in the Big Brother house, attempt to survive a stint on a desert island or dance for the nation in a sparkly dress.
In times past, on the other hand, the pantomime was there to provide this safety net. A celebrity in high demand is still unlikely to accept a role as the Fairy Godmother or Peter Pan, so you can estimate a person’s fame currency pretty accurately by how many pantomimes they have appeared in.
Even so, a pantomime is a fun experience. As an audience member, you are expected to sing along with the familiar songs and respond to the characters when they talk to you. It is also your responsibility to warn the hero that the bad guy is sneaking up on them by shouting, “He’s behiiiiiind yoooou!” at the top of your lungs.
Christmas in England is a time for letting go of the stiff upper lip and loosening one’s belt to accommodate the candy. It’s a time for family and friends to follow a time-honored schedule and enjoy one another’s company, much as it over here. So while I am enjoying Brussels sprouts and carols a few thousand miles away, may I take this opportunity to wish you the merriest of Christmases and a New Year filled with joy.