Blogging on Christmas Day? With the children entertaining themselves with loads of gifts and visiting cousins, I thought it would be fun to share what it’s like to have Christmas in Britain. That’s especially after a good friend sent best wishes via email along with the joke, “Do you have Christmas in Britain.” He actually asked is that once several years ago! Yes, we do. And it’s pretty similar to Christmas in the United States, expect for a few things.
Some caveats here. It’s been about 17 or 18 years since I last had a Christmas in the United States, so how I remember things may have changed. In addition, my Christmas experiences in Britain could certainly alter from others. Britain is a big, multi-cultural society. What’s “traditional” can vary. Still, I think there are some common points that many will agree with.
About two weeks ago, we went to one of the biggest differences between the US and Britain, a Christmas pantomime (nothing to do with miming!). Maybe we have pantomimes in the United States. If so, they never made it into my awareness. These are annual
Christmas plays held throughout the country, in all the various cities.
The one we saw was in Salisbury, a twist on Sleeping Beauty. Pantomimes all have features that are second nature to the Brits but remain a mystery to me despite my years here. For some reason, they all have a male actor dressed as a female nurse or nanny. There’s always some point where that character will say loudly something like “Oh no you aren’t” or “Oh no it isn’t,” which the audience responds to by yelling “Oh yes you are” or “Oh yes it is.” Wikipedia has a good rundown on some of this.
The best I can describe the situation is how for an American, you know that a baseball game will start with the national anthem and that there will be the seventh inning stretch. These things just seem natural to Americans at a game. You’ve encountered them from birth. For non-Americans, they seem a mystery of coordination and group participation. So also is the British pantomime
experience. But despite not being second nature, it’s still quite fun.
The run-up to Christmas Day involves the big question of what song will be the Christmas number one. Again in the US, I never recall anyone caring what song was number one at Christmas. In the UK, it can be a betting activity. The songs are usually inane, and worse, may end up being a song you’ll hear for years and years in stores and on Christmas best hit albums.
“I wish it could be Christmas every day-ayyyy, blah blah blabby blah…” is either the name of a song by Slade or just the chorus. I don’t really care. All I know is I’ve heard the song for years, every Christmas, and it has to be the low point of the British Christmas experience. Never hearing it again would be a Christmas miracle. If you can’t experience this misery first hand, go rent Love Actually, which does a great parody of these songs.
On Christmas Eve, the kids go to sleep thinking about Christmas gifts the next day, just as in the US. More traditionally, it was Father Christmas who arrived to put gifts under the tree (yes, trees, just like in the US). Slowly, “Santa Claus” is the more US name that’s been creeping in. In our US-UK household, my wife and I continue to war over what he should be called. She goes
with Father Christmas. I say Santa Claus. The kids roll with either.
We open gifts on Christmas morning, just as I did as a kid in the US, so another similarity. Christmas dinner comes early for us, around 1pm. A turkey is the central feature. For the US, I seem to remember it being a Christmas ham that was the traditional meat. The UK doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, so I guess they’re not all turkeyed out by the time Christmas comes around.
Christmas dinner also features Christmas crackers (see Wikipedia entry here; non-Wikipedia info here). Picture the tube that paper towels go around all wrapped in Christmas paper, tied off into bows at either end. Inside the tube is a riddle, a prize
and a hat. You have someone pull your cracker with you, one person taking each end. It indeed goes crack, as a small bit of gunpowder like for a cap gun goes off. Whoever gets the biggest part is supposed to get the prize, which is typically anything like a pair of dice to a keychain.
The hat, made of paper, looks like a crown. Everyone puts these on their heads, unless they are complete spoil sports. For more fun, there’s Christmas pudding. You know, like the song many Americans sing about. For me, Christmas pudding was just a song until I came here. Then it turned out to be a sort of raisin and other fruit cake, topped by brandy, lit and served when the flames go
out. I’m not a Christmas pudding fan, so I generally pass on it. Traditionally, there should be a pound coin hidden in the pudding. Someone gets that a surprise, when it is sliced up. Our family no longer does this because years and years and years ago, one young member swallowed the coin and had an unexpected trip to the hospital.
Without a doubt, the strangest event is the Queen’s Speech. Not the one she makes to Parliament. The one she makes at Christmas to the nation and the British Commonwealth. This happens at 3pm UK time.
For our house, this is one of those stop everything and gather around times. I do think that’s the case in many houses, as well. It’s not like we sit quiet and absorb everything she says. The opposite. Today’s speech produced commentary on her terrible green outfit, why the camera kept moving as if she was on a ship and other things. But it’s still sort of a highlight.
The Queen’s speeches over the years are rather predictable — best wishes, reflecting on the meaning of Christmas and nothing that poignant. She did have that speech some years ago when she talked about the “annus horribilus” because of Charles and Di getting divorced in the same year that Windsor burning. Most of them aren’t like that, though for an American, her mentions of 9/11 in 2001 was touching and appreciated. Here’s info on the first Christmas speech she made; here’s background from the
Queen’s own web site; here’s the inevitable Wikipedia link. And that Queen’s podcasting stuff you’ve been hearing about? Just her speech being made available for download. You’ll find it here.
In contrast, Channel 4 has the Alternative Queen’s Speech. Channel 4 is supposed to be the UK’s alternative channel, serving minorities and under-represented communities. It largely seems to have forgotten this mandate because of the better ratings in constant airings of Big Brother episodes. Still, the Alternative Queen’s Speech is supposed to be, well, an alternative to
the Queen. Sharon Osbourne was one person to have delivered it recently (in 2002). I think it would be nice if they ran it right after The Queen’s speech, so people weren’t having to choose between them. But both are probably repeated.
Television is a big deal over Christmas. Tons of big movies will air, as well the traditional war movies that oddly get shown. Then some old UK comedy series will have a Christmas special. It used to be Only Fools And Horses, which is a great series, with the Christmas specials even better. This year, it’s The Vicar of Dibley. If you like films like Four Weddings & A Funeral and Love Actually, go find The Vicar Of Dibley on DVD. You’ll enjoy it. Richard Curtis, behind both of those films, created the TV series.
Tomorrow, the newspapers will tell us how the shows did. They’ll do this by calling the power companies and reporting how much of an electricity spike there is after the show (seriously, see this BBC article about it). If I recall right, what happens is that after a show ends, if lots of people are watching it, they run out at the end of the show and have a cup of tea. Flipping the electric kettles on makes a spike. The bigger the spike, the better the show 🙂 Remember, the main TV channels don’t have commercials. So you run out at the end of them, all at once!
Finally, people in the UK tend to say Happy Christmas more than Merry Christmas. It really throws me off, despite my time here. Happy New Year, Happy Thanksgiving, Happy Birthday — but Happy Christmas? It just sounds weird. But a merry happy Christmas to you all, wherever you are!