Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Christmas in London

For the first time in my almost 38 years on the planet, I'm not home in North Carolina for Christmas.  Given the stress and expense of travel, the fact that we're pinching pennies and pence to save for the wedding, and I was just in the US in October-oh, and Simon asked...-I decided not to go home this year.  Hindsight 20/20, given the travel woes due to weather-London airports shut down for *days* due to a few inches of snow-I may not have made it home-or back to begin with! Best. Decision. Ever.  Yes, I miss my family & friends, but it was nice starting what will be Simon's & my first Christmas tradition for hopefully years to come. aw.

Anyhoo..This post isn't meant to be about that.  Rather, as I've been puttering around town the past few weeks-I've tried to make note of all of the glorious things that seem to happen in London/England at Christmas.  Since I was here for the full experience this year, I wanted to take a moment & mention some of the things I've observed.  I've tried to group them, as otherwise I'd be all over the place:

The Sights....
Having never lived in a super-touristy, large city before, I can't comment if other places do this or not.  But, what I will say is that London decorates for Christmas really well!  All of the major shopping streets get lit up, and even the minor ones too. :)   The scenes below are from Oxford Street & Regent Street this year: 
Oxford Circus
Regent Street

I could fill a book with all of the street lights, but these were my two favourites.
Oh, and never mind that until just a few days before Christmas, there was actually snow on the ground (oh, thiiiis close to my first White Christmas)!

The Food...
Oh, where to begin?!?  This year, Simon & I decided not to swap presents (re: penny pinching for the wedding)-and we extended that notion to everyone.  So,we gave nor received any presents this year.  It was nice not to have to deal with the stress & mayhem of buying presents (and are already talking about not doing presents again next year), but in the course of doing so-and perhaps because Simon was so excited about me staying here & us having a proper Xmas meal (I swear, he's been talking about the meal since *August*)-that I find that I've thought non-stop about Christmas food the past few weeks.  That being said, there seem to be non-stop Christmas Cooking shows on day & night as well...
Regardless, along the way I've noticed some similarities & differences in what we'd eat in the US v the UK at Christmas.
The Similarities:  Turkey, Cranberry Sauce, Gravy, Stuffing.  The true basics don't change from country to country. 
Differences:  Brussel Sprouts-very, traditional Xmas veg. It's like the ubiquitous British equivalent of the green bean. :); Mince pies are everywhere!  Duck/goose seems to be a bit more common.  And, though snacking is a big part of the day in the US as well, here, the main snack of the day is Cheese.  The planning that goes into selecting your cheese & other bits-crackers, chutneys, side fruits-is considerable.  And, if the 20 minute, 30 person queue I waited in at Neal's Yard Dairy (best cheese in London....) on Christmas Eve is any indication, folks aren't simply going to settle for a wedge of grocery-store-bought cheddar & a cream cheese ball! :)

Entertainment (TV/Music/Sport)...
Three things to note here...For some odd reason, the 'Christmas Number 1' for the music industry seems to be a national obsession. Again, perhaps it's me, but I don't ever remember it being a big deal who had the number 1 song on the charts at Christmas in the US.  Here?  It's discussed & speculated for weeks before-and, as the X Factor (think, American Idol) winner is crowned just ~2 weeks before Christmas, there's a huge push for the current winner's single to reach number 1.  Ah, Simon Cowell.  As much as I hate your music machine, you are a genius.
Second...Though this year wasn't a good example from what I understand, what's on TV on Christmas Day & Boxing Day (Dec 26) is ususally supposed to be really good TV-lots of recent movies in particular-and the networks seem to be quite competitive over showing good programs.  Personally, aside from the annual 24 hours of A Christmas Story on TBS, US TV seems to be fairly poor this time of year, but as England does a better job of shutting down for the day, staying in & watching TV is about the only thing to do, and the networks are happy to oblige!
And last...what kind of expat would I be if I didn't mention Boxing Day Cricket?  Every year, England & Australia play (effectively...) a month's worth of Cricket-almost a game every day.  Christmas is about the halfway point, and the Boxing Day match is always very popular.  As the games are in Australia this year (they alternate locations every other year), the match didn't start until 11.30pm on Christmas (it's the 26th in Oz), and it would go until ~8am.  I called it a night at 1am, but Simon & Scott (our Aussie friend who spent Xmas night with us) stayed up a bit longer.  Though, I guess in truth, the Christmas Day Sporting Event is no different from the US-it's just the choice of sport that's different! :)

General Bits...
I love Christmas Crackers.  It's one of the best parts of Christmas in the UK to me-though they were an entirely foreign concept to me until 2008.  Crackers are opened with your Christmas meal by grabbing on one end-and having someone grab the other end.  When you each pull, the cracker (with help from a bit of gunpowder) pops ('cracks') as it tears open.  Crackers usually contain a trinket of some kind, a joke, and a tissue paper hat. You put your hat on & wear it while eating your Christmas meal.  It's my favorite part of Christmas, and I love the irony that a country that is considered to be so 'stiff upper lip' sits around eating their Christmas Meal with paper hats on!
Another great part of Christmas in London is that everyone says 'Merry Christmas.'  Regardless of who they're saying it to (read: someone who isn't Christian).  I think I blogged about this once in 2008 about how surprised I was about this, and though I'm still surprised 3 Christmasses on, the child in me likes that PC-ness simply gets tossed out the window this time of year:  I was in my local grocery store on December 23rd, and overheard a store manager say to an employee who was leaving for the weekend, 'I know you aren't Christian, but Merry Christmas anyway!'  If we would have been in the US, a lawsuit would have ensued, but here, the employee just took it in stride and wished the manager a Merry Christmas in return.  Nice.
The Queens Speech...I can't quite figure this one out.  Tradition as long back as I know, every Christmas Day, the Queen/King of England gives a public speech that's broadcast throughout the UK & even the Commonwealth. No more than 10 minutes long-and the speech this year was barely 5 minutes long-it's usually just a simple 'yea, England' type message from the Queen.  Simon says he hasn't watched the speech since he was a child, and a chat with some of my British friends yielded the same commentary.  Nonetheless, I was glued to the BBC at 3pm when the speech came on.  In truth, I can't remember a thing she said.  Hee.


  1. OK, so you're living in England, so tell me, what IS Boxing Day anyway?? I'm in Tanzania, which retains some British-ness in customs around holidays, and they told me it's because of all the boxes from the gifts and it's not meant for hitting each other. But I dont' think that's really it...

  2. @Barbara, I had to ask my fiancee, Simon (aka purveyor of all British culture :)) and he said that 'boxing day' originated from when, the day after Xmas, the servants were given presents (in boxes) from their employers. Since the servants were working on Xmas day, the day after Xmas was when they celebrated-and opened their presents in boxes!
    Sounds convincing to me! :)

  3. Thanks for clearing that up-it does sound convincing, or at least like it makes sense!

  4. What did you and Simon end up having for your own Christmas meal? I've never met a cheese I didn't like, I'm glad to see that carries over. I just tried blueberry stilton for the first time a couple weeks ago and LOVED it! This week I'm trying to make broccoli and brie soup.
    Do people celebrate both Boxing Day and Christmas Day, or just one or the other?

  5. people outside of the US aren't as uptight about being PC as Americans are. Most of us figure being overly PC about certain things makes them into a bigger deal than they are or need to be and that everyone should just chill out. re saying Merry Christmas instead of Happy Holidays as an American would- its just another example of US uptightness. Saying Merry Christmas to someone in a country that was founded by Christians and where the majority of the population are still Christians of some sort is not nor should it be offensive. I figure if a person comes from a non Christian country or is non Christian and they are living in a country where the majority is and they get their knickers in a wad and want to sue over someone daring to wish them a Merry Christmas they might want to have a good look at themselves. And catering to a minority like this creates unfairness for everyone else because talk eventually turns to banning Xmas in schools and not allowing mangers to be part of Xmas displays etc.

    sorry if this sounds overly rant like

  6. I've just found this via Pond Parleys and inadvertantly got myself hooked on another expat blog! (I'm British but have several expat friends and relatives in the USA so have an interest in the culture comparison.)

    If I might throw in a few comments:

    Although cranberry sauce is now common it is a relatively recent arrival. There's a great scene in the film Shadowlands where C.S. Lewis has American guests (or maybe wife by that part of the film) and speaks with his cook:
    C.S. Lewis: Have you got any cranberry sauce, Mrs. Young?
    Mrs. Young: Cranberry sauce, what's that?
    C.S. Lewis: Well, it's a sauce made from... cranberries.
    Mrs. Young: Well, you find me some cranberries, Mr. Lewis, and I'll sauce them.

    Although Australia is our longest standing and most hearfelt cricketing opponent we don't play them every year. And as cricket is a summer / dry season game we never play them here at Christmas. They were here last summer. This summer we host Sri Lanka and India and next January to March we will be playing in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Other years we could be in New Zealand, the West Indies or South Africa.

    The other (similar) idea on the name Boxing Day is that churches opened alms boxes where donations had been made for the poor and distributed the cash.

    For some reason asking if we 'celebrate' Boxing Day and Christmas Day didn't sound quite natural British English to me. Chewing it over I think my gut feeling was because a) in general we'd say we celebrate Christmas and Boxing Day is just part of that and b)the things typically associated with Boxing Day itself aren't that celebratory.

    Typical things different people might do on Boxing Day include a) waking up late, bloated and hungover after the Christmas Day binge and slobbing out all day b) seeing the set of in-laws / divorced parent they didn't have Christmas dinner with c)watching sport, particularly football or horse racing d)having a wholesome detoxing walk e) hitting the sales (a recent development, generally large shops didn't open on Boxing Day and not all do now.) f) maybe go out to other entertainment such as a pantomime (see or film. Bear in mind on Christmas Day just about every business other than some restaraunts and pubs will be closed, so the going out starts again on Boxing Day.

    As for Merry Christmas, I think it's not just a question of pc or not, but a bigger difference in culture. It's summed up by an anecdote I heard on the radio once. A Londoner mentioned that a German friend of his was astonished that the Underground didn't operate on Christmas Day,whereas equivalent public transport in Germany would do. The German said "I didn't realise you were so devout". I had to laugh, because it isn't religious devotion that's stopping the work it's that Christmas Day is THE holiday of the year. Whereas America has de jure separation of church and state, to a far larger degree we have de facto separation of religion and culture. (I should add for persective I'm a volunteer lay minister in the Church of England and was preaching on Christmas Eve and morning!) There is a Christian celebration going on as well, but primarily Christmas is a *British cultural* thing about turkey / presents / office parties / Queen's Speech etc.

  7. @Anonymous #2..thanks for the commentary-I laughed outloud at your cranberry sauce bit in particular. As someone who considers cranberry sauce a proper 'side veg' 24/7/365 (I usually get a can at T-Giving & Xmas *just* for myself...), this really hit home.
    Thanks also for the extra commentary on the cricket game-I was aware, but didn't think anyone reading would actually know what I was talking about! :) After such an eventful test series, though I'm still learning the lingo, I can say I've come to enjoy watching the game-I'm really looking forward to this Summer's games and hope to snag a ticket or two along the way.
    @Gennifer...we ended up having a very traditional British Xmas-sprouts included. :) Since T-Giving was 'america all the way', it felt wrong to be here & not fully embrace the British Xmas/Food traditions 100%.

  8. I enjoyed this story. So you are from NC, whereabouts? I am from Durham and work in Hillsborough. I have a feeling you are not from one of the major cities here. Just my guess. Do you have many NC followers? You've got one now! xD I love crackers too and it was fun spending Christmas once with a group of Brits. I quite enjoyed myself!

  9. Another good entry. One thing you forgot to mention is that it would be disappointing if the joke from the cracker was anything but terrible!