Saturday, January 3, 2015

There are Christmas Crackers, Wizzards, and Plenty of Booze- Celebrating the Holiday in the UK

I've been aware for some time that the UK is not simply America with funny accents. If I needed this proven to me any further, the difference in Christmas traditions certainly made this apparent. From the way that the Holiday is celebrated, the traditions that go along with it, the food that is consumed, and even the songs that are sung, the British celebrate the holiday in very much their own way.

I arrived not even two weeks before Christmas, so I've been consistently exposed to this throughout my short stay here so far. The first thing I was introduced to was the music. I had commented to Hermione that while out shopping and picking up the tree one afternoon that most of the Christmas music I had been hearing out was American. I mean sure there was a few too many of the very questionable last Christmas by Wham and classics like Good King Wenceslas with an English rolled R or two, but they seemed vastly outnumbered by Jingle Bells and Holly Jolly Christmas in full American accents. As we were decorating the tree I had put on "classic" Christmas music. She informed me that this list seemed lacking and then asked me where Slade, Wizzard, and a few other names I had never heard. My look of sheer confusion produced this video;


This video resulted not in further understanding, but instead with quite the opposite and it was followed up by several other equally bizarre 70s era strange concoctions that seemed not something I would relate to as Christmas classics. This combined with a love of Mariah Carey's All I Want for Christmas is You and a strange affinity for the before mentioned Last Christmas proves that I am indeed a stranger in a strange land when it comes to what the British enjoy for Christmas music.

With the tree decorated (this was essentially the same- though the thing is left up until the 6th of January which seems odd) it was time to move on to other unrecognizable traditions. An even week before Christmas we traveled down to Oxted to have dinner with Hermione's parents. Everything was going fine when at one point everyone picked up these odd looking cardboard rolls with festive string tied to them and held on to them in one hand and crossed arms. I apparently was supposed to grab and pull these- and as we all pulled they burst apart with a bit of a pop. Inside is a paper crown, a very bad joke, and a toy. It's like a fortune cookie and cracker jacks had a drunken hookup on New Years and the Christmas Cracker as they are called, was the resultant love child.
Christmas Crackers- These don't make any sense.
Another thing I have quickly learned with the British is that alcohol is much more casually integrated in their society. Not like the French or Italians mind you, but they don't have quite the hangover we have from the years of prohibition and the social stigma that drinking has since gained due to a number of social quirks in the US. Here work and drinking go hand in hand in a way that the US has at least not enjoyed since the way the 50s are depicted in Mad Men. Aside from the fairly normal attitude toward pub lunches and office parties being far more boozy affairs than they would be in the US, the Christmas holiday season seems to be filled with a rather liberal taking in of mulled wine, hot toddies, and other drinks to keep people in a consistent merry mood.

For our part we treated ourselves to a trip to a local speak-easy style bar called BYOC for our present to each other on the night before Christmas Eve. The concept is that you bring the liquor and they make craft cocktails from a range of specialty mixers that they have at their location. With a reservation 20 quid will get you a two hour slot. We arrived at the location, which on the outside appears to be a closed juice bar, and were lead down a dark steep stairwell to a underground bar as it were. We brought a nice mix of liquor in Patron Silver, Sacred Gin, The Kraken Black Spiced Rum, and a very nice Absinthe I had brought in from the US- Vieux Carre. The drinks that were produced were really decent, lots of use of herbal flavors, some nice syrups and mixers and even the use of some nice ingredients like rose water and chili. All in all a good experience and a place I'd happily go back to.
BYOC- Speak-Easy Style Bar
 Cocktails duly imbibed and merry states reached we reached the morning with slight not-so-merry hangovers. Luckily I had prepared a great remedy to this the evening before. After a night out drinking I just like to eat different food than normal, and my "hangover breakfast" is something I only really enjoy after a night out drinking. Normally I like much lighter food, but on these occasions you just want a bit more grit in the morning, so enter the bacon, egg and cheddar sandwich on an English muffin. Served with a side of home fries and grilled tomatoes it is best washed down with a bloody mary. This was enjoyed while watching Casablanca, as watching movies is another activity I find is best enjoyed when feeling slow enough that you don't want to do much else.

Christmas Eve Hangover Breakfast
Breakfast taken in and feeling much refreshed it was time to head back to Hermione's home town and begin the festivities. Upon arrival we assisted with some of the tasks that needed to be done in preparation for the next day's Christmas meal. This included the making of more mulled wine and the creation and subsequent eating of mince pies. These are things we don't really get to enjoy too often in the US, and think it is one area where the Brits certainly seem to have things better put together then us. They also have really holly and mistletoe everywhere- which beats our plastic stuff that is hung due to a lack of the real thing being nearly as ubiquitous.

We had dinner at an Italian restaurant that Hermione had spent years working in off and on through school and as recent as this last summer. A few bottles of Prosecco and three courses of food later the place started to close up, but as Hermione knew all the staff, we just kind of hung out. Prosecco continued to be imbibed and it turned into an interesting night as many of the staff were from Nepal. Given my tenure there this lead to many interesting conversations and watching Italians and Nepali folk drink and dance together was quite entertaining. Although on most levels I absolutely despise Hindi Pop music, the great times I had doing ridiculous dancing with friends in Kathmandu has left an endearing imprint on me, so when Yo Yo Honey Singh's Sunny Sunny, which may be one of the worst songs ever recorded, I was quick to jump up and engage in some serious shoulder shimmying. The vast amount of Prosecco that had been consumed probably helped with this. Dancing and drinking having taken us past three in the morning we collapsed back in the bed set aside for us and rested up for Christmas Day.

Seriously- One of the worst songs ever.
But I do have a soft spot for bad Hindi music occasionally.

We slept in a bit on Christmas morning and then once up continued to assist with some of the dinner preparation. This whole part was not all that unlike Christmas in the US. Family gathers, presents are exchanged, and light drinking ensues. Food on the other hand is much closer to the kind of spread we would put together for Thanksgiving. I find in the US that Christmas dinner varies significantly from family to family depending on cultural heritage and  how people decide to gather around. We can do anything to an informal pot luck kind of thing, to a full ham or turkey, to something more ethnic like a large Italian or Greek spread if that happens to be where your ancestors came from.The UK however seems to consume mostly large turkey dinners with stuffing, roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts, roasted parsnips and carrots, cranberry sauce, bread sauce, bacon & sausages and of course Christmas pudding.
Flaming Christmas Pudding with Holly on Top
Some of the food was familiar some of it was quite different. We had two types of stuffing, a traditional sage and pork stuffing that was inside the turkey and an 18th century style chestnut stuffing- both of these I really loved and they were quite unlike our standard stuffings back home. The bread sauce was also very different and was something from medieval  English cooking, enjoyable as well. The biggest difference was in the desserts. We simply don't do Christmas pudding which we wouldn't even recognize as pudding. American pudding and UK pudding are just not the same thing at all. This was a rum & brandy soaked, very rich sponge like cake that had lots of raisin like fruit and plums, which are also soaked in more liquor. Liquor continues to be a recurring theme. It is then set on fire, topped with holly and served. Toppings included cream, custard and brandy butter. The cream and brandy butter I was a fan of. English Custard on the other hand, I don't really dislike but I don't see what it adds to a dish. It's thick and gloopy, so it doesn't add much in the way of texture, it's kind of sweet but doesn't add much flavor. Over all I don't really get it- it kind of seems like the ketchup of British dessert condiments.

Everyone dully stuffed with food it was time to move on to strange English TV. These included a speech from the queen (I still don't get why there are royal families in the modern world), a Doctor Who Christmas special which I slept through mostly, and then some dancing shows that seemed thoroughly confusing. Alcohol and food taking their toll it was time to go to bed.

Traditional morning after Christmas food involves something called bubble and squeak. It consisted of mashed up Christmas leftovers seared into patties. Not too bad really. Not something I'd go out of my way to cook myself, but once a year I can see why this might be a thing. With the day after Christmas brunch consumed it was time to go on a country walk through the town. I have to keep reminding myself not to call everything quaint and cute- as it comes across a bit condescending- but really this is how everything over here in these small towns looks to me. Quaint really is the best adjective for everything it seems. Possibly I can use old-world or charming to diversify my thoughts, though I suppose that doesn't come across much better.

Walk done, it was time to pack up and return to London. It was time to start resting up for New Years!

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