As Seen on Touring Old Blighty…

Disclaimer: Unlike most “Top Ten” lists, this one is in no particular order and draws its results from nothing more than this ex-pat’s experience of her first Christmas season in the UK. Do with as you will.

10. Christmas adverts on the television.

Starting in about late September, there were “holiday” adverts on the television. (Yes, those who think that all British TV is advert free, we DO have them on some channels…mostly the ones NOT controlled by the British Broadcasting Compay.) Those tended to be filled with reminders that “the holiday season is just around the corner” but were delightfully void of “make your layaway purchases now!” advice. However, following Halloween, Christmas adverts have been appearing all over the telly, and some of them are just spectacular. While it can be said that Christmas is even more commericalised here than it is in the US (if that’s even possible) and that the “Reason for the Season” is left out, I don’t completely agree. The adverts show warm, happy, scenes of home, with people gathering and celebrating together. Now, granted that leaves out the Christian reason for the season, but it promotes giving and what I think to be family values. One such example, included for your viewing pleasure, is the following lovely John Lewis advert.

9. Christmas Displays in Shop Windows

Of course, this is not limited to the UK, but I have seen some positively fantastic window displays in shops here since around the middle of November. Moving parts, music, lights – nothing seems to be too much when you’re talking window displays. However, what has impressed me is the participation in what seems to be more commonplace here than the US. I’ll give you two examples of what I mean: first, I work for a retail shop and the company policy is to make all the windows across the country look the same. The idea is that continuity brings with it a certain amount of familiarity and therefore brand-trust. Makes sense. However, some of the branches, mine included, have large, walk-in front windows (or fall-in, if you’re me) and the staff were visibly disappointed at the notion that we will not be decorating the window beyond the bits sent to us (and all branches) by corporate. To my lazy American mind this was joyous news indeed…they tell us what to put in the window and we do it. But my colleagues were telling wonderful stories about Christmases past and staying at the store well past closing to work on window decorations – and I admit to feeling a bit cheated that I wasn’t there “back when.”

8. Christmas Light Displays and City-Wide Christmas Light Switch-Ons.

Perhaps I didn’t live in an area in the US that felt as strongly about switching on their Christmas Lights. Greenville, SC, where I lived until immigrating back in April, had fantastic fairy lights in all the trees downtown – that are on year round. There were of course banners and extra lights added to the streetlights, etc. downtown, but I think the big “thing” in the US is the Christmas parade.

The big thing here is the celebration and official Switch On of the town/city/village’s Christmas lights every year. It happens in late November/early December, and I’m ashamed to admit that I missed it for Keighley because I was just feeling a bit too homesick that day to go watch anything Christmas-related. The celebrations range from a local band playing to lavish stage shows and last several hours, the climax of each being some local celebrity pushing a big button or throwing an oversized switch that lights up the big Christmas tree (and other lights in the town, I would imagine). Each place has their own unique thing that they do for Christmas, and I’m pleased to share with you my husband’s favourite bit from the town centre here in Keighley (shot yesterday afternoon on my way home from work):

7. Mince Pies (if you like sultanas, that is).

Personally, I don’t care for them, but my husband (and other friends, I must admit) giggle with glee when these precious little pastries first appear on store shelves in late November. A mince pie, according to Wikipedia, is “A mince pie (sometimes also minced, minced meat, or mincemeat pie) is a British festive sweet pastry, traditionally consumed during the Christmas and New Year period. Mince pies are filled with mincemeat – a preserve typically containing apple, dried fruits such as raisins and sultanas, spices, and either suet or vegetable shortening.

These things are the stuff of legend, and I’d always compared them to the frightening and traditional fruit cake that is served, feared, and probably re-gifted throughout the US at Christmas. (I have a theory that there are only a few fruit cakes in the US, and those few have been circulated across the country for years.) But where the fruit cake is a joke, mince pies are beloved. I can say that I’ve tried them and sadly my distaste for raisins and anything similar keeps me from enjoying them, but they are a much anticipated treat here and I felt, as such, they deserved mention.

6. Christmas Specials on Television.

Now I’m not referring here to Andy Williams or The Osmonds. These have little to do with Bing Crosby, a contrived sitting room with Christmas decorations, or two hours of back to back Christmas carols. The Christmas Specials I’m talking about are the episodes of popular programs such as Doctor Who, Two Pints, and others that have specific Christmas themes and sometimes last longer than a normal episode. The Doctor Who specials, for example, are must-see-TV and often herald the new series that will start in the new year by dropping hints or introducing new recurring characters. Other programs use the Christmas special to bring back former characters or craft an entirely different story that has nothing to do with what’s going on in the regular series. It’s like a Christmas present from the show, and while some programs in the US have similar ideas I see this as unique to British television.

5. Nativity Plays in School.

Have you seen Love Actually? Do you remember the lobster and octopus that rode to the Nativity Play with Hugh Grant and Martine McCutcheon? While I understand that schools in the US also perform “Christmas Programs” just before the winter break (having been a participant in them myself many many years ago), I find it charming and just lovely that the schools put so much thought and time into their Christmas programming. I also find it, I will admit, a bit astonishing the amount of Christianity in the plays and pageants, but then I am reminded that I am living in a country now with a State religion, the Church of England.

4. It’s Flippin’ Cold!!

If you didn’t grow up having Christmas in the southern part of the United States, then this item won’t mean as much to you as it does to me. The temperature outside at Christmas when I was young could range from the 30sF to the 70sF, and I can’t remember a single one where we’ve had snow. There was ice occasionally, and it’s not nearly as beautiful and magical as one would think to have one’s yard turn into a skating rink. Also, having grown up watching people on TV shiver and pull up their collars around their ears while out Christmas shopping or warm up with a mug of cider or eggnog around a roaring fire while singing Christmas carols, I felt a bit cheated every year when my Christmas included iced tea and shorts (indoors at least).

I’m paying for all that envy in spades now that I live in the UK. Man alive is it cold here! The wind is gusty (if only to remind you that this is, after all, an island) and the air is frosty. It FEELS like Christmas here and has since about October, off and on. We have our odd warm days where the mercury climbs to a scorching 60 degrees and I see people outdoors in shorts, but those are few and far between. In fact, I’ve found myself thinking that I don’t need my hat if it’s not going to be below about 2C outside (35F) because I’ll be warm enough without it. When I lived in the states I didn’t go outside unless I had to when it was that cold!

But oddly enough, the British tendency to “Keep Calm and Carry On” seems to be rubbing off on me and I truly am not minding the cold as much as I did just after I moved here or two years ago when I visited over Christmas/New Year. It’s all about layers, public transport, and lots of cups of Yorkshire tea, friends.

3. German and Otherwise Christmas Markets

One of the best parts of living in the UK, in my opinion, is the abundance of markets. Keighley, for example, has a Farmer’s Market on the third Sunday of every month that is set up on the Church Green and has some of the best of local produce, butchers, and crafts. These markets happen every day of the year somewhere in the country. However, as Christmas draws near the items on offer change as the markets themselves change. There are “German Christmas Markets” that set up in cities across the UK and this website, Christmas, has a pretty comprehensive listing of “European Christmas Markets,” including offers for coach trips and mini-breaks (flight and all) to some of the markets around Europe.

Keighley’s Christmas Market is this weekend and I’m anxious to see how different it is from the regular Farmer’s Market. Wakefield, where I work, has a German Christmas Market (complete with bratwurst!!) that sets up around the Wakefield Cathedral and has been running every day for about two weeks now. I see the stalls with their festive red and white roofs on my way into work in the morning, and can smell the brats cooking on my way home in the afternoon. Leeds has a well-known Christkindelmarkt as well that runs into the evening, so it’s a must-see on the Thursday Late Night Shopping trips during the Christmas season.

2. Panto

For number two I had to think about something that my husband loves about Christmas in the UK that you don’t find in the US. This entry, I must admit, puzzles me slightly and makes me feel like an outsider because I just don’t get it. From our good friend, Wikipedia, we find this entry on Pantomime or “Panto” as it is called:

Traditionally performed at Christmas, with family audiences consisting mainly of children and parents, British pantomime is now a popular form of theatre, incorporating song, dance, buffoonery, slapstick, cross-dressing, in-jokes, audience participation, and mild sexual innuendo. There are a number of traditional story-lines, and there is also a fairly well-defined set of performance conventions. Lists of these items follow, along with a special discussion of the ‘guest celebrity’ tradition, which emerged in the late 19th century.

It is not uncommon during Christmas to see hordes of children being shepherded by tired and slightly frantic-looking teachers on public transport, headed for the local theatre to see the Christmas Panto. It is a huge deal every year to see which TV celebs are appearing in which Pantos. My husband has already been checking into tickets for us to see one in Leeds, I think, so I can report more if that happens. If I’m honest, though, it isn’t a Christmas tradition that I’m looking to join anytime soon.

1. Christmas Crackers

Last year my husband and I celebrated Christmas at the home of my sister, Susan, and her husband Dave (also known as the other part of TOB) and he made sure we had some British traditions on hand to make my husband feel at home. One of those is one of my favourite things about Christmas in the UK: Christmas Crackers. Again I turn to Wikipedia for a bit of history of the Christmas Cracker:

“Crackers were invented by Thomas J. Smith of London in 1847. He created the crackers as a development of his bon-bon sweets, which he sold in a twist of paper (the origins of the traditional sweet-wrapper). As sales of bon-bons slumped, Smith began to come up with new promotional ideas. His first tactic was to insert mottos into the wrappers of the sweets (cf. fortune cookies), but this had only limited success.

He was inspired to add the “crackle” element when he heard the crackle of a log he had just put on the fire. The size of the paper wrapper had to be increased to incorporate the banger mechanism, and the sweet itself was eventually dropped, to be replaced by a small gift. The new product was initially marketed as the Cosaque (i.e., Cossack), but the onomatopoeic “cracker” soon became the commonly used name, as rival varieties were introduced to the market. The other elements of the modern cracker, the gifts, paper hats and varied designs, were all introduced by Tom Smith’s son, Walter Smith, to differentiate his product from the many copycat cracker manufacturers which had suddenly sprung up.”

Sadly we can’t take them back and forth from the US to the UK because of the “banger” mechanism mentioned above – TSA tends to frown on exploding bits in luggage – so last year Dave bought them at a British shop stateside. I have to say I love this tradition and I don’t even mind wearing the paper hats found inside the crackers.

Happy Christmas!!

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