Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.

It turns what we have into enough...

.........and more.

It turns denial into acceptance,
chaos to order, confusion to clarity.

It can turn a meal into a feast,

a house into a home,

a stranger into a friend.

~Melody Beattie

Don't be satisfied with stories,

how things have gone with others.

***Unfold your own myth.***

I hope you will go out and let stories,

that is life, happen to you, and that

you will work with these stories . . .

water them with your blood &

tears & your laughter till they bloom,

till you yourself burst into bloom.

~Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Learning the British Christmas Vocabulary

“Christmas is the season for kindling
 the fire of hospitality in the hall,
 the genial flame of charity in the heart. ”
~Washington Irving, 'Old Christmas'

Before I spent my first Christmas in England 18 years ago, I had a fixed idea in my mind of what a British Christmas was. A lot of my notions probably came from Dickens' A Christmas Carol or Washington Irving's Old Christmas and, like any good Anglophile, my idea of an English Christmas was very romanticised. It didn't take long to realise though, just how different a true British Christmas is to the Christmas card images in my mind and as it turns out, how different it is from an American Christmas. I even had to learn a new Yuletide vocabulary.  But even though it turned out to be very different than my imaginings, I quickly learned to love (most) things about a British Christmas. Here are just a few.....

There is no British Christmas without the CHRISTMAS CRACKERS, and boxes of them start appearing in shops sometime in September. They're as essential to the Christmas lunch as turkey and Christmas pudding. Each person takes an end and pulls until there's a little pop like a New Year's Eve popper.

You don't want to end up with the short end because the person left with the cracker gets to keep whatever's inside. There's always a joke or riddle that's read aloud, a tissue paper crown that everyone wears as they gather around the table, and a small toy or a 'useful' (useless) item like plastic nail clippers. Every year I see more and more Christmas crackers appearing back in the U.S., and it's nice to see the tradition spreading--seeing a table full of people all wearing paper crowns is one of the joys of Christmas.
There are boxes of Christmas crackers
in almost any pattern imaginable.

The paper crowns are essential
and no one gets out of wearing one.

The Christmas turkey with stuffng
balls and 'pigs in a blanket'.
CHRISTMAS LUNCH  is what Americans call Christmas dinner, and in Britain it's usually eaten at mid-day. Turkey made the trans-Atlantic crossing and usually graces the Christmas table these days, but many families still have duck or goose. Christmas lunch comes with all of the trimmings--potatoes roasted in duck or goose fat, brussel sprouts, little sausages wrapped in bacon called Pigs in a Blanket and stuffing. After Christmas, turkey left-overs get a curried make-over into Coronation Chicken or a Christmas turkey curry--something I haven't quite embraced, it's still turkey and cranberry in our house.

"Oh, a wonderful pudding! Bob Cratchit said,
and calmly too, that he regarded it as the
greatest success achieved by Mrs Cratchit 
since their marriage. […]Everybody had
something to say about  it, but nobody said or
thought it was at all a small pudding
 for a large family. It would have
been flat heresy to do so."
~Charles Dickens, 'A Christmas Carol'

The cornerstones of the British
Christmas -- mince pies, Christmas
pudding and Christmas cake.

Mrs. Cratchett carried her flaming Christmas Pudding topped with a sprig of holly, in to her anxiously waiting family, just as people had done for centuries before. The Christmas pudding, sometimes called Figgy Pudding which is a lighter version, has been at the centre of Christmas celebrations in Britain since the 16th century. Stuart calls it a Christmas 'pud', but in our home when I was growing up it was called 'plum pudding'.

The English Christmas pudding tastes similar to what Americans know as fruitcake--something most Americans hate, is the butt of many jokes, and re-gifting tins of Christmas fruitcake is a long-standing tradition. Maybe it's because I grew up with my mom's lighter plum pudding, but I've grown to love the darker and richer English Christmas 'pud', warm with brandy butter.

Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
 Oh, bring us a figgy pudding
and a cup of good cheer.
 We won't go until we get some;
We won't go until we get some;
 We won't go until we get some,
so bring some out here!
~We Wish You a Merry Christmas

Traditionally Stir-up Sunday, which falls on the Sunday before the first Sunday in Advent, is when Christmas puddings were made and then cured until Christmas. The term comes from the opening words of the collect in the Book of Common Prayer 1549: “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.”

Stirring the Pudding 
 Stem the currants
Stone the raisins
Chop the peel as fine as fine
Eat the eggs and shred the sweet
Grate the crumbs (no flour in mine)
Freely shake, to make it nice,
All the virtue of the spice
Pour the brandy liberally 
 Stir and wish, then, 
three times three.
~Eleanor Farjeon,
English poet, 1881-1965

Most everything about a Christmas
pudding carries significance.....

๐Ÿ’šA pudding should be made with 13 ingredients
to represent Christ and His Disciples. 

๐Ÿ’šThe sprig of holly on top is often used
 as a reminder of the crown of thorns
worn by Christ on the cross.

๐Ÿ’šSetting the brandy alight is said
to represent Christ’s passion.

๐Ÿ’šA six-pence is traditionally stirred into the

batter for one lucky person to find on Christmas.

Stuart and I are most excited when the MINCE PIES start showing up in shops, and even in their gold or red boxes, they're flaky, fresh, and fruity. We go through boxes of them by the time New Years rolls around (they're small, so no judgement, just muffin tin size--that's what we tell ourselves anyway). Mince pies have gone through quite a transformation through the centuries, judging by this medieval recipe......

Mince and mix beef, suet of mutton, salt and
pepper. Make a faire large cofyn (basket or box),
and put in some of this meat. Then take capons,
hennes, mallardes, connynges …wodecokkes, teles,
grete birddes and plom hem in a boiling potte;
and then couch al this fowl in the coffyn.
Add more of the meat and mutton as well as
marrow, hard egg yolks, dates, raisins, prunes,
cloves, mace, cinnamon, and saffron. Close the
pie with a top crust and bake…but be ware, of
thou close it, that there come no saffron nygh
the brinkes therof, for then hit wol never close.

Now, though smaller and thankfully only with spiced fruit, mince pies are still a fixture throughout the Christmas season. It's not unusual to attend a Christmas concert or carol service and have mince pies and mulled wine served at the end. Stuart and I break open our first box of them sometime in November and it's a race to see who can eat the most before New Year--so far we're tied.๐Ÿ˜‰

An 18th Century mince pie recipe.
This is just how seriously mince pies are taken--
the scene at our local Marks & Spencer before Christmas.

A British CHRISTMAS CAKE is a dark 
and heavy fruitcake with royal icing. 
sincerely doubt that this American
will ever develop a taste for it, but
 it's the beloved focal point for many 
Christmas lunches. 

The worst gift is a fruitcake. There is
only one fruitcake in the entire world,
 and people keep sending it to each other.
 ~Johnny Carson

And this is where most Americans
 stand on the issue of fruitcake.
(Courtesy of Gary Larson)

The day after Christmas Day is called BOXING DAY,  and was traditionally the day servants would receive a box of gifts and leftover food. Tradesmen would also go around and pick up 'Christmas Boxes' in thanks for their service throughout the year.  Now it's an extra holiday the day after Christmas (as well as our wedding anniversary๐Ÿ’–).

One of the biggest differences between an American and a British Christmas, is that shops and businesses shut their doors on Christmas Eve and most don't reopen until the day after Boxing Day on the the 27th, something Americans haven't seen for decades. It's a perfect way to extend the time family and friends have to celebrate together and share leftovers (even if some of those left-overs are that old festive standby, 'Christmas turkey curry').

Most shops and smaller stores
close until after Boxing Day.

THE CHRISTMAS 'PANTO' is one of my favourite British Christmas traditions.  A 'panto', or pantomime, is performed at Christmas and is something for the whole family--from the littlest ones to grandparents. It's a slapstick musical/comedy based on a fairy tale or a children's book, full of song, dance, men dressed as women, buffoonery and catch-phrases.

For instance, if a villain is sneaking up behind the hero, the audience shouts out "Behind you!!!"  There's always a hero/heroine, a villain, and a comic lead who will yell out to the audience "Oh yes he did!!", and the audience shouts back, "Oh no he didn't".  It's so traditionally English that it's hard to describe it to a person who hasn't experienced one. My first panto was in the Cotswold village of Chipping Norton, where we saw Aladdin (and I also met most of Stuart's family for the first time, so between that and the panto, I wondered what on earth I was getting myself into). But 18 years on, I'm still here and still love the Christmas pantos. This year's pantomime in Oxford is 'Cinderella', and we already have our tickets.

This was us at the Oxford panto several
years ago--it truly is for every age
in our family....from 8 to 80.

My final two very British Christmas traditions will make more sense if you've seen the movie Love Actually, which is usually the first Christmas movie we watch every year. It follows the stories of a dozen or so Londoners as they navigate the Christmas season, their lives overlapping and eventually connecting through love, actually.

 In 'Love Actually' Bill Nighy plays an aging
rock star desperate for a Christmas Number One.
THE CHRISTMAS NUMBER ONE is simply the number one selling single on the pop charts at Christmas, and it's nearly always the best selling song of the year.  Such illustrious songs as Wham's 'Last Christmas' only made it to the number two spot, many are record setting songs, but some are pretty dire novelty songs. Here's a small sampling:

1963 - The Beatles I Want to Hold Your Hand
1971 - Benny Hill  Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)
1975 - Queen  Bohemian Rhapsody
1980 - St. Winifred's School Choir  There's No One Quite Like Grandma
1984 - Band Aid   Do They Know It's Christmas
1993 - Mr. Blobby  Mr Blobby
2000 - Bob the Builder  Can We Fix It
2003 - Michael Andrews & Gary Jules  Mad World
2011 - Military Wives with Gareth Malone  Wherever You Are

The "works do" in 'Love Actually' when
Alan Rickman was up to no good--boo, hiss.

We "hate Uncle Jamie" & we hate this girl!
THE 'WORKS DO' is the office Christmas party.  It took me a little while to figure this one out, in fact it wasn't until I moved to Britain permanently that I deciphered what this grammatical nightmare meant.

It's the big, yearly office or workplace Christmas party and it seems that for some people at least, it's planned for and anticipated almost as much as Christmas Day.  Magazines and catalogues are full of flirty dresses and shiny shoes by the end of November, as women strategically plan their outfits with military precision.  Other than Stuart and I sharing a mince pie and some mulled wine in our kitchen, I'm forever grateful that I have no actual office or workplace to have a 'Works Do', so I'll never have to endure one.

The quintessential American Christmas--
the Christmas tree and ice skating at the
Rockefeller Center, New York City.
There are so many other small and nuanced differences in the way the British and the Americans celebrate Christmas, and in the weeks leading up to Christmas there are things that I miss from back home.  I miss all the houses lit up with Christmas lights outside, Salvation Army bell-ringers and carollers, and the vast array of Christmas cookies that great-great grandchildren of Norwegian, Swedish, and German immigrants bake every Christmas.

Growing up the daughter of a Lutheran
pastor meant that at Christmas our home
was full of gifts of krumkake (above),
butter cookies (spritz), 
berlinerkranser, and sandbakelse.
In the past we've always headed back home to the U.S. in mid-December, which means I get the best of both worlds at Christmas. I never have to endure a 'works do' or 'Christmas turkey curry', but I indulge in plenty of mince pies, pantos, and Christmas puds before heading home to the Christmas lights, carollers and Christmas cookies.

An American farmhouse, lit for Christmas. 
It's a scene duplicated from the
Atlantic to the Pacific and in all the cities,

small towns, and farmlands in between.
This year though, Stuart and I are staying put in Oxford for Christmas and New Years. We'll have family visiting, the house to ourselves, put up not one but two Christmas trees, and whatever doesn't move will be decorated with holly, ivy, evergreen boughs, cinnamon sticks, Santas and snowmen--or even if it does move, like Jack for instance........

It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of
things, that while  there is infection in disease
and sorrow, there is nothing in the  world so
irresistibly contagious as laughter
and good humour.      
~Charles Dickens, 'A Christmas Carol'

'I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to
keep it all the year.  I will live in the Past,
the Present, and the Future.  The
Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.  
I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.'  
~Ebeneezer Scrooge

Have a wonderful December & 
Holiday Season.

Carrie, Stuart,
and Jack


  1. Hi Carrie! That was wonderfully informative and entertaining!! I'll have to admit to the chagrin of most of my fellow countrymen and family, that I happen to LOVE fruitcake!! I don't know why! I just have -- all of my life!! Perhaps I have an overdose of English blood -- I suspect I do through my Dad!! But it was my Canadian (PEI) Grandmother that introduced all of us to "Plum Pudding" at an early age, and I still love and serve that, too. I didn't know all the symbolism though, and that was very interesting to read. We do Boxing Day every year with Ann and Lowell by having scones and jam and clotted cream and tea (though that's probably not how the British celebrate it!) It just seems appropriate since scones & tea are so British!. I'd love the Pantos and sorry we have no equivalent, but like you, am just fine without the "Works Do"!! I'd also love the stores closed for a few days and everyone just celebrate. Anyway, all of this intertwining of customs makes us seem close to each other as Americans and British. I hope you have the MERRIEST (of should I say HAPPIEST) of Christmases with your family in your idyllic, Dickens-like setting. Thank you again, for such a lovely blog! And for more photos of Jack! He's just the perfect touch to any Christmas! Jane xoxo

    1. It sounds like you have many wonderful traditions gleaned from your English ancestry. We hope you have the Happiest of Christmases too and many blessings in the New Year.xxxooo Carrie & Jack

  2. This post is a Christmas gift that has been on my wish list for a long time. I especially love reading older books with stories of the 'true British Christmas' and have gathered bits and pieces of traditions, but longed for a larger portrait. There is a difference between Figgy Pudding and Christmas Pudding and Plum Pudding?? I had thought those titles referred to the same dessert. And brandy butter? Oh my! I'd never heard of 'Stir-up Sunday', and it now makes perfect sense, of course. Why don't we have it in the US? Love the 18th Century 'minc'd pye receipt', and now can't wait to get busy and 'chop the peel as fine as fine'. The photos of Coles puddings sent me to their website and from there to other online British markets - so fun! Everything about 14 Holywell is already so darling, to hear you describe how you decorate (thoroughly) brings up visions of everything lovely about Christmastime. And Jack is SO ADORABLE in his holiday finery :) Another post I will return to again and again ~ thank you dear Carrie! xoxo

    1. Have you ever read Washington Irving's 'Old Christmas'? If you love reading old books about Christmas, you love this one. It's one of my favourites--wonderful traditions mixed with some gentle humour and the spirit of a bygone era. Stir-Up Sunday is still very much practised in the Church of England, with lots of other family activities surrounding it--like paper-chain making. I'm so glad I was able to add to your Christmas spirit and we hope you have the happiest of holidays and many, many good things in the New Year. xxxooo Carrie & Jack

  3. Carrie, thank you for the lesson on British Christmases. Jack looks like a Christmas Card you'd buy in the store! What you had to say about the fruit cake is so true--re-gifting!

    1. You're very welcome Cathy--and there's so much more I could have added about the British Christmas, but then it would have been a book rather than a blog post. And we agree on fruitcake! Re-gifting or a doorstop. ;-) xxxooo Carrie & Jack

  4. Thank you for sharing the differences between A British and American Christmas. I've never had mince meat but knew that meat was no longer an ingredient.

    1. You're so welcome & hopefully one day you can try a little mincemeat pie. We just bought two more boxes today in fact--and it's only December 1st! Thank you for stopping by.

  5. Oh gosh, you make it sound so idyllic, Carrie, but I can't imagine Christmas anywhere but here in usually snowy Northern Indiana for the holidays. It could be because of the nine years I felt like an alien as we celebrated Christmas amid palms and Spanish Oak trailing moss, shopping in shorts...well, you can imagine.

    It was so lovely finally getting my real Christmases back 20 yrs ago that I couldn't bear to not be here where Amish sleigh bells really do ring and shopping attire involves snowboots and mittens. But thank you for giving me a wondrous glimpse into the holiday fun of my friends across the pond.

    1. You're so very welcome Sara. Growing up in the mid-west, I know the kind of Christmases you love so well. There's nothing like houses lit up with Christmas lights in the snow, or Christmas shopping as the snowflakes fall. I still have the jingle bell harness we used to put on my horse--big, nickle bells that have that perfect sound.

      It sounds like you're just where you are meant to be and have a lovely Christmas and a very happy New Year. xxxooo Carrie

  6. that was delightful.... I can taste the mince pies now!!! Remembering grandma Clara's flaming plum pudding!!! Thank you for sharing... My friend Zoe tells o making her Dundee Cakes early in October so they can really meld with the brandy!!! I miss spritz cookies and can never quite get them to look the same... little green trees... wreaths with a chip of candied cherry at the top.. but then, talking with my girls there are things about our Christmases they love and miss... fresh lefse... tea rings ... frutta soup... ah... miss and love you!!!!