Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen, When the snow lay ’round about, deep and crisp and even.Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel, When a poor man came in sight, gathering winter fuel.
If there ever was a song to tug at the damp heart of an Englishman at Christmas, this would be it. A cruel frost, a benign royal and a peasant who “knows his place” stoically gathering fuel to keep his presumably shivering family warm. Having lived in Southern California for 20 years, and having spent a sizable portion of my childhood in Gibraltar, the cheery bleakness of that carol doesn’t resonate as strongly with me as it might with other Brits. But still I recall Christmas dinners with extended family, endured rather than enjoyed, because in Britain, life is often a thing one suffers with a stiff upper lip. And never more so than at Christmas.
Walking into Tracey Cleantis’ home office in Pasadena’s San Rafael district, one encounters all the elements of a relaxing spa — soft lighting; the aroma of a scented candle in the air; plush, inviting couches and chairs. It’s an appropriately welcoming, stress-free place. As a licensed marriage and family ther, C If eer If there ever In England, Christmas dinner really means Christmas lunch, served early enough on Christmas Day so that everybody can eat and drink as much as they can manage, and leave the table just in time to turn on the television to watch the queen’s Christmas message. Her Majesty spends 10 minutes reflecting on moments the royal family has enjoyed during the past year, as well as touching on public tragedies, always ending by wishing her subjects a wonderful year ahead. Whereupon the adults pour another sherry or make another gin and tonic and eventually succumb to the heat and the alcohol and fall asleep in their armchairs.
What’s this, I hear you say, it’s hot in Britain at Christmas? No, indeed it is not. It’s almost invariably as cold and damp as a gravedigger’s socks, but perhaps in remembrance of the peasant gathering winter fuel, homes are heated to equatorial temperatures during the holidays, particularly the homes of seniors. Pallid, cold Anglo-Saxon skin is warmed next to a fire, real or otherwise, until the legs and cheeks are splotched with red, a pattern my mother likes to call “fireside tartan.”
Americans living in Britain had better be fans of Thanksgiving, because in Britain “the bird” means a turkey. In bygone days, at least for persons of means, it would have been a goose, but at some point in the 20th century, the goose fell out of favor. Perhaps it had too much flavor and needed to be replaced with something less delicious, lest too much enjoyment be had? As a small act of mercy, the turkey is sometimes surrounded by bacon-wrapped mini-sausages, known as chipolatas. But that pleasure must be paid for, so the British turkey is served, not with cranberry sauce, but instead with “bread sauce.” If ever two words formed an oxymoron in combination, it’s this pair — but bread sauce indeed it is. Made from breadcrumbs, milk, onion, mace, cloves, butter and cream, it’s a thickish sauce that, left for a few days, makes a reasonable substitute for wallpaper paste, should one’s wallpaper be peeling from the combination of cold exterior moisture and Indonesian temperatures inside.
Now, it wouldn’t be a British celebration if it didn’t involve the possibility of unnecessary embarrassment or personal discomfort, so at the dinner table every place setting has a Christmas cracker. This isn’t a cracker in the American sense of the word, one you might eat topped with cheese. The Christmas cracker is a cardboard tube wrapped in colored paper, twisted at the ends to give you something to grip.
Inside is a tiny explosive device, a plastic toy, a paper crown and a piece of paper with a bad joke printed on it. Think of it as a cross between a fortune cookie and a piñata! You grab one end of the cracker while the person next to you grabs the other end, all around the table. Then you pull hard, the cracker’s explosive device goes off, the cracker’s end comes off and whoever has the main part of the cracker still in his/her hand gets to keep the contents. Everybody places the paper crowns on their heads for the duration of dinner. What could be more fun? For a nation of people raised on the idea that one shouldn’t draw attention to oneself, wearing a paper crown at the dinner table is about as much fun as self-immolation or suddenly realizing that one is naked in public. Thankfully, at a British Christmas dinner, the only thing being set on fire is the dessert. Christmas pudding is basically a cake made from suet, dried fruits and spices, which is then boiled, aged for several months, then doused in brandy at the dinner table and ignited. What could possibly go wrong? A blazing dish, in close proximity to drunk people wearing paper hats. Nothing to see here, folks!
If this all sounds a little bleak, fret not. Anglophiles in the U.S. can incorporate a few British touches into their festivities without going “the full English breakfast,” as it were.
Mince pies are a delicious treat — a flaky shortcrust pastry case dusted with icing sugar, filled with another variation of moistened dried fruit, but lighter than Christmas pudding. They’re delicious with some whipped cream, especially if said cream has a little Baileys Irish Cream liqueur whipped in! Mission Liquor and Bristol Farms often carry some leading up to the holidays. Cheese lovers might enjoy the British tradition of Stilton served with a glass of port. It was a favorite of Princess Diana. Just remember when passing the port bottle around the table, you always pass to the left, because pointless traditions matter in this sceptered isle! Mini Christmas crackers are also available and can be fun to pass to guests with a drink when they arrive. As with everything in life, the more you spend, the more you get, so pay a little more to get better party favors inside. Finally, remember the British tradition of taking the Christmas tree down before Twelfth Night (after Christmas, that is — January 6, for the math-challenged), lest you be cursed with a year of bad luck, an annus horribilis that nobody wants.
Happy holidays, and don’t forget the chipolatas!
For chipolatas, Christmas crackers, Christmas puddings, mince pies and other seasonal treats, visit Rose Tree Cottage’s English Village Shop, 801 S. Pasadena Ave., Pasadena. Daily hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Call (626) 793-3337 or visit rosetreecottage.com. While you’re there, pick up a gardening book or a classic like Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit — book proceeds benefit Bloom Where Planted, Rose Tree Cottage’s African Children’s Charitable Foundation (bloomwhereplanted.org).