Christmas in England, For Realz

December 25, 2000, Monday – Christmas Day

After a good lie-in, we were up …

A Clarke-Chavez family tradition: a photo of the child as he enters the living room on Christmas morning.

A Clarke-Chavez family tradition: a photo of the child as he enters the living room on Christmas morning.

Then we went off to mass—back to the church for more wonderful Christmas carols. Jesse and I are used to singing harmony—we both trained as musicians and come from a church tradition that encourages multiple-part harmony in hymn-singing—but the children in front of us kept looking around and staring at us. They couldn’t understand why we weren’t singing the melody, and indicated this with their frowns and perturbation. Had to laugh!

We returned home for a big breakfast, which included scrambled eggs with smoked salmon. Although it broke his heart, Eoin graciously made mine without salmon, because you all know how I feel about things that swim (I don’t eat them), even if they are very expensive. And smoked.

Afterward we retired to the living room to open gifts …

Yes, I brought Jesse’s Christmas stocking all the way from Tennessee, and gifts for everyone too. This was pre-September 11, so one could travel with wrapped gifts in one’s suitcase.

Yes, I brought Jesse’s Christmas stocking all the way from Tennessee, and gifts for everyone too. This was pre-September 11, so one could travel with wrapped gifts in one’s suitcase.

… though each time we began with the unwrapping, it seemed, there came a knock on the door. It was (separately) the neighbors from both sides, dropping in to say hi. This must be an English custom: the Christmas Day afternoon visit. They were lovely folks—a bit surprised to find Yanks in the living room—and we promised a return visit later.

We did finally get to the prezzies!

We did finally get to the prezzies!

After the gift-opening ceremonies, we settled in for a lazy afternoon with our treasures and the telly; the BBC really does have some fabulous programming.

Watching the Queen’s Christmas Day speech. Er, the Royal Christmas Message.

Watching the Queen’s Christmas Day speech. Er, the Royal Christmas Message.

We even listened to the Queen’s annual Christmas message, broadcast at 3pm. (Here’s a rough video of it. The actual speaking starts around 4:45 but the preceding bit was all a part of the program—a recap of what she’d done that year. It’s interesting to view now, in 2014; how very young the princes look!)

I guess really I should say Anna, Jesse, and I settled in for a lazy afternoon, because Eoin—who you may have guessed by now loves to cook—busied himself in the kitchen with “Nellie Dean,” which is his family’s code word for the big turkey.

Someone’s in the kitchen with Delia … Delia Smith, that is. And yes, I returned to the States with a Delia Smith cookbook. :)

Someone’s in the kitchen with Delia … Delia Smith, that is. And yes, I returned to the States with a Delia Smith cookbook. 🙂

(One notable feature of the photo above is the refrigerator. Can you see it? It’s the white, below-the-counter fixture to Eoin’s left. Yanks will wonder how in the world they could make do with such a tiny fridge, but due to the climate, Anna and Eoin were able to keep many items in their cabinets that we would have to keep refrigerated—like, say, open jars of jam. Yes, God help me, I was constantly cold, but I imagine you get used to it. Clearly Eoin was quite comfortable in shirtsleeves.)

Calling the relatives on Christmas Day—a tradition on both sides of the pond!

Calling the relatives on Christmas Day—a tradition on both sides of the pond!

In the very late afternoon, then, we sat down to a traditional English Christmas dinner. And it was wonderful: roast turkey, bread stuffing, roast potatoes, gravy, sausages (yes), “bread pudding” (which is not what we Americans think of when one says bread pudding, but was like a thick white gravy, eaten with/on the turkey), and lovely vegetables, including julienned carrots (some of you know that with my love for all things carrot I can willingly stand at the kitchen counter for hours chopping them—there is a zen to it—but I have to tell you that Eoin’s carrots were, simply, perfection), fresh brussels sprouts with bacon (Anna, Jesse, and I love these, though Eoin does not; but he made them because they are very, very traditional), and parsnips baked in Parmesan cheese (seriously, yummy as french fries). We also opened a bottle of champagne I’d purchased in France for this occasion.

A funny story about the champagne: Eoin had become so engrossed in the cooking of the meal that he’d neglected to chill the champagne, so, in time-honored fashion, he’d stuck the thing, at the last minute, into the freezer. Then when he began to unwrap the cork, it popped out of the bottle on its own, hit the ceiling, and our lovely French bubbly spewed right after it (I have a photo of Eoin cleaning the ceiling). While Anna and I laughed hysterically, Eoin quickly bent over and sucked the foaming champagne out of the top of the bottle. (Well, wouldn’t you? It was Bollinger, for heaven’s sake! Let’s not waste a drop!) Later Eoin said sheepishly it was a measure of how comfortable they’d become with us that he would have done such a thing.

There was another English Christmas tradition to observe: I’d been eyeing the “Christmas crackers”—a cylindrical wrapped gift with filled with trinkets, a silly paper hat, and a joke or riddle on a slip of paper—Anna had placed at each plate. After we cleared the table, we popped them by crossing our arms and grasping the ends of two different crackers—ours and that of the person to our left—and pulling. POP! Out spilled the treats and the silly paper hat, which we then had to don for the rest of the day. Believe me, when I first heard of this tradition, months ago, I thought, No way am I donning a silly paper hat, but … well, I did. We all did. And it was good.

Anna and Eoin, post-cracker, wearing silly paper hats.

Anna and Eoin, post-cracker, wearing silly paper hats.

Jesse, also wearing a silly paper hat. :)

Jesse, also wearing a silly paper hat. 🙂

At last, dessert: eight weeks in the making, the oh-so traditional “Christmas pudding”—which you may also know as plum pudding or (yes, Virginia, it’s true) figgy pudding.* Doused in brandy and set alight, it was a spectacular conclusion to the meal. (Remembering, of course, that we were still wearing our silly hats. In fact, we were still wearing our silly hats hours later, sprawled in front of the television, laughing ourselves senseless at a parody of the movie Titanic.) For some, I imagine (say, unaccustomed American palates), Christmas pudding is an acquired taste; we have nothing in this country to compare it to (nothing, that is, that I know of from my unsophisticated Midwestern upbringing). So I’ll describe it as a cross between mincemeat filling and fruitcake, made in a mold with lots of brandy. Very, very rich. I ate a big ol’ piece of it, and so did Jesse. Merry Christmas!

* It’s interesting to me that this word—pudding—can have three so very distinct meanings, all food related. My Merriam-Webster Unabridged lists the first as blood sausage; I’ve seen this usage predominantly in Ireland (black pudding, white pudding). The second meaning in my dictionary is three-part: 1) a boiled or baked soft food usually with a cereal base, like corn pudding or bread pudding; 2) a dessert of a soft, spongy, or thick creamy consistency, like chocolate pudding (this is the sort of pudding Americans think of first, I believe); or 3) an all-purpose word used by the British for dessert. The third definition is a dish often containing suet or having a suet crust and originally boiled in a bag, like steak and kidney pudding. This is pudding the English refer to when they mention Christmas pudding.

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