As a British person living and working in America, I’m used to being asked many varied and fascinating questions by Americans, including such whimsically interrogative gems as, “Do you have an accent?”, “Hey, where’s your accent from?”, and “You sound funny, is that an accent?” And while I’ve found that many aspects of British culture are considered confusing over here (yes, cricket is a real sport, and yes, a match can last for as long as five days), nothing seems to confound American visitors to England as much as our Christmas traditions. Here are the five most confusing aspects of an English yuletide, explained with as little charming sarcasm as being British will allow.
5. Pulling Christmas Crackers
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This is not, as you might expect, a euphemism for farting after Christmas dinner, although it is equally dumb. Like most things you grow up doing, I’d always assumed that everyone had crackers at Christmas, and it was only the first time I tried explaining one to somebody abroad that I realized how stupid they were. Essentially, it’s the inside of a roll of toilet paper (or as we would say, “bog roll,” because we’re hilarious), covered in colored paper and twisted at the ends. Inside the cardboard tube is a paper hat, a small toy of some kind (normally something shit, like a whistle or a plastic comb), and a joke so old it tends to be written on a piece of papyrus. Along with all these is a chemically impregnated card strip that makes a noise like a cap gun being fired when pulled apart, hence the name “cracker.” The cracker is pulled between two people, and whoever ends up with the larger half gets to keep the insides (we use the exact same rules when slaughtering our turkeys). The historical origins of the cracker are astonishingly dull and can be read here if you’re feeling masochistic, but these days they’re mostly used either as a way to break the familial tension before a meal (it’s hard to sustain a really vicious argument with your siblings when you’re both wearing multi-colored paper crowns) or as an amusingly novel way to make the family dog shit itself. All in all, they’re a complete waste of time and money, but then, isn’t that what Christmas is all about?
4. Celebrating Boxing Day
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This is what Brits call the day after Christmas, which is, fantastically, a public holiday. Don’t be fooled by the name – yes, we do tend to have hangover drinking-fuelled fisticuffs that spill out onto the street and scandalize the local vicar on Boxing Day, but that’s not where the name came from. No, it’s from something much more British: butlers. Because butlers – and other household servants – traditionally had to work on Christmas day, they were allowed to go home the following day to visit their families, taking with them a box (see? A box. It totally makes sense) of food generously donated by their masters. These days we celebrate this revered tradition by drinking all the leftover Advocaat at breakfast and falling asleep in front of an especially violent soccer riot on the television. Silly name aside, it’s fucking brilliant having the day after Christmas as a public holiday, and a tradition you should lay claim to as soon as possible. I know, I know – I’m just a silly European with all these weird, quaint ways, like free healthcare and 28 days’ paid vacation every year. What the hell do I know?
3. Watching The Queen’s Speech
Photo by John Stillwell / Landov
Not to be confused with that moderately amusing film about George VI, the Queen’s speech is more properly known as The Royal Christmas Message. A tradition beginning in 1932, when George V spoke to the nation through the magic of wireless (that’s an old-fashioned word for a radio, kids), every year on Christmas day, the reigning monarch gets themselves some TV airtime at 3pm and talks about the year that’s just passed. Now, this probably sounds somewhat dull to an American, but that’s where you’re wrong: It’s actually excruciatingly, eye-gougingly, nostril-pluckingly, pudding-shittingly dull, an exercise in childhood boredom that made me spend half an hour of every Christmas of my childhood trying to commit seppuku with a tiny plastic He-Man sword (I kid, I kid – my parents never bought me a He-Man. Instead I got Ballet Barbie so I could play with my sisters. It’s lucky I’m a well-rounded person - other people might have grown up sarcastic and bitter). Anyway, the Queen gets on TV, says a bunch of stuff about things her press secretary told her about while she was orbiting the Earth in her private, age-reversing spaceship, then looks sort of constipated for a few seconds before they fade out over the national anthem and everyone goes back to arguing over who’s turn it is to fish the chimney sweep’s dead body out of the flue with a big iron hook. It’s not a personal highlight, is what I’m saying here.
2. Eating Mince Pies
Courtesy of JMB
Mince pies are filled with something called mincemeat. And because we’re a contrary bunch, this mincemeat has no actual meat in it, despite containing both the word “meat” and “mince” (the British term for “ground beef”). No, instead, mincemeat is a sweet, fragrant mixture of chopped dried fruit, Christmas-y spices, and liquor, and it’s actually pretty damn good when surrounded by sugary pastry. Why we decided to give it such a frightening name is not, sadly, consigned to the dustbin (that’s “trash can” to you) of history: They actually did use to have real meats such as mutton in them, because, fuck you people in the past, that’s why. Americans always look hugely suspicious when offered a mince pie, and I can’t say I blame them, because most people in England have at least one half-mad old aunt that brings over a tin of rock-hard, semi-edible nightmares every Christmas that have all the subtle texture of a concrete shoe, so yes, there is a lot of margin for error here. But honestly, if you buy a packet (that’s “box”) from the shop (that’s “store”), they’re really rather lovely. They’re improved hugely, of course, by a dollop of brandy butter, which appears to be another oddball British taste sensation you people are missing. A healthy mixture of butter, sugar, and brandy, it’s a semi-hard white paste that tastes like drunken, cockney angels Morris dancing on your tongue, right before it causes all your teeth to spontaneously crumble into small piles of yellowy-brown dust (totally worth it).
1. Burning Christmas Puddings
Courtesy of Matt Riggott
This is probably the one that causes the most confusion, most likely because in England, the word “pudding” is interchangeable with “dessert,” rather than referring exclusively to the sludgy, colostomy bag-looking mush of artificially sweetened goop that you guys seem to so enjoy. Christmas pudding, specifically, is a spherical ball of fruitcake that we like to set on fire, and – where are you going? I swear to God, this is absolutely true. Christmas pudding is a super-stodgy mix of suet, treacle, brandy, sweet spices, and dried fruits that, once devoured, sits in your stomach like a cannon ball and, in defiance of all modern notions of physics, somehow increases in mass over time to the point where anyone walking too close to you will be helplessly sucked into your belly’s awesome gravitational pull. The taste itself is alarming to newcomers, but once smothered in the ubiquitous brandy butter, it’s not half bad. Of course, the brandy plays a key role here – no one in history has ever eaten a Christmas pudding while sober, which probably accounts for the most important part of the tradition: Lighting it on fire. Normally achieved by pouring half a bottle of brandy over the thing and then dropping a lighted match in its immediate vicinity, the festive ritual mostly involves one of your parents frantically staggering about the room in the dark, the wildly blazing pudding in their oven-mitted hands threatening to set the ceiling on fire while they scream for directions to the table. At least, that was always my experience of Christmas pudding, but that may be because my mum gave our pudding daily brandy injections with a giant medical syringe in the two months leading up to Christmas, so ours went off like a fucking rocket.
So that’s it – now you can go to Britain and not be confused when someone asks you if you fancy a swift half and a bag of crisps before hopping on the tube back to your flat when the footie comes on the telly. Right?
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