“Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful. ”
― Norman Vincent Peale
“Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”
― Dr. Seuss,
There are a million and one think pieces about nostalgia, disenchantment, or even doldrums during the holiday season, but the truth is that I don’t really agree. I love Christmas and am 100% on board the idea of a season of the year dedicated to friends and family, giving, tradition, belief (if so inclined), and peace.
However I will admit that Christmas as an adult is certainly more effortful–it’s easy to believe in the magic of the season as a kid, but trickier as an adult. Christmas becomes and requires harder work the older I get. Jeff and I were speaking recently about how we haven’t really felt very Christmas-y this year and I’ve come to the conclusion it’s because I haven’t had to put much elbow grease into it.
In seven and a half years of marriage we’ve only done two Christmases by ourselves, the first year in London and last. Even though we were away from family, I felt downright elf-like in my enthusiasm, especially the first year. But thinking back on it, I bought a (tiny) tree, we went to Christmas services at Westminster Abbey, and I did the traditional Rodgers Family spread for Christmas Eve dinner. We went to Christmas markets, had to organize our shopping and shipping carefully instead of schlepping presents home in a suitcase, and generally expended energy to celebrate the holiday.
Tradition is my byword for the season. So much of what I love about Christmas is bound up in the traditions my family espoused, adopted, or created. From putting our shoes out for St. Nicholas to fill with candy to opening a single group present on Christmas Eve (inevitably a group game for the whole family to play together), to our usual Christmas morning breakfast (baked french toast with peaches and pecans), there are a lot of elements that go into making the holidays for me. Decorations that I recognize from childhood, albums ditto, pots of wassail bubbling away on the stove…it’s package experience.
Conversely, when we’ve done Christmas at one of our family’s the majority of our holiday efforts (and finances) revolve around making it across the Atlantic and trying to be good guests. A huge amount of the work is usually undertaken by someone else–shoutout to our mothers! The lazy side of me appreciates and enjoys this tremendously, but I’m noticing that the shine has started to come off the holiday in recent years and I think it’s a direct result of not having to put too much effort into celebrating it.
This year saw us travelling stateside a lot; the total will be three trips jointly and a fourth for Jeff. Though one of these was generously paid for unbelievably kind parents, we aren’t planning to travel stateside in 2017 as a result and, at least where the holidays are concerned, I think this might be a good thing. Not that we won’t miss family, we will, but I’m feeling the need to put effort into the season next year. I want to buy our first proper Christmas tree in nearly a decade of marriage, decorate the house a bit, maybe even throw a party for friends. I want to recreate my own family traditions and toss a few new ones into the mix (Jeff has some thoughts on a Christmas Eve breakfast as well as Christmas Day).
In short, I want to work for it a bit more.
Every year I see these guys and every year they attract masses of smiling people and dancing kids. Globalization is tricky and it definitely has its downsides; but as a species, guys, when we get it right, the results are kind of great.
― Craig Ferguson
It’s almost hilarious to write this up since we’re heading to the States in a week for our Christmas holiday, but ’tis what it is. Jeff is studying for his next round of exams (that guy is a champ…if you add in kindergarten, he’s been taking tests of some kind now for 24 years…) and my work gig has kept me busier than I’ve been in months. Which is saying something!
It’s an odd thing to dash from work to Thanksgiving dinner, but that’s what happened perforce. After my plans last year to eat at The Mayflower were scuppered by Jeff’s Christmas do, we finally made it this year. The Mayflower is a charming pub that crams in and absolutely revels in every stereotype you can imagine. Obviously it’s proud of its history and plays up the connection to the ship Mayflower (which was moored near the site of the pub in the 17th century before heading off to the New World, and whose captain lies buried in the vault of St Mary’s across the street), but it also indulges its connections to other maritime history in the area and general Britishness. The walls are covered in quotes about food and drink from literature, sailing paraphernalia covers the walls, and paintings and photos of Rotherhithe through the last centuries abound.
It was a very British way to celebrate the only real, genuine American holiday but we loved it. The place was full of Brits and expats celebrating the day, a few of my country were made patriotic by wine and at one point we were serenaded with an off key but heartfelt rendition of America the Beautiful, and the food (though miles short of home cooking) was surprisingly good.
“How goes your week of not observing thanksgiving due to living under the oppressive rule of the tyrannical Queen Elizabeth II?”
“Ahem. I am partaking of Thanksgiving dinner this year at a pub called The Mayflower, situated near the site where the Mayflower ship was originally moored before setting off to the Netherlands and then New World, and across the street from the church where the Captain of the Mayflower is buried. Why, what tawdry, subpar festivities are you enjoying?”
“That’s awesome! I’m just taking a bunch of Raleigh Tavern pies over the river and through the woods to the family dinner…going to avoid the kitchen since that one time I made a turkey. I also made an oven fire (which was, however, my roommate’s fault).”
“Last year I had takeaway curry.”
– Katarina and C.
“God for Harry, England, and St George!”
– Shakespeare, Henry V
It’s St George’s Day, celebrated with bunting and pub crawls (like an awful lot of British feast days). What’s not to like? I love a good borderline mythological figure as much as the next medievalist, but truthfully it’s the dragon that gets me. I’ve had a thing for them ever since childhood.
My first ever published short story was composed at the tender age of about 13 and was titled, “The Guide to Saving Princesses,” an instruction manual for prospective heroes about choosing suitable princesses, negotiating with dragons to make sure the climatic fights look real, and general career tips for knight-errantry. It was terribly clever, she said without a hint of bias.
In university I conducted a bit of research into how St. George’s victim in the middle ages is often portrayed with female genitalia as his legend shifted to include ideas about romanticized chastity and virginity. Since in the middle ages it was the female sex that was considered particularly susceptible to lust rather than the male. Hm…
Tolkien’s Smaug is one of my favorite characters ever, but my favorite dragon-slaying story of all time has to be his historically satirical and incredibly clever, Farmer Giles of Ham. The vintage copy still in my mother’s possession was illustrated with medieval style drawings and she read it to me as a child and animated the dog Garm’s hysterical “Help, help!” cries in a way that still makes me laugh today. I might have to reread it in honor of the day. Anyone else celebrating?
“We must have a pie. Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie.”
― David Mamet, Boston Marriage
“Pie” means something quite different in Britain than in does in the US. Most pies Stateside are sweet concoctions of fruit and/or cream, trotted out typically in times of celebration. Pies over here are usually meat and vegetable dishes (mostly meat, let’s be honest) in some form of gravy or sauce, and totally wrapped in pastry. There are a few exceptions, such as mince pies which are small little bundles of goodness that have largely given up their meaty past, though there are a few holdouts scattered throughout the Isles.
I have nothing against meat pies, indeed I’ve inhaled not a few delicious ones in my time, but I’m afraid in this respect I will always be a Yank at heart.
My family has two pie recipes that are sacrosanct, an apple and a pumpkin. The pumpkin is the real treat and it is incredibly labor intensive, it takes months of preparation when you consider that the pumpkin puree is homemade. Courtesy of Halloween jack o’lanterns. However pumpkins never made it big here via the Columbian Exchange quite like turkeys and potatoes did. This fact, coupled with the reality that I have none of the equipment necessary to make it meant that Christmas Eve dinner this year was going to be an apple affair.
As it turns out this too was a labor of love that took two days start to finish.
I have to be blunt. British baking goods selections are dinky. Seriously small. Not just their packaging (which we’ve covered), but the actual space they take up on store shelves is tiny. Back in our old haunt the local grocery store had an entire aisle set aside for baking. Here at our nearest Tesco, we have three shelves that take up about a quarter of one side of an aisle. Finding what you need can be maddening.
I have theories about this, but my chief on is that like much of Europe, Britain has a larger number of bakeries and designated craftsmen who create their baked goods. Not that these don’t exist in America, but we also have a history of frontier dwelling which meant that for generations the well off might have a cook (and the extremely wealthy a French pastry chef), but most of us were responsible for providing our own treats and that sort of got into the culture. The French have boulangeries, the Brits have bakeshops, the Americans seem to do more DIY. Which I largely don’t mind, though I admit I do enjoy baking. And I use it constructively (I tend to make cookies when I’m angry or exceptionally bored, it’s probably kept me from using that energy less constructively. The results are pretty tasty too, rage cookies are the way to go, kids).
But I digress. Pie.
First I had to find a pie crust recipe that didn’t call for shortening (a heathen American device). I was fine with this because, butter. Then I whipped it up by hand because we have no kitchen equipment besides a mixing bowl that’s a third of the size of what we’re used to, before leaving it to chill in the fridge overnight. The next morning I rolled it out with a highball glass in lieu of a roller (see: lack of kitchen equipment).
Apple pie, no explanation required, right? Moving right along.
One of the (many) secret ingredients in this particular plate of mouth goodness is grated lemon peel. Which did not exist in that one quarter of an aisle space dedicated; believe me, I scoured that store. So I painstakingly shaved off paper thin slices of fresh lemon peel and chopped it to bits by hand. Do you know how long it takes to get a teaspoon of that stuff this way? A lot longer that I anticipated!
I admit until this point I was getting a bit stressed because we were attempting a lot of food for just two people, but in the words of Tevye, “TRADITION!”
Luckily after I tossed the seasoned and sugared mixture into that labor intensive crust, the grouchiness could simply no longer put up a fight. Even intense domestic irritation fades when confronted with this thing, it is that powerful.
We ate it for breakfast for days afterward. Regretting nothing.
Like I said, a bit of a labor of love. But in the end well worth it. However, I admit I will not be repeating this until next year, or unless I’m entertaining guests. Or until I get more and better kitchen equipment.
“Each age has deemed the new-born year
The fittest time for festal cheer.”
― Sir Walter Scott
Throughout December, both of us made noises along the lines of, “We should do something for New Year’s Eve,” whereupon the other would say something to the effect of, “Indeed we should!” After which we would go back to working/munching/watching British quiz game shows/goofing off. For two usually highly organized people we largely took the holidays easy this year – with the exceptions of dinner and the service (which were both planned weeks if not months in advance).
The trouble is that in a city like London, you have to have a plan for New Year’s or the chances of you getting trampled, mobbed, or left out in the cold are pretty high. But almost everything is pricey and booked well in advance. So by New Year’s Eve, just as we were emerging from our food and nap induced sluggery and ready to go out and do something, we realized that our chances of a nice night out were slim.
Nevertheless, we both dressed up and headed to our favorite restaurant in Covent Garden, hoping against hope that most people would be waiting until later to start their festivities and/or heavy drinking and space would be available. As it happened, we got a prime spot at the bar and the universe missed its chance to teach us a lesson in responsibility. Ha ha!
I still heartily endorse the elderflower presse. Mocktail of champions.
We ate delicious and artfully prepared food.
And we got delicious deserts which were so incredible that they actually made my phone’s camera to spontaneously readjust its own lighting feature…I think. I’m not a photographer, people. Interestingly, popcorn has had a bit of a fad year here in London, so apparently I’m trendier than I realized!
Then, because we are old fogies, we walked home across Waterloo Bridge past the throngs of people already camping out for the fireworks show. This year the organizers went in for a multi-sensory experience combining flavored and scented aspects with the already well hyped, traditional exploding. It sounded intriguing, but frankly not enough to stay up in the freezing cold and inevitable bad weather when…
…we got to watch them from the comfort of our own sofa while drinking tea and cuddling.
And that was how we rang in 2014. We might do something more ambitious some other year, but this year, it was just right.
“…Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Christmas day was an adventure!
We nearly got stuck in an elevator. We live on the top floor of our building and have access to two stairwells/elevators, one of which is slightly more convenient but is the one (naturally!) that has the most problems. Lately the door has been sticking a bit on the ground floor. One morning, feeling particularly grumpy, I made Jeff burst out laughing when the door only semi opened before it got stuck and I yanked it open the rest of the way with a curse.
Christmas morning we needed to get a move on since all public transportation was closed for the day, which meant we had to walk four miles and cross the river to get to Westminster Abbey, where we had reserved places for the morning service. We made a calculated decision to take the slightly sketch elevator because it put us closer to the tube station without having to circumnavigate the building. Which of course meant that this was the morning that the door slid open a crack on the ground floor… and refused to budge further. With a combined sigh, “Of course,” Jeff set his shoulder to it and I got on my knees to pull from the bottom. It took several minutes and many attempts, but eventually we freed ourselves. Teamwork.
The walk to the Abbey was gorgeous. There were almost no people about…except that I crossed paths with a history heroine. Dr. Lucy Worsley, the Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces was walking along the Thames with her husband. I nearly tripped over my own boots! On another day I might have accosted her, but since she’s written publicly about not liking being approached by strangers and fans – and in the spirit of the day, namely not being a jerk – I restrained myself to a bright smile and fangirling to Jeff in private.
Neither of us are High Anglican (Jeff rather cheekily rephrased the Nicene Creed to himself during its recitation), but I still really enjoyed the service and the setting – Westminster Abbey being one of the coolest places for a British History nerd to be. Do you know how many interesting dead people hang out there?!
When we emerged, the bells were ringing. We walked the four miles home again, made our traditional Christmas morning breakfast (at nearly two in the afternoon), talked to family via Skype, and watched holiday movie favorites. Not a bad Christmas on our own, I think!
“I trust Christmas brings to you its traditional mix of good food and violent stomach cramps.”
– Ebenezer Blackadder (‘Blackadder’s Christmas Carol,’ 1988)
I mentioned the importance of holiday traditions, and chief among them is food. I decided to attempt the entire Rodgers Clan Christmas Dinner by myself this year, in defiance of the fact that usually we have several cooks in the kitchen to help. And that in its usual form it can feed up to 15 people. But I was not to be dissuaded!
Jeff and I went to the butchers at Borough Market to pick out a roast, lots of produce, and a staggering amount of cured meats and cheeses. Because I knew once this meal, and Christmas morning breakfast was done, I wasn’t cooking again until January. Grazing and snacking would be the order of the day, intermingled with leftovers. Which, I’m happy to report, turned out to be the case.
You would not believe how nervous I felt about this sucker, it was in every way an experimental attempt.
Luckily, nailed it!
And may I add, it was delicious.