A Typical British Christmas
Ho ho ho…Open it…What did you get? We can exchange it. When’s dinner…hey stop shaking the crackers…pass the parsnips…who wants the leg?...Trifle or Christmas pud? Is the Queen on yet…blimey she’s getting on…zzzzz. Grandad was that you?...what time is the film on?..turkey sandwich anyone? I’ll fix it tomorrow – cheap plastic. Ah Morcambe and Wise….pass the After Eights…Sherry? Zzzzz…..
And that was pretty much Christmas Day in the UK back in the 70’s and 80’s and probably still the way it is in most households over there today. Mind you, there will be variations on this theme – for instance my family being Italian, Christmas lunch was spaghetti and chicken with roast chicken and veggies as the second course, but everything else was pretty much per the standard routine.
What fascinates me however, is how my childhood memories of Christmas day in the UK while most likely built on the stitched together experiences of 5 or 6 Christmas’, defines my everlasting expectation of how Christmas day should be – or at least how I want it to be. It’s one of the few days of the year where you can plan and predict the day and submerge yourself in the comfort of familiarity.
The day begins with the opening of gifts where we get excited about what we might get and how the gifts we gave will be received. ‘Wow’, ‘you spent too much’, ‘did you keep the receipt?’, ‘ bugger we forgot to buy batteries’.
Within 20 minutes we were bored with the new toys and we’d turn the telly on – Sound of Music or James Bond would be most likely playing. Forgot to mention that back in the 80’s when we only had 4 TV channels to pick from, the Christmas TV guide (Radio Times for BBC and TV Times for ITV) was as exciting as the Christmas presents themselves. From the moment the guides arrived in our homes from the newsagents, we would be planning the Christmas TV watching by circling all the shows we would watch from 10am to midnight. It was a movie and comedy special extravaganza!
OK, so getting back to our Christmas day. Early morning was interspersed with visits from relatives dropping by to wish us a happy Christmas and if we were lucky drop off some last-minute gifts. The liqueurs would be rolled out (we would offer up some luminescent syrupy stuff my dad had concocted in the shed a few years ago that only came out for special occasions). Kid’s would always get a small sip.
By around 10am we’d be marched off to ‘Church’. Now I can’t say that church attendance was a mandatory thing but we would moan about having to go. But more often than not we’d end up at the makeshift church venue. I put church in quotes above because it really wasn’t a church – the Italian community of my home town didn’t have their own Church, so we’d use a catholic school hall to convene and listen to the priest solemnly give mass. I should mention that we used an infant school for the congregation (1st and 2nd grade in the US) so the chairs that we would sit on were tiny – therefore reserved for the women and small children. The men would stand in the back of the hall – staring at their watches throughout the proceedings. Handshakes and cheek to cheek kissing done we’d head back home for lunch.
Christmas crackers are a very British thing. Handheld pyrotechnics with paper hats, corny jokes and plastic trinkets inside would adorn each dinner place setting. When nobody was looking, we’d hunt the best cracker by giving them a shake to see which was heaviest (indicating the potential for the best plastic trinket) and then switch them around. Depending on the amount of money spent on the cracker, a bang or piff would be emitted and then bits of paper, glitter and plastic would spew across the floor and dining table, the smell of gun powder in the air.
With Christmas crowns perched on heads lunch was served. Twenty minutes later once the last plate of veggies was passed around, we were ready to dig in. Plates piled high with turkey and all the trimmings (I refer now to the more traditional experience of Christmas lunch that I assumed after marrying in to an English family versus my own usual Christmas lunch of spaghetti and chicken that I grew up within my Italian household). That was pretty much the only real difference between the English and Italian Christmas’ – other than the handwaving, fighting over the chicken feet and loudness of the Italian dinner table. Once we were stuffed to the gills the puddings would roll out – Christmas pudding or homemade trifle (both complemented with Birds custard of course – watery and piping hot for the pudding or thick and blancmangey in the trifle).
Belt buckles loosened, some of the family would relocate to the sofa to snooze in front of the telly while the kids would pull out the toys and start playing.
Then with trepidation “God Save The Queen” would bellow out of the TV and there she was in all her glory - and then the Queen’s speech. I can’t say I remember what she said in any of them, but I do remember her face filling up the TV screen and the running commentary from my family on her appearance and the state of the royal family.
With the speech over and done with, lunch packed away and dishes all washed it was time to all settle in front of the TV and align ourselves back with the schedule of the TV guides. The afternoon movie was always a blockbuster of some description – usually one of the series of Superman or Indiana Jones movies. The films were interspersed with trips to the kitchen to grab leftovers or to get away from your relatives after-dinner sound and odor effects, that weren’t part of the movie.
With the afternoon merging in to evening more food would appear – turkey and ham sandwiches, Bakewell tarts, chocolate logs. Then of course out came the chocolates!!! After Eight mints, Matchmakers, Roses and the Quality Street (with everyone trying to fish out the purple one). And there was always a box of Milk Tray under the tree that would get passed around and without fail someone would take their favorite out of the second tray before the top tray had been fully consumed.
To end the day we’d once again huddle up to watch the Christmas comedy special. This was the only time of the day when silence was demanded and all eyes and ears were glued to the box. The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special was a classic – two middle aged white men would make jokes, tease their guests (Tom Jones, Andre Previn, Shirley Bassey), sing and dance then there was always a closing sketch that would see the two fellas innocently sharing a bed in a Laurel & Hardy-esque kind of way (yep - innocent times!).
And that was it. The day went as planned. Sure, we might not have received the gift we really wanted and we may have had to endure the odd annoyance from the drunken relatives, but the day was always as familiar as an old friend or an old pair of slippers.