Tag Archives: bridget jones’ diary

Christmas in the UK

Since Thanksgiving just passed (here in the US) it is now, officially,  the start of the Christmas season. I thought it would be the perfect time to talk about the different traditions in the UK vs US. Because, what the hell is Boxing Day, right?

A note on Thanksgiving: they don’t have it in the UK. Thanksgiving was originally a breaking of bread between the Pilgrims and Native Americans ‘sharing’ land and enjoying the bounty of a successful harvest (mostly thanks to the Native Americans). There’s no reason why it would be celebrated in the UK.

The only downside I can see to not having Thanksgiving is not having a consensus on when the Christmas season starts. Here in the US, Christmas is all we talk about from the day after Thanksgiving until December 25th.  Or it’s certainly the only reason we shop.  A huge upside, however, is a lack of Black Friday related deaths. Have I mentioned on this blog (don’t know why I would have) that I hate Black Friday?

So, the main event. Christmas!

Christmas Eve is not as big of an event in the UK as here in the US. There might be some carol singing, or a trip to the pub to spend time with friends.  That’s about it. The big deal is Christmas Day.

I did hear an interesting factoid: instead of milk and cookies, sherry and mince pies are left out for Father Christmas.  Also, sometimes carrots are left out for his reindeer–why didn’t I ever think of this as a child!?

It’s the same religion, so the basic tenets of the holiday are the same.  Jesus’ supposed birthday, combined with the pagan Winter Solstice traditions to create an amalgam of seasonal and religious imagery and confusion. There are still presents, awkward and annoying family conversations, and there is still the over-consumption of food (especially sweets) and wine.

What are the differences?

Santa Claus is called Father Christmas

-though I imagine with the proliferation of American movies, everyone knows who you’re talking about when you say Santa Claus. Also, in most cases Father Christmas is not chubby, but thin. Legend has it that robins would watch your behavior and report back to him to help him make his naughty or nice list.  Some people argue that the two are distinct mythological figures, but honestly how many fake Christmas visitors does one person need?

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The food is quite different, I believe. We tend to sort of have Thanksgiving part deux, but of course they don’t have Thanksgiving, and their traditional food is quite different from ours. They serve a big Christmas dinner with lots of Brussels sprouts  and there is always a Christmas pudding.  Those are huge brandy-soaked concoctions sure to give you diabetes. They usually look something like this:

I’ve read there is some controversy about this dish, but according to the ‘traditional’ Christmas dinner equation, it is necessary. I’ve heard some people say how much they hate them (like fruitcake) but it doesn’t seem like Christmas dinner without one.  Of course, in a place like the UK, with a massive immigrant/not-naturalized population, there is an active shift going on in terms of Christmas traditions, and the celebration of Christmas at all.  Like the US tradition of Jewish people eating Chinese food on Christmas, I imagine there are a lot of Indian restaurants frequented by the non-religious, non-traditional, non-culinary members of society.  But, this isn’t a post about changing traditions around a new demographic makeup, it’s a post about the ‘traditional’ traditions, so here’s the damn Christmas pudding. They also have something called Christmas Cake, which is just like fruitcake, only they seem to have the sense to cover it in icing.

If you’ve ever seen Bridget Jones’ Diary and heard her talk about eating ’42 mince pies’, and then wondered wtf a mince pie is, I am here to solve this epic mystery.  A mince pie is a mini pie stuffed with savory meat and fruits and coated in powdered sugar.  It sounds like the most disgusting thing in the world to me, but I’m a vegetarian so my opinion should not be trusted on this matter. Still, the combination of savory and sweet is creepy to me, like that time Rachel on Friends made a parfait with ground beef in it.  But, it is very popular in the UK, so there must be something good about it. Actually, I’ve seen two different bits of info about the mince pie; one indicates it has actual mince meat in it, the other indicates just using beef fat added to the dried fruits and spices. The latter would be far more palatable, so I hope that is more common.

At Christmas Dinner, they always have crackers.  Not the Ritz kind, but this kind:

They’re so named because of the ‘crack’ they make when pulled apart. They usually contain some sort of paper crown or hat, a joke, and a small gift. People who have read Harry Potter are pretty familiar with the concept.

Outside of the Christmas meal, there are the presents (which tend to be less extravagant than in the US) and time spent with family.  The great thing about the UK: it’s pretty small. You don’t really have a good excuse not to get home for the holidays if it’s only a few hours by train from anywhere to anywhere else–people who live in Cornwall or John O’Groats, I realize that it’s not a few hours from everywhere to everywhere else, but before you argue with me consider the relative size of the UK vs the US and you will get my point). I think there’s more of an emphasis on Christmas as an event in the UK, and less an emphasis on Christmas as the time of year we spend all our money on gifts.

Nativity plays are much more common there. See Love Actually‘s final half hour for more info.  Children recreate the birth of Jesus.  I think those have gone out of fashion in schools here because public schools aren’t permitted to celebrate religious events.  In the UK, many more of the schools have a specific religious affiliation, and there is technically no separation of church and state outlined in their laws. So where we have the nativity scenes outside of churches, they have the plays in schools every year. Carol singers are also more common, traveling from house to house to sing.  I remember doing this when I was 10-15 years old, but I grew up in the Midwest.  I cannot imagine anyone doing it here in Philly, especially if they valued their lives. Also, every Christmas there is the Queen’s speech, which I imagine the more traditional people still listen to/watch every year (I imagine a lot of grandparents force their kids to listen/watch).

So, what the hell is Boxing Day?

The story says that wealthy families would indulge in massive Christmas feasts.  The next day, they would pack up the leftovers and distribute them to their servants. Another theory on the beginning of the tradition is that priests would pick this day to empty the alms boxes and distribute the contents to the poor. Boxing Day is (traditionally) December 26th, and is always a national holiday in the UK (and some Commonwealth nations).

Modern traditions for Boxing Day include recovering from the Christmas festivities, lots of online shopping, and giving money/gifts to charities and to tradespeople (milkmen, postmen, paper boys, etc.). Families spend the day together.

Other tidbits:

Traditionally the greeting there was ‘Happy Christmas’ rather than ‘Merry Christmas’, though I believe that’s less true now.

There is still a law on the books saying that every Brit must attend church on Christmas Day, and cannot arrive by motorized transport.  Only 13% of Brits reported attending a Christmas service every year, so I don’t think this one is enforced!

Most of this focuses on English traditions, what about the rest of the UK?

In Scotland, there is a specific New Years’ Eve tradition called Hogmanay. This was originally a festival devoted to fire, and there are still bonfires and the like, all rooting from Viking and Pagan traditional beliefs.  Mostly, though, it’s a big street party (though who would want to party in freezing cold Scotland in the middle of winter is beyond me. I suppose that’s where the fire comes in?)  Traditionally, Christmas was not a very important holiday in Scotland, so Hogmanay was the best opportunity the Scots had to relieve the winter Cabin Fever and need to drink and be merry.
There’s still a big festival every year.

In Wales, Boxing Day is called St. Stephen’s Day and was traditionally the only day of the year it was okay to kill a wren.  So children would stone them to death, like St. Stephen was stoned to death, then parade about the streets with the dead bird in tow.  Fun.  Now, I believe a fake bird is used.  But a less horrifying tradition coming from Wales is mistletoe! The Welsh were the first to associate mistletoe with Christmas, and the tradition of kissing under it started in the UK.

In Northern Ireland, things get a bit complicated. The Catholics would traditionally attend a midnight Mass on Christmas.  I’m not certain if Anglicans did this as well–if you’re reading this and know the answer, please comment!

So, those are the basics.  An important thing to know about the UK and Christmas–even though it is an undeniably religious holiday, the UK is far more secular than the US in general (except N. Ireland).  People rank religion far less important to their lives, especially in England.  Christmas remains more of a cultural holiday where traditions are followed because they are comforting, as opposed to one steeped in religious meaning.  Sounds like all of my Christmases, but for some of the really religious I suppose it could come as a surprise that God doesn’t play more of a part in the proceedings.

My Top 5 British Everything! part one

My monetary situation continues to not be conducive to buying new movies or books.  That means it’s time for another list–a long one this time! Part one will cover Books, Movies, and my favorite places in the British Isles.

My Top 5 British Everything*

*not comprehensive.

First off, books! This is very hard for me, obviously, as a quick inventory of my bookshelf will prove that about 60% of all the books I own are British.  To pick only 5 is like picking one meal to eat every night for the rest of your life.  But, nevertheless, here are my favorites!

1.The Harry Potter Series

Of course this is number one.  And, don’t gripe about this being 7 books, not one.  This list is only my top five, and it would be pretty boring if all five were HP books, as they most assuredly would be.  The bottom line is these are my desert island books, the only books I would truly need to be fulfilled for the rest of my life, if, god forbid, it came to that sort of choice.  These books absolutely and tangibly changed my life–cured my depression, inspired me to go back and finish my degree, inspired me to read again, to write again, to enjoy and love my time on earth.  When I am sad or weary, I pull out these books and, like some sort of black market European antidepressants, they make things better. Not only do I own the original 7 novels in their American versions, but also several foreign editions as well.  I picked up the British (children’s) copy of Deathly Hallows, plus an Italian Prisoner of Azkaban (which it took me 3 months to read), a Greek Half-Blood Prince, a Croatian Chamber of Secrets, and even a copy of Philosopher’s Stone that has been translated into Latin!

These books are largely responsible for my love of British culture, and you could draw a pretty direct line from my first experience reading HP books to me creating this blog.  They are the end all be all of my reading life.

2. Pride and Prejudice

See my earlier entry for why this is such a lovely book.  I can’t say it had the same impact on me as Harry Potter, but I just finished a reread last week and even after so many times reading it and watching the miniseries, I still find new and lovely bits that are delightful.

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3. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy ‘trilogy’

The first time I read the Hitchhiker’s Guide, it was sitting in the Barnes & Noble cafe. I laughed so hard and so loud that I made an idiot of myself. For those reading this who are unfamiliar with the story, Arthur Dent is whisked off Earth minutes before its irrevocable destruction by his best friend, Ford Prefect, who reveals himself to be an alien.  But this isn’t science fiction; it never takes itself particularly seriously. What it is, in my opinion, is just funny and silly and wonderfully imaginative. The wordplay alone is enough to furnish me with great quotes for the rest of my life.  Here’s just a few to choose from:

In the beginning, the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.

Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.

Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.

And my favorite (not technically from the series, but wonderful anyway):

I like deadlines.  I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

There is something very British (in my American mind at least) about this love of and playfulness with words and phrases.  Compare it, for a second, to something by Hemingway, whose prose has never even bordered on playful (at least, in my experience).  If you haven’t read Hitchhiker’s Guide,you should.

4.Hamlet

I’ve read a lot of Shakespeare in my life. I think I’ve taken 3 or 4 Shakespeare courses in college, plus the plays I read in high school.  I’ve read all of his sonnets and most of his other poems.  Of his 37 plays, I have read 20, so far.  I think Hamlet may have been the first one I read, back in middle school.  It has always been my favorite.  Some people think that Hamlet is indecisive and incapable of action. I just don’t see it.  He’s overcome with grief, with anger, with a questioning of the purpose of life and of revenge.  He feels trapped by circumstances and he talks his way through his feelings.  And he talks so beautifully.  I think it is, by far, the most poetic of Shakespeare’s works, and I can’t imagine anyone who has ever been depressed or suffered tragedy can read his famous soliloquy without finding echoing questions and statements in their own hearts. I think it is an absolute masterpiece, and encourage everyone to read it.  If you don’t think you can stand reading the play, please do not go get the Mel Gibson DVD.  At least invest the time in the Kenneth Branagh version, or at the very least the new David Tennant.

5. North and South

Please do not confuse this with that civil war miniseries with Patrick Swayze.  Though Elizabeth Gaskell is not that well known in America, she is considered just as popular as Jane Austen in England.  This is the story of a family who is forced to uproot from their life in the South (i.e. London and the counties surrounding it, which were agricultural, were old money, and were considered the most civilized) to the industrialized North (full of factories, the working class, unions, and pollution).  This dichotomy is a huge factor in England, even today someone with a Northern accent can be (unfairly) assumed to be less civilized than his/her Southern counterpart.  The book has the same plot as an Austen novel, and does have a truly scrumptious male love interest, but all of that is against an entirely different background. Gaskell weaves in poverty, unions, strikes, factory conditions, changing social norms, religious disparities, etc. etc. etc.  It’s a great way to get to know some of the background of the time, but to still get a fulfilling love story.  I also highly recommend the miniseries with Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton.

Honorable Mention: Jane Eyre

now, on to Movies.
Please keep in mind that I am not a cinema expert and haven’t seen a lot of what are considered the British ‘classics’. These are mostly mainstream films that were also very successful in the US.

1. A Hard Day’s Night

My love for the Beatles from an early age meant that, at the age of 9 or 10, I dragged my father to the video store every weekend to rent the same two movies: this one, and Help!.  Help! doesn’t stand the test of time quite as well as this one, but A Hard Day’s Night is a brilliant film. It captures the madness of the Beatles’ schedules and touring demands, the ridiculousness of press junkets, and the cheeky humor of the Fab Four.  It features great music, cute British boys, and lots of genuinely funny bits.

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2. Shaun of the Dead/Hot Fuzz

I am listing these two together because, recently, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg revealed that they will be making a third in what they are calling the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy. Shaun of the Dead can be described as a romantic comedy with zombies, while Hot Fuzz is a buddy cop action comedy.  But not action comedy as in Rush Hour; it’s more funny than it is action. Also, it’s not terrible, so that’s another key difference.  These movies are both hilarious, have cemented my eternal love for Simon Pegg, and spoof other genres so well that they manage to be both great parodies and great examples of the genres they are spoofing.

3. Snatch

 

This movie is just…unique.  Or, it’s unique if you haven’t seen Lock, Stock, and 2 Smoking Barrels. But seriously, Guy Ritchie made this movie and it was like nothing I had ever seen before.  Vinnie Jones is amazing, Jason Statham is in his first big role (at least in the US), and Brad Pitt plays an absolutely incomprehensible gypsy/boxer.  It’s a stylish, interesting, funny film.  It also provides one with endless quotes. This movie contains both my least favorite moment in perhaps any movie (Brick Top–aka the foulest man on earth–talking about feeding corpses to his pigs) and one of my favorites (Tyrone backs into a van and claims it was at a funny angle. Vinny says It’s behind you Tyrone. Whenever you reverse, things come from behind you.).

4. Atonement

Couldn’t be more different from Snatch.  For all my bitching about Keira Knightley and Joe Wright’s version of Pride and Prejudice, they do a spectacular job with this movie.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it might be better than the book, and I loved the book.  The book didn’t have James McAvoy though, and the movie has an absolutely amazing score that actually works to help translate it from book to screen.  A word of warning, if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, it will absolutely fuck you up. I was sobbing for days.  Ian McEwan’s fiction always does that to me, but this is a prime example.  It’s either going to make you depressed or make you very angry, or both. But it’s exceptionally good.

5. Bridget Jones’ Diary

How could I not love this movie? It’s based on Pride & Prejudice, has the real Mr. Darcy playing a man named Mr. Darcy, and features an imperfect heroine who Darcy loves anyway.

I do occasionally have a problem with the fact that Bridget is a bit of an idiot, and compared to Lizzy Bennet she’s a complete moron.  But she does have a sort of wonderful, vivacious, goofy energy that is a good contrast to stuffy, conservative, Mark Darcy.

Honorable Mentions: Notting Hill, Love Actually

Now, on to my favorite Places to visit during a trip to the UK.  Let me preface this by saying I have, by no means, seen the majority of the UK.  These are just the 5 favorite places I visited during my time there.

1. South Bank of London

I spent a lot of time on the South Bank during my time in London, though I didn’t live anywhere near it.  I did go to the theatre there almost every week, and it is among the most beautiful of all the places I spent time in Europe. As the name implies, it’s on the South Bank of the Thames, and features tons of big attractions within about a block or two of the water.  There’s the National Theatre, the British Film Institute, the London Eye, the London Aquarium, the Waterloo station, the Old Vic and Young Vic theatres, and City Hall (popularly known as Darth Vader’s helmet because of its shape).  It’s a beautiful, vibrant, interesting, artistic part of town.  It should also be avoided during tourist season, but if you go when it’s not packed, it can be absolutely beautiful. A few blocks east are the Globe theatre, the Tate Modern, and the Millennium Bridge.

2. Prince’s Street Gardens and the Castle of Edinburgh

I went to Edinburgh and was blown away by how beautiful this part of town was.  The castle sits at the top of a huge cliff and the gardens sit at its base.  The history of the place goes back thousands of years, you can see the entire town from the top of the cliff, and everywhere you go in the area, you have at least some chance of running into J.K. Rowling.

3. Oxford

Talk about history, beauty, the whole thing.  You can walk around this city in about an hour, but it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.  I’m still considering going to Oxford for grad school, because can you imagine having this place for your home? Wandering around the same halls and rooms as so many of the important figures in political and literary history (26 prime ministers, 12 saints, kings, queens, Bill Clinton, Stephen Hawking, Joseph Heller, Aldous Huxley, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde…just to name a few. I could go on).  Plus Rowan Atkinson.  I think I could spend the rest of my life inside the Radcliffe Camera (reading room).

4. Bath

A place famous with Roman settlers for its healing waters, home to Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Rupert Giles, and set in a really beautiful part of a really beautiful country.  It’s a small town, but I found it really charming and lovely to walk in.  There are tons of Regency-era museums and houses open for viewing, plus the Jane Austen house, the original Roman baths, and a kickass chocolate shop across from the Cathedral.

5. Hampstead and ‘the Heath’


I lived approximately 1 mile from Hampstead, and ran on the heath most mornings during my time in London. As such, I have a lot of affection for the place.  Plus, it was home to John Keats, my favorite poet ever.  Hampstead is a small village to the northwest of London, rather trendy with celebs and the rich and famous. It’s got nice restaurants, and is surrounded by beautiful neighborhoods on one side and the ‘Heath’ (park) on the other.  The Heath itself has two basic parts, from my recollection, an open park, and a wooded section.  From the top of the hills you can see downtown London landmarks like the BT tower and the ‘Gherkin’ building (so named because it resembles a pickle).  It’s similar, in my eyes, to Central Park, because it is a place that tons of people go when the weather is good and they sit in the grass and just enjoy life.  What’s not to love?

That’s all for this list.  Next time, I’ll tackle my favorite British TV, British music, and my favorite tidbits from British history.