English Christmas Traditions: Our Top 5 Favorites
For the past few weeks I have been walking around with my mouth gaping and my eyes open wide. I liken the experience of my first Christmas in England to walking around with spinach in your teeth. You go on smiling and doing what you know to be normal, but people look at you and think, "she has no idea." Sure, there are a lot of things they do the same, but putting my finger on the finer differences has been an intriguing adventure. I wanted to give a list of the top 5 English Christmas Traditions I have come across that seem to be most popular and easy to incorporate into our own holiday. Now I'm sure there are so many more, but these five deserve a spot on my list. Here they are!
5. Mince Pies
The British love pies. Let me repeat, the Brits are total pie enthusiasts. If you can put it in a pastry shell, they have it At Christmas time, Mince Pies are where it's at. I think this popular pie is the equivalent of the American Christmas fruit cake, except, majority of people make them from scratch so they are yummy. Does anyone eat fruit cake in America anymore? I don't know. Here, all the grocery stores are stocked with pre-made mince pies, and curiously, they also have jars and jars of mince meat. Yes, mince meat, but it has no meat. You can see my confusion when I had my first bite of a pie. Being from Louisiana, I was expecting a Natchitoches Meat Pie. (Savory, with beef bacon and onions.) Instead, my mouth was greeted with mixture of brandy, fruits, raisins and spices. It was delicious though I am sure my face read differently.
I did some research and found that originally these pies did contain meat, but as spices and fruits became more available the recipe started to change. During the Victorian Era they moved and remained in the sweet camp. The classic mince pie has 13 ingredients to represent Christ and his 12 apostles and some of the spices were to represent the gifts the 3 wise men gave the baby Jesus. Kind of cool, right?
When our neighborhood met to gather together and turn on our Christmas lights in unison, they served homemade mince pies. I had four of them.
I give this one a big thumbs up!
4. Mulled Wine
Yes, we have mulled wine in America, but it is REALLY popular here. I have had my share of sangria but I don't know that I had a proper mulled wine. At our neighborhood lighting, I mentioned that I saw a few bottles at the market and would pick some up to contribute. I was met with a gentle and kind refusal. I realized that bringing a bottle of pre-made must be considered "low rent." This made me feel like I had a heaping wad of spinach in my front teeth. Instead, we clandestinely drank the bottles at home like good southerners. Zac and I thought they were delicious, though we do need to buy the appropriate glasses if we are going to make it a regular occurrence. The standard mulled wine glass looks similar to a latte glass but with a metal handle and foot, they will be on my Christmas list. At our neighborhood lighting ceremony they served a delicious batch of homemade mulled wine and all I had to say was...touché. I get it, it tasted like Christmas.
It should also be stated that egg nog, not a thing here. Or at least I can't find it. In fact, most have never had it or seen it. I never realized how much I missed egg nog until it was not readily available for my consumption. Oh well, cheers to new traditions!
Here is a proper mulled wine recipe.
MULLED WINE RECIPE
1 (750 ml) bottle of dry red wine
1 orange, sliced into rounds
8 whole cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
2 star anise
2 to 4 tablespoons sugar or honey
optional add-in: 1/4 cup brandy (or your favorite liqueur)
optional garnishes: citrus slices (orange, lemon and/or lime), extra cinnamon sticks, extra star anise
Combine ingredients. Add wine, orange slices, cloves, cinnamon, star anise, 2 tablespoons sweetener, and brandy to a large saucepan. Stir briefly to combine.
Simmer. Cook the mulled wine on medium-high heat until it just barely reaches a simmer. (Avoid letting it bubble — you don’t want to boil off the alcohol.) Reduce heat to low, cover, and let the wine simmer for at least 15 minutes or up to 3 hours.
Strain. Using a fine mesh strainer, remove and discard the orange slices, cloves, cinnamon sticks, and star anise. Give the mulled wine a taste, and stir in extra sweetener if needed.
Serve. Serve warm in heatproof mugs or mulled wine cups, topped with your favorite garnishes.
EXIBIT A: Wrong but good.
EXIBIT B: Correct and Delicious
3. Christmas Cards
This is one of those finer points. Yes, I do a Christmas card. Most of my friends in America do a Christmas card. It may even be one of my favorite traditions. Every year, I have family pictures made, then I spend hours trying to pick 12 pictures for the BACK of the card that I feel like reflect our year's high points. I send this first draft to my boss for approval. Zac says, "looks good babe, make sure you pick the glossy front cards, they look so much clearer when we pick the glossy cards."(P.S., I would love to have a matte card one year, but that is almost always his only ask and so I just go with it. Christmas is all about compromising.) I send those bad boys to print, and hopefully, I send them to print BEFORE I have to pay express! Next, I spend three to four days reaching out to our prior Christmas card recipients to determine if they have moved in the past year. This is when being in the military really really SUCKS. (I had to update 92 addresses this year folks.) Then I prep all the envelopes, get Christmas stamps and off they go!
In England, they do what they called "Charity Cards." Every grocery store and market has them, small boxes of 10 to 20 cards that fold so you can write a message inside. The proceeds from these cards goes to charity which I think is pretty brilliant. Asher started coming home with a fist full of cards every day and so at first I thought it was a school thing. Then my neighbors began to drop them off and so I realized it is the custom. Every card has a hand written note, "Welcome to Denham," "So glad you are here." It's lovely. In fact, as a person that really appreciates handwriting, I think it's very personal. The other day, I read somewhere that the Queen starts writing her Christmas cards in the summer. Wow, I guess those 3 days of address hell aren't so bad!
I will continue to do our family picture Christmas card but be expecting a possible folding card so I can write a little sumpin' sumpin'.
2. Christmas Poppers
I first bought poppers as an addition to my Thanksgiving Tablescape. I just thought were pretty and looked like big pieces of candy! There are walls and walls of them that line the markets. You can choose from any shape, color and size to fit your need. Imagine my surprise when there is an actual fire work in them! Yes, when it said it included a pop I still wasn't expecting it to be that loud or surprising. I was wrong. After the initial shock wore off and I was able to pull myself together, I fell in love with this British tradition. Inside the popper was a paper hat, (adorable), a joke, a charade, and a few little games for the kids. We went around the table acting out the charade or telling the funny, or less than funny joke. It was so much fun!
I may buy these in bulk and use them every time we eat a fancy dinner.
1. The Christmas Hamper
I know, I know. I have already touched on this but it deserves repeating. The Christmas Hamper is my favorite! From its roots to what it is today, I think this gifting style embodies the season.
The Christmas came to Great Britain during the reign of William the Conquer. Originally they were used for charitable giving having been stuffed with food, drinks and clothing to last the family a few weeks. After the expansion of the railway system in the 1800s, hampers could be sent much further and so they began to be a great way to ship presents far away. Queen Victoria brought them into popularity by making them, how should I say this? Bougie? Victoria gave them to her maids and servants stuffed with special treats and sometimes, the makings of a Christmas dinner!
Today, hampers come in all shapes and sizes, stuffed with everything from marmalades to caviar and teas to champagnes. This tradition is so celebrated , that Queen Elizabeth gave Pope Francis a traditional British Christmas hamper at his first meeting with the Vatican. The Queen also sends personalized hampers to each of her children every year.
If you were to walk the streets of London at Christmas time, you would find many shops offer a version of this British classic. Some come pre-filled, and some offer customers to personalize their hampers. Fortnum & Mason was my personal favorite as they provided a wide array of of gifts, indulgent foods and the biggest selection of the hamper itself. (I will be getting the tiny one for our tree next year.)
Overall, I feel like the British like to keep Christmas simple and meaningful. They are overjoyed by a "cupa Christmas tea, a handwritten card and a custard slice." I found the common thread between the UK and America is it's all about enjoying those little extras of the holiday season. Whether it be an out-of-character egg nog for breakfast, or mulled wine in the afternoon. Speaking of mulled wine, I am hoping by next year I'll be an old pro at the mince pies and mulled wines. I plan to keep testing them out till I perfect them! I'll also be buying bigger jeans.
So, if you're looking to add a little English flair to your Christmas, look no further! I think these are all fun, festive and easy to incorporate. Adding something new to your Christmas tradition is a great way to represent a special season of your life. You're creating a new memory thread. From this holiday forward, I am almost certain my kids are going to ask, "Mom, where are the poppers and the mince pies?" And one day, when they are older and have babies of their own, they will ask, "Mom, when did we start doing the Christmas hamper?" I will turn to them dressed like Blanche Devereaux from the Golden Girls, take a sip from my martini glass, and say, "2020 Darling, it was a shit year but the hamper turned it all around." (Blanche is my old lady goals.)
P.S. I will be reminding everyone to order their Christmas Hamper EARLY next year.
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