5 ways to know you’re in Britain at Yule

This week, I’m focusing on a national and very human sense of place — Britain at Yule.

Photo by Luke Hayfield Photography, used under Creative Commons license.

Whether we celebrate Christmas, Saturnalia, Winter Solstice, Isaac Newton’s Birthday or Consumermas, there are some non-negotiable cultural constants here.

1. Christmas stock has already been out in the shops for at least two months

One of the most distressing things about not making a big deal of Hallowe’en, and not having Thanksgiving, is that shops – especially big corporations – feel free to start their Christmas hype in early October. The earliest I’ve seen Christmas items in the local supermarket is September. Yes, September. This makes me very sad.

2. No work gets done.

Most workplaces have a Christmas party, but more than that, from about 14th December, the expectation — at least in the places I’ve worked — is that no-one’s really focused on work, and the more silliness, parties, mince pies and crackers there are, the better. (Unless you’re in the NHS, social work, or one of the emergency services, of course.)

In schools, children have been working on their Christmas presentation for weeks, and in the last week of term, classes – at least in my day – mostly involved subject-themed games, films and lots and lots of sweets.

3. Mince pies

Mmmmmm, mince pies. I was shocked when I discovered these weren’t a universal English-speaking tradition. Dried fruit and peel, which has been soaked in brandy for… a while, encased in sweet, short pastry. What’s not to love?

My favourites are made with some of the flour for the pastry replaced with ground almonds.

Mince pies ready to go into the oven.
Photo by my friend Pete Jordan, used under Creative Commons license.

Here’s a recipe.

4. Christmas crackers

Photo by Ewen Roberts used under Creative Commons license.

Shiny paper wrapped around a cardboard tube. It holds a small gift, an awful joke, and a paper crown, and it goes off with a bang when pulled by two partiers (one at each end). It’s more or less compulsory at a traditional Christmas dinner (generally celebrated as a seasonal obligation, regardless of religion) for everyone to wear one of the paper crowns.

5. Panto

Panto — short for pantomime — is very difficult to explain to someone who’s never seen one. A panto is generally a stage adaptation of a fairy tale: Cinderella, Aladdin, Sleeping Beauty, etc. There are heroes, damsels, and villains, a happy ever after, and a host of contemporary pop culture references.

That part is easy enough to understand. But there are some conventions of panto which just have to experienced:

  • The leading man is played by a woman: Aladdin, Jack, etc..
  • At least one of the major older female characters is played by a man: the Ugly Sisters, Widow Twanky, etc. Think completely over-the-top drag, with attendant ribald humour.
  • There is a LOT of audience participation, always involving at least one exchange of “Oh yes it is!” / “Oh no it isn’t”, along with the inevitable “He/she/it’s behind you!!!”

Here’s hoping you had a Merry Winter Solstice, and wishing you a very happy Saturnalia for tomorrow.

And for those of you who prefer to celebrate Isaac Newton’s birthday, here’s a little treat:

About Elinor Prędota

Elinor Predota was born in London in 1970, and was raised in England’s second city. Her hippy parents took her on endless, wonderful visits to birdwatching hides, Iron Age hill forts, Medieval Castles and ancient stone circles across Britain, which kindled her longing for green hills. She finally moved to the country in the year 2000, where the land has taught her more magic than any book or human being ever could. She is a priestess, a poet, a scholar, an accidental comedian, and lives in southern Scotland with her partner, a very big dog, and a vast range of more-than-human neighbours. She can also be found online at elinopredota.com.

  • http://myownashram.com Niki Whiting

    I love the Christmas season in Britain! Or at least in Wales. It was so SANE (like nearly everything about the British!). I didn’t notice the way-too-early Christmas stock. But coming from the States where the holidays are REALLY overblown it all just seemed so reasonable.
    Happy Christmas to you!

    • http://www.anewadventureeveryday.com/ Elinor Predota

      Thank you! And to you :-)

      Like almost everything in British culture, Christmas is done with deliberate naffness a large dose of self-parody. (The Christmas stock is only really an issue in supermarkets, where I suppose they’re catering to people with large freezers who want to prepare early — and I admit I am hypersensitive to it.)

  • pagansister

    Happy Saturnalia, Elinor.

    • http://www.anewadventureeveryday.com/ Elinor Predota

      And to you, too!

  • http://tarotbyarwen.com/blog/?p=9322 Arwen

    My very American step-sister loves crackers and it isn’t Christmas for her if we don’t all have one at our plate. :D I have never had mincemeat pie but will put that on my list. It can be one of my 100 things to do.

    • http://www.anewadventureeveryday.com/ Elinor Predota

      Excellent :-D They’re best made with homemade mincemeat, but I’m sure you’ll be able to get some in a jar from a British ex-pat shop!

  • Arwen

    It’s surprisingly easy to find here in the southern US. In jars. Don’t know of anyone who makes it. I’ll have to try my hand at making it.

  • http://www.thehagsden.com Sibylle

    Haha, I love this! It’s very similar here in Ireland, and I just adore x-mas time in these parts :-)
    Much love! xx


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