A foreigner’s guide to Christmas in Britain

You can say anything you want about the meaning of Christmas, but I’ll tell you what the meaning is here: brussels sprouts.

What? you ask.

At Christmas dinner, you eat brussels sprouts. Even if you don’t touch them for another 364 days, you put one on your plate and chop it into pieces and poke at it so it looks like some part of it entered your stomach and is becoming one with your body. It doesn’t seem to be a law, but it’s a very powerful cultural imperative. And when someone uses a fancy phrase like cultural imperative, you’d damn well better do it.

Christmas pudding with flaming brandy. Photo by James Scott-Brown, on Wikimedia.

Christmas pudding with flaming brandy. Photo by James Scott-Brown, on Wikimedia.

The brussels sprout is so completely symbolic of Christmas that D. and D. just gave us a box of chocolate brussels sprouts for a Christmas present. Rest easy, though, because they’re purely symbolic. No vegetables were harmed in the making of the candy.

Why is a round green vegetable synonymous with Christmas? Because they grow through the fall and by Christmas they’re ready to eat. And if you’ve got a vegetable so cooperative that you can harvest it in the winter, you’d better include it in the holiday meal. Even if you hate it.

Christmas also involves crackers. Not the crumbly kind you eat with cheese, but rolls of shiny paper and cardboard with bad jokes and riddles, a little plastic present of some kind (about what you used to find in a box of Cracker Jacks, if you’ve ever seen those), and a tissue-paper crown inside. The way to open these is to pick yours up when everyone else does, cross your arms so you can simultaneously offer yours to the person on one side and seize the one the person on the other side is offering you. Then, in unison, everyone pulls and the crackers tear open and spill out their giftlets.  Inevitably, someone ends up with two short ends and no goodies, and if you’re over the age of five you redistribute the riches and everyone ends up with, at the very least, a silly paper crown to put on his or her head. Then everyone who can’t avoid it (and I usually can) reads the jokes and riddles out loud.

In the spirit of Nothing Exceeds like Excess, Christmas demands two desserts: a Christmas pudding and a Christmas cake. The cake is a heavy fruitcake that’s been soaked in brandy for two months and coated in not one layer of icing but two, one of marzipan and another made with egg whites and sugar. The double dose of icing is enough to send even a non-diabetic into a diabetic coma, and that’s without the cake. The pudding, again, has dried fruit and alcohol, but this time with suet and spices and a bunch of other stuff—you’ll have to look up the recipe online if you’re interested, because I’ve never made one—and then it’s steamed (this is why I’ve never made it: I can’t be arsed, as our much-missed friend B. used to say) and soaked in yet more alcohol for a month or so. If you need a bit more in the way of excess, you can serve it with rum or brandy sauce, or with custard, and you can also serve it with flaming brandy if you promise not to set the house on fire.

49 thoughts on “A foreigner’s guide to Christmas in Britain

  1. And, what I learn yesterday, apparently there is a coin in the Christmas cake (or was it in the Christmas pudding, dunno) – to my surprise. This is what we, Orthodox Christians, do: we put a coin in a flat bread we bake for Christmas, and whoever gets the coin, is supposed to be in luck. Which makes me wonder, is there anything traditional to Christmas in the US that British people don’t do??

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    • Interesting question. I couldn’t think of any, so I asked Wild Thing, who stared at the ceiling for a while (she was reviewing when the various important football games were on TV) and then reported that she couldn’t think of any either. Most families, I suspect, manage to get into an argument, but that probably happens here as well, and we don’t call it a tradition, we all think it’s only our own families that do it and everyone else’s behaves better.

      That said, because the US combines so many cultural strands, I’m sure there are lots of traditions that get folded in. Spanish-speaking countries traditionally have their big celebration on January 6, if I remember right, when the three kings were believed to have reached the manger, and I’m sure some families carry that over. And so on. We’re a fascinating patchwork quilt of a country, and I’m all the more aware of it now that I’m outside it.

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      • The UK is just as much of a patchwork quilt of a country, I think. I am glad that not many of my British friends and colleagues ask me how we celebrate Christmas, as it is a long story – worth considering a post about, I guess. But our “tradition”, too, definitely includes family arguments at a large scale. :) And thinking that everyone else is having a peaceful Christmas…

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        • Living in rural Cornwall has a way of making me forget the patchwork of cultures that makes up Britain. One of the things I like about the US is that we focus on being a nation of immigrants. Mind you, that doesn’t keep some of the descendants of immigrants from being horrible about the latest wave, but still, it does help us value, at least in theory, our cultural mix. Even when I was a kid in grade school, back in prehistory, one teacher had us ask our families where our ancestors came from, then made a map, with pins and yarn, all converging on New York. I’ve never forgotten it.

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  2. I scheduled my chrustmas day post and it has strong echoes of this although I do like sprouts and mine is no where near as cleverly written as yours! Welcome to UK Crazy traditions Eh? Nonsensical.

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    • I look forward to seeing your post. And I’m not going to claim US traditions (including stores starting to push Christmas stuff as soon as Halloween’s past, and playing obnoxious Christmas music to get us in the mood) make any more sense. Only it’s easier, somehow, to see nonsense when you’re a newcomer to it. Give nonsense enough time and it begins to look normal.

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  3. I have to defend the Bristish here a little – sprouts are really nice if they are fresh and not overcooked, and the crackers are supposed to be terrible – my family compete to see who has the worst joke/gift. And the whole point of Christmas is to eat too much rich food, the same as Thanksgiving I suppose. What do Amercians eat for desert if they don’t have Christmas pudding or cake?

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    • I agree with you about sprouts: I like them, even if I do make fun of them. You’ll have a hard time converting me to crackers, but I do understand that I’m in a minority on that topic here.

      What do Americans eat for Christmas dessert? Unlike Thanksgiving, it’s not fixed. In my family, we tended to have mince pie (large, not the little ones, which we’d never heard of, let alone seen) and one other kind, although for some reason I can’t remember what it would’ve been. Maybe it changed from year to year. Fruitcakes–soaked in brandy–are common at Christmas, and people make jokes about using them for doorstops. A lot of people don’t like them, although that doesn’t stop them being a part of Christmas. Personally, I thought they were great. I had an older cousin who made fruitcakes that could make a person weep. I wish I’d thought to ask for her recipe.

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  4. I am actually very fond of brussels sprouts, though I always forget the first word is plural and wonder why it isn’t capitalized. It’s fun to watch them grow up through the snow and, as you
    say, have something from the garden in December. Scott uses the leaves in salads and I encountered one of those (usually useless) tips in the paper that suggested you make a sharp cross in each with a knife (not in honor Christ but to let the steam in) and they actually cook through that way. However, I have noticed that about one in five of our guests looks ill if we put them out so we now inquire about tastes in that department also. Are you a vegetarian? A vegan? Do you eat red meat? Only light meat? Red or white wine? Brussels sprouts?

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    • Maybe you should also ask, “Can you sit at the table in the presence of brussels sprouts?” Which, by the way, my spellcheck is convinced I’m spelling wrong. It probably wants a capital letter, but I’m going on the theory that they’re like french fries, or venetian blinds. Spellcheck also wants to be two words, and although lower case french is fine, it wants a cap on venetian. Go figure.

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  5. My grandmother was originally Scottish/English (although her family moved to South Africa when she was two years old), so I grew up enjoying Christmas pud (flaming, of course) and brandy butter every year. She always put silver coins in her pudding. Of course, the kids at the table claimed all coins found! Good memories … I think next year I’ll have a go at making one.

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  6. I hate sprouts! But I have a secret plan. I’ve explained to everyone that sprouts are full of vitamin K, and as this will affect my Warfarin, I’m not allowed to eat any. Not even the compulsory one that we Brits must have. It was almost worth have heart surgery!

    On another point, I’m really loving your views of Britain so refreshing and amusing. Need lots more please.

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    • I’ll do my best to keep the posts coming. Thanks for the encouragement. And I’m glad people are willing to accept medical excuses for not eating sprouts. That indicates a level of flexibility on the issue that I didn’t expect to find.

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  7. I love ‘brussels’ sprouts, we just call them ‘spruiten’. Do you also put a little baking powder (sodium carbonate) into the boiling water, to keep the colour fresh green? After being cooked I fry chopped onions and add the sprouts…its yummie! And not only for xmas! Never seen doing those crackers, sounds a bit messy but fun. Here children get fire sticks, well in my family it was like that, when you lit them it gives sparkles of light and you could watch them for only half a minute or so.

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    • The fire sticks sound like what we called sparklers in the US–or at least in New York. We had them of July 4th, and I loved them.

      I tend to steam sprouts instead of boiling them, so I’ve never tried adding baking powder. Steaming them does seem to let them keep their color, and the theory, at least, is that they keep more of their vitamins. Having made fun of people eating baked beans on toast, I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I eat sprouts (and other vegetables) on toast and they’re great that way.

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  8. I am in the love, love, love brussels sprouts camp. Good thing they don’t NEED snow to grow or we would have a home grown shortage in Australia. I often like to halve or quarter them and pan saute with bacon and pine nuts. Just one idea. So many different things to do with them EXCEPT overcook them.

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  9. Pingback: Celebrating Christmas the Expat Way | Not Another Tall Blog

  10. Before decimal currency came in Australia, in 1966, we were able to put the silver coins in the pudding. It was very exciting it get the sixpence. The decimal currency coins were made of a different metal, and you couldn’t cook them. I suspect that they were only put into the pud to encourage you to eat it. After a roast dinner with all the trimmings, a thick wedge of pudding, custard and cream on a hot Christmas Day was close to the last thing you wanted to eat!

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    • I don’t suppose that when they were developing the new coins anybody thought to ask, Yes, but can you cook them? And if someone had, they’d have gotten themselves laughed out of the room. It’s a pity, though.

      The idea of needing to encourage anyone to eat dessert is as foreign to my nature as it’s possible to get, but yes, I do think I see the point.

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  11. Very interesting read! I actually love Brussel sprouts so I could gladly adopt this tradition! I’ve always seen crackers but never knew exactly about them…thanks for sharing!
    Happy New Year to you (a bit belated! )
    Greetings from NYC!
    Lia

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    • For what it’s worth, my advice on crackers is this: Unless you’re British or have a bunch of friends or family who are willing to sit around looking serious while wearing bright-colored paper crowns, you might want to skip them. I’m not saying that people don’t have fun, just that at some point during the evening I look around and notice a bunch of people with silly things on their heads, all engaged in some sort of sober discussion. And it strikes me as suitably absurd.

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  12. Pingback: British Christmas traditions: the brussels sprout | Notes from the U.K.

  13. The suggested posts at the bottom of your current post frequently suggest this one to me, and it makes me wonder was I a terrible Brussel-sprout abuser in a former life? ‘Cos I cannot stand the things. Husband buys ’em every other year, cooks ’em, tries to persuade me that the evil green things are wonderful, gets a sour look from me (the same look as he got two years before and seems to have forgotten) and then months later the neglected rest-of-pack in the freezer gets chucked out by yours truly. I’d be happy if Brussels sprouts left the planet.
    Other than that, this post was a joy to read. Well, apart from the sentences that contain the evil green things, maybe.

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    • Sorry to have brought up traumatic memories. I’m not sure what it would take to convince a government to get them off the planet. These aren’t easy times for space programs and–well, the question is, is this truly a priority? And once they’re off the planet, where do they go? Will they end up seeding some other unsuspecting planet with brussels sprouts?

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        • If we’re worried about an invasion from outer space, a ring of brussels sprouts around the planet might be a good deterrent. I imagine the invaders stopping as quickly as you can stop a space ship (which can’t be any too quickly) and sitting there arguing whether the inhabitants are just too crazy to mess with.

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  14. Pingback: Brussels sprouts at Christmas: a crisis update | Notes from the U.K.

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