I was going to shut up till next Friday, but this post at News from the Past is timely and makes me think (as if I didn’t already) that the spirit of love and joy struggles to hold its own against the spirit of outrage and complaint. It’s about Christmas carols and the great offense they caused in Victorian times. Have fun.
It’s almost Easter, so let’s drop in on those good folks who find themselves with an excess of money at this and every other time of year. Yes friends, with inequality on the increase and income being redistributed upward, it can be hard to figure out what to do with all that annoying cash (and its virtual equivalent), so when a few of the holidays come around I like to make a few useful suggestions. Because I do so want to be helpful.
What do I do with my cash? As a rule, I drop it on the floor of the village store while I’m wrestling change out of my pocket. I tell you, I can’t get rid of the stuff fast enough.
Anyway, welcome to the world of luxury Easter eggs. Let’s see how much money we can spend. And before someone else mentions it, let me be clear that what follows in no way represents the way 99.99% of British people live, or even what interests them; 99% of British Easter eggs sell for supermarket-type prices, at a rough guess £10 at the top end, three for £10 in the middle, and small eggs and chocolate rabbits for £1. I mention that because I want to be clear that I won’t be talking about the world most of us live in here.
For a mere £85, you can get a single-origin milk chocolate egg, boringly decorated with cherry blossoms, or the same thing in dark chocolate, only the dark chocolate’s from Madagascar, which may mean it’s more singular than single origin or may mean it’s less singular. We’re not told the origin of the milk chocolate, only that it’s singular. Maybe wherever it came from doesn’t sound as exotic as Madagascar. Maybe it’s from New Jersey.
Do they grow cacao in New Jersey? Not last I heard but it calls itself the garden state, so we can’t rule it out.
Which is better, single origin or Madagascan? Who cares. They cost the same.
The eggs weigh in at 800 grams of chocolate, which (in case your brain is wired non-metrically) is way the hell more than a pound of the stuff.
On the other hand, for £5 less (that’s £80, and aren’t you just proud of me that I figured that out?), you can get an ostrich Easter egg that’s half milk and half dark, filled with smaller chocolates and accompanied by a tray of chocolates that didn’t fit inside because those damned ostriches never did learn to plan ahead. They don’t really stick their heads in the sand to hide from danger, but you still can’t count on them to plan.
Is there a difference between planning and planning ahead? What else could you plan for if not something that’s ahead?
The egg is more than a kilo of chocolate, which translates to more than 2.2 pounds in non-metricality. How much more? They’re not saying. And you get zero decoration on the egg.
A bit further down the scale, for £57.50 you can get a milk chocolate egg “stippled” with dark chocolate and decorated with multicolored flowers. It’s not as expensive as the one with the cherry blossoms, but it is more colorful and more care went into arranging the verbiage. It’s not just stippled, it’s sumptuous. It “started life as the finest Swiss Grand Cru milk chocolate,” which makes me think that as a vegetarian I probably probably shouldn’t eat it. I don’t want to bite into something whose life was cut short because I wanted a snack.
Whether or not it was once alive, it now weights 600 grams.
Since I brought up the verbiage, I might as well say that I wouldn’t pay extra for it, no matter how carefully it’s arranged. You can’t eat the stuff.
And by way of full disclosure, I should say that I don’t want an Easter egg myself—especially an expensive one. I used to work in a candy factory and it cured me. I lost interest in almost all candy, although I do sometimes want good, plain dark chocolate—the kind most people think it meant for cooking.
But enough of that. As I was researching this post (I googled “easter eggs, luxury”—and yes, I included the comma; I can’t help myself), predictive text offered me “easter eggs the devil’s testicles.” And although—sorry, gents—testicles don’t interest me and I feel roughly the same way about the devil, the combination was too much to pass up. I’m here to tell you about parts of the world you might not stumble into yourself, right? So I clicked a few links and found that someone’s written a book that asks the burning question, “Are your children playing with Lucifer’s testicles?”
You thought they’d gone kind of quiet in the back bedroom, didn’t you?
[A late addition: Mikedw and Ubi Dubium (a) read the site more carefully than I did and (b) are more knowledgeable than I am, and both pointed out that it’s a satirical site. You can see their comments below. So I tripped on my own feet there. That’s particularly embarrassing since a blogger or two believed some of the more bizarre things I’ve said, including that Druids worshiped the Great Brussels Sprout, linked to them, and commented on them. But there’s no cure for embarrassement like admitting to it, so here you go. Read the rest of this with that in mind–I haven’t changed it.]
Now, I’m not so dedicated to this blog that I’m going to read the book for you, and no way in hell would I encourage the author by parting with money for it—I’d rather set the money on fire, thanks. So I’m limited to what the website told me, but it sound like the author recommends telling your children that their little heathen friends celebrate Easter the way they do because “in the old days, deluded pagans would gather round and hump like bunnies on Easter Sunday because they thought it would make their tomatoes grow faster.”
By way of extreme generosity, let’s assume (although it doesn’t say this) that you’re supposed to tell them about humping like bunnies in the most tolerant and age-appropriate way. You might also want to tell your kids why the pagans celebrated Easter on a Sunday, being as how they were pagans and all.
A quotation from the book says, “Pagan kids didn’t have anything to do on Easter Sunday because their mommies and daddies were stuck in a false temple all day, naked and writhing around with their neighbors in Satanic orgies of the flesh. You see, parents had to come up with a way to occupy their children while they were away from home, praying and fornicating under the altar of Satan. And since they didn’t have babysitters back then, they gave their kids eggs to play with and sometimes paint.”
And if that doesn’t teach me not to click random links on the internet, nothing will. It should also teach us all not to obsess about other people’s sex lives. It never leads anywhere good.
In spite of my better instincts, I’ve got to give you a link. How else will you know this isn’t the product of my diseased mind instead of someone else’s?
I need to get that out of our minds, don’t I? So let’s talk about chocolate again. When I’ve posted about overpriced Easter eggs in the past, I’ve waited until a newspaper or two runs an article about the most outrageous ones, then I ride on their research. But this year I thought I’d run the post a bit early, so we’ll have to make do with what I can find online.
Why don’t I call a few fancy store and do my research the way genuine journalists do? Because that works better when you write for some real publication instead of having to say, “Hi, I’m a blogger no one ever heard of. What’s the most ridiculous thing you’re selling this season?” So the internet it was.
Harrod’s is a reliable source of overpriced goodies, so I checked their website and found that they’re “partnered” with “artist Camille Walala,” who turned out a limited edition of twelve eggs. They say the “eggs are highly-prized; a fitting marriage of an exciting London designer with our [ahem; due modesty here] world-famous store.”
In the department of expensive verbiage, they could have saved some money by deleting the first hyphen, since it’s wrong anyway. And while I’m at it, the semi-colon began life as a comma and should probably return to that happy state of being before it gets mistaken for something edible, although it’s still going to be a clunky sentence for reasons I’m not going to get into.
The website doesn’t mention how much the eggs cost. I think it’s one of those “if you have to ask you can’t afford it” things, but if you insist on knowing how much money it’s humanly possible to spend on chocolate, you can look elsewhere on the site and order an assortment of truffles for £350, even though the assortment’s not specific to Easter. There’s no mention of how much it weighs, but the verbiage is weighty if not creative. It includes perfect, special, abundance, luxurious, mouth-watering, bespoke, and exquisite. Which—I’m sorry to be critical—strikes me as a bit ho-hum for that sort of money.
It also says the selection will leave you wanting more. At £350 a box, that might not be a good thing, but I suppose it depends on how much cash you’ve dropped on the floor of the village shop. If they ever move the freezer, they should have enough to buy a couple of boxes. Given what I contributed, I’m owed a taste.
As the Christmas season sneaks up on us, more and more people turn to Notes from the U.K. for help in understanding the link between brussels sprouts and Christmas. (I’ll get to the pudding in a minute. Be patient.) It started as early as October. Or maybe that was September. Who keeps track?
If you’re not British, you’re thinking, Christmas and brussels sprouts? That makes as much sense as Easter and birthday candles, or Hanukkah and ham.
But brussels sprouts are a traditional part of the British Christmas dinner. I’ve explained all this at length before, with (please, do remember where you are) varying degrees of accuracy and insanity. So instead of repeating myself, let me refer you to that great authority on all things British, me, for everything you need to know on the subject. And more. You’ll find it here and here and yes, even here.
Done? Seat belts fastened? Good, but before we move on I have to tell you that I recently got a link from a website that seems to have believed me when I wrote that the Druids worshipped the Great Brussels Sprout. That’ll learn me, as they said where I grew up. Or it should learn me, although it probably won’t.
For the record, if the Druids really did worship the Great Brussels Sprout, I don’t know about it and neither does anyone else. Very little’s actually known about the Druids, but since I made up that business about the sprouts, it’s a fairly safe bet that it’s not true.
I don’t know whether to collapse into a fit of giggles or a fit of shame. I really didn’t think I was in danger of being taken seriously.
You’re never in no danger of being taken seriously. If you don’t believe me, take a long, hard look at American politics.
But let’s move on.
Every year, starting sometime in the fall, people all over Britain wake from their mental slumber, first in ones and twos, then in tens and twenties, and ask themselves an important question, Why do we eat brussels sprouts at Christmas? And some percentage of them are bothered enough to go online and type the question into their browsers.
Some subset of that group finds its way here, and each member of that subset registers as a tiny ping in my stats—the behind-the-scenes breakdown of semi-useful, completely addictive information that WordPress provides its bloggers. And that, my friends, is how I know what people worry about in this Brexiting nation. The mess that are Britain’s negotiations with the European Union? Nope. The prospect of a collapsing pound? Wrong again. The possibility of devastating economic shrinkage or the growth in immigrantophobia? Not those either.
Okay, how about the underfunding and endless reorganization of the National Health Service? No again.
They worry about brussels sprouts. As anyone would in that sort of situation.
Now, a lot of people will accept something as a traditional part of a meal just because it’s always been presented to them as a traditional part of the meal. That’s particularly true if they like the thing: They don’t ask why, they just eat. Take Christmas pudding. We eat that at Christmas because it’s Christmas pudding, they tell themselves. You can’t eat Christmas pudding all year long, can you?
What about itty-bitty mince pies? We eat those because they taste Christmassy. Don’t bother me with silly questions, just pass me the pies, ’cause I’d like another.
You can tell that’s not a genuine British quote because it doesn’t include a please. Or a thank you. And I’m sure for several other reasons, which you’re more than welcome to list in the Comments.
But sprouts are—well, they’re a kind of specialist’s food. If they were books, they’d be literary fiction instead of mass market. So every year, some number of sprout-hating people drag themselves out of their most-of-the-year-long serenity and ask, “Why do we do this anyway?”
And here I am, ready to answer.
The reason people are confused is that British Christmas tradition, as far as I’ve observed it, doesn’t explain itself (and keep in mind that I’m triply an outsider as an American and a Jew and an atheist, so I don’t get the final word on this). You just do things because that’s how they’re done. Talk about your religious mysteries.
That kind of approach leaves questions in people’s minds.
By way of comparison, take the Passover, where explanations are built into the tradition. The youngest child—it used to be the youngest boy and in some strands of belief still is—asks a series of questions and some designated adult (I forget which one) answers. Over and over, each year. Same damn questions. Same damn answers. The kid never learns. At the most traditional seder (that’s the ritualized Passover dinner) I ever went to, I wasn’t sure I’d live long enough for the meal to end, because every twitch of the fork needed an explanation.
Why is this night different from all other nights? Because we have all this food but we’re not eating it, we’re reading very long explanations out of a book.
Okay, I’m sure most families handle the seder with grace and joy and the food gets eaten before it’s older than the family members. My experience is absurdly limited. The point is that the holiday’s structured to teach its meanings and symbolism. No one walks away wondering, Yeah, but why matzo? Why salt water? They not only know, they’re tired of hearing about it.
Okay, that’s an assumption. Cup of salt, please. We’ll sprinkle it right here, since we need salt water anyway.
But back to Christmas. I’m tired of explaining why brussels sprouts are part of the meal, so let’s go for a less predictable question this year: Why is Christmas pudding part of the meal?
Well, in the U.S., it’s not. All we know about the stuff is that Dickens wrote about it–and that’s only the people who read Dickens. As for the rest of the world, I’m betting the Christmas pudding’s a good way to measure how deep British influence goes in a culture. No Christmas pudding, minimal British influence. Let me know if I’m right, oh ye who live in countries that aren’t the U.S. or Britain.
Or if I’m wrong. That’s more fun anyway.
It turns out that Christmas pudding is the same as plum pudding. It also turns out that plum pudding doesn’t necessarily have any plums in it. Plum, in this case, means something-other-than-plums.
Are you with me? Pay attention here, because it’ll be on the test.
The Christmas pudding can be traced back to the 14th century, when it was a soup-like, porridgy thing called frumenty, made with beef or mutton plus raisins, currants, prunes, wines, and spices.
What’s porridge? (You only ask that if you’re not British.) It’s oats or some other cereal cooked in water or milk until it’s the texture of wallpaper paste. Mmmmmmmmmm. In Norwegian (sorry—Lord Google continues to offer me translations and I can’t help myself, I have to check) it’s called grot.
Aw, go on, comment, Ellen. You know you want to: I love oatmeal, but only the stuff you make with thick-cut oats. The British, though, are addicted to fine-cut oats, which make the wallpapery stuff. They’ve even discovered that if they soak the oats overnight it’ll be even gluier. What can I tell you? It’s one of those cultural differences that make our world so interesting.
But back to frumenty: It was a fasting meal.
A what? Doesn’t fasting mean not eating? No. It’s kind of like plum pudding not meaning a pudding with plums. You could eat during a fast, but you couldn’t enjoy yourself, because all the good stuff was off the menu.
At the time we’re talking about, you got to Christmas by way of a month of fasting during Advent, and frumenty was something you ate during that month. It sounds horrible to me, but it’s full of things that would’ve been expensive back then—spices, dried fruit, wine. Not to mention meat (that may have been meat or fat or broth; I’ve read a number of sources and recipes and it all gets a little murky here), which the poor didn’t have even if they weren’t fasting. So I’m guessing this is deprivation eating for the rich.
By way of total transparency, the frumenty recipes I looked at include wheat, milk, sugar, and other stuff that’s not in the various lists of medieval frumenty ingredients. They also leave out the meat or fat, although stock is optional in some. So these would be the modern versions.
Skip forward to the almost-16th century and we find that frumenty’s morphed into a plum pudding, made with eggs, breadcrumbs, dried fruit, and wine or beer. By 1640, it was a standard Christmas dessert and it tasted good enough for the Puritans to ban it, along with Yule logs, Christmas carols, nativity scenes, iPhones, and fun.
Or that’s one version of the tale. Another goes like this:
“Christmas pudding has its roots in medieval English sausages, when fat, spices and fruits (the best preservatives of their day) were mixed with meats, grains and vegetables and packed into animal stomachs and intestines so they would keep as long as possible. The first records of plum puddings date to the early 15th century, when ‘plum pottage,’ a savory concoction heavy on the meat and root vegetables, was served at the start of a meal. Then as now, the ‘plum’ in plum pudding was a generic term for any dried fruit—most commonly raisins and currants, with prunes and other dried, preserved or candied fruit added when available. By the end of the 16th century, dried fruit was more plentiful in England and plum pudding made the shift from savory to sweet. The development of the pudding cloth—a floured piece of fabric that could hold and preserve a pudding of any size—further freed the pudding from dependence on animal products (but not entirely: suet, the fat found around beef and mutton kidneys, has always been a key ingredient).”
Why does the plum in plum pudding mean things that aren’t plums? Because this is English we’re dealing with. Ask for a fruit scone in Britain and you’ll get a scone with raisins. Why don’t they call it a raisin scone? Because it’s called a fruit scone.
Feel like you’ve just gone in circles? It could be worse. Try asking why Britain’s called Britain. (Sorry, I’m referring you to that renowned expert, myself, again.)
In 1714, with the Puritans safely out of power, King George reestablished the Christmas pudding as an end to the Christmas dinner. He became known as the pudding king, which may or may not be a better than being called Ivan the Terrible.
All sorts of religious symbolism has been woven into various elements of the pudding over the years. Why do you pour brandy over the top, turn off the lights, and light the brandy? Because it symbolizes Jesus’ love and power.
Uh huh. And incidentally because it’s very pretty. And because you get to add a little more brandy to an already very boozy dessert.
I won’t go through all they symbolism. I suspect most of them aren’t passed down anymore—they’re something you have to look up online, or maybe hear from your mother who vaguely remembers, or possibly misremembers, what great-great-aunt Hetty used to say.
But whatever you celebrate at this time of year—if you celebrate anything—remember to eat all your Christmas pudding or you don’t get any brussels sprouts.
And if you need to know anything about Britain, just ask me. I don’t actually know much, but I can fill page after virtual page telling you that.
Maybe next year we’ll dig out the true history of the mince pie.
Hey, folks, want to spend a shitload of money celebrating something that was once supposed to be somber and full of self-denial? Well, be of good cheer, then, because we’re still in the middle of Advent—a holiday I barely knew about until I moved to Britain.
I’m not sure how big a thing Advent is for American Christians. I have the impression that it’s more important to Catholics than to Protestants, but when I lived in the U.S. it was never a noisy enough holiday to have made a dent in this Jewish atheist’s awareness—and that’s in spite of growing up in a Catholic neighborhood and having Catholic godkids. I knew it existed and I knew it involved calendars, and there my knowledge ended. I remember seeing an Advent calendar at a friend’s house. It had a little window to open, and behind that a picture. What kid could resist? But the pictures turned out to be religious and I lost interest.
Assuming I’m right about Advent being more important for Catholics than for (most) Protestants, the British focus on Advent is a reminder that the Anglican Church may be Protestant but it’s very much descended from Catholicism.
The British Advent season seems to be mostly–maybe entirely–about calendars. I can’t seem to stop reading about them, because they’re not just sitting around on a store shelf, waiting for someone to buy them for their kids. They’re popping steroids and growing muscles where no one ever grew muscles before. On their hair. On their teeth. They’re—change the metaphor for me, someone, please—the mega-zombie apocalypse of all Advent calendars.
The newspapers review them almost like movies. And you could go to a lot of movies for the cost of these beasties. The ones for kids might have a reasonable price tag and a piece of chocolate behind each window, but they’re making them for adults now. And not just for adults, for the over-indulged adults of the 1%.
And also for the—I’m making up the numbers here, so don’t quibble—adults for the 5.6% just below them. And for a few for the rest of us who want a few minutes of thinking we can have the lives we see on TV.
Should we start near the top end? I found one for £300. And what do you get for that? Some (I hate to admit it) very nice packaging and a bunch of beauty products.
I just love that phrase, beauty product. You put this stuff on your face and become so beautiful no one will know who you are anymore. That nose you always thought was too long, or too wide, or too whatever? It disappears. Your wrinkles? They have such a nice skim of plaster that you look like a freshly painted wall.
Beauty products are a big thing with these calendars, and one reviewer blames that on the blogosphere, and specifically on beauty bloggers. The internet’s full of them, and of beauty-blog readers, so there’s a built-in way to promote them. In case anyone needs a reminder of how commercial blogging can be—.
In case it isn’t already clear, I’m not getting paid to promote beauty product calendars. That may be linked to the fact that I’m not promoting them. Also that I don’t wear makeup. I already have a face, although you can’t tell that from the photo I use. The face was installed well before I was born and it’ll have to do.
It’s easy to forget how crazy our lust for stuff is (see how neatly I just included you in this) until we’re yanked outside our familiar territory and that unfamiliarity lets us look around and notice how strange things are. So the insanity of Christmas spending? It’s been going on so long it’s hard to see. But a £300 Advent calendar? The world’s gone insane.
You can also spend £90 with an outfit called Cowshed and get a “luxurious Advent calendar packed with a wide range of natural products. Each door opens up to reveal another beauty treat to ensure that you’re well pampered in that hectic Christmas build-up.”
All this from a cowshed? Think Marie Antoinette. She’s out there playing at being a shepherd. Or cowherd. Or, well, she didn’t have to know her cows from her sheep anyway, did she? At a mere £90, this calendar is for commoners—admittedly, only for commoners with £90 to spare, but still, when we start with £300 it begins to look cheap. Still, it lets us play at being Marie Antoinette as we pamper ourselves during that hectic Christmas build-up. We can pretend the servants will put up the decorations.
Or maybe I have Marie Antoinette mixed up with Queen Victoria, but don’t’ worry about it, because we’re moving on.
If you’re beautiful enough already, or set on letting the people you know continue to recognize you, you can get calendars with chocolate (£65 for 24 mini-houses holding a chocolate each), or tools (£44, and the tools are small or they wouldn’t fit in a calendar), or socks (£79) or alcohol (£149.95 for scotch; £124.95 for gin; or, stop the press, I just found one with whiskey for a round £10,000, because once you pass the thousand-pound mark there’s no point in tacking on the change), or stationery (£90 for paperclips, sticky notes, tape, pens, and a—gack—gratitude journal). Or selfie accessories (a steal at £19.99 and who knows when you’ll need a fake mustache for your next selfie).
I did my best to find out if Advent’s gone this wild in the U.S., but Google insists on telling me about Britain and only Britain. Even when I shifted to Google U.S.A., the prices came up in pounds. Lord Google knows what I want to know, or at least what I need to know, or at least where I am and therefore where he can help sell me, and he’s not about to tell me anything else.
But it may also be because luxury Advent calendars aren’t a thing in the U.S. I look forward to finding out once you commenters get loose on this.
The top marks for complete obscenity goes to the 2010 Porsche million U.S. dollar calendar, which included a speedboat, a kitchen, a watch, cufflinks, “fine writing tools” (presumably pens and pencils, but maybe quills, because hey, what do I know about this stuff?), and a pair of running shoes. I don’t know how they packaged it all, but it stood 1.75 meters tall (that’s 5.74 feet, just in case you’re clearing space in your living room). They only made five and even though the price was in dollars they were sold through Harrods in London.
The bakery chain Greggs made a much more down-to-earth calendar with coupons for sausage rolls, lattes, mince pies, and other fairly ordinary stuff. I only mention it because they substituted the sausage roll (with a bite out of it) for the baby Jesus in a nativity scene and it hit the press.
The sausage roll looks, in the context of the Wise Men figures, very big. Maybe that’s why someone took a bite.
All hell broke loose, with expressions of outrage from conservative Christian organizations and accusations that other religions never get insulted this way. Which, in a sense, is true: They get insulted in other, and as far as I can see more damaging, ways. I’m guessing the people hitting the roof haven’t tried flying while in possession of a Muslim name lately.
Anyway, have a somber season of fasting and self-denial, folks. And don’t buy any Porsches until you check with me.
Easter’s creeping up on us and I’m living in an officially Christian country, which can be a strange experience for this Jewish atheist from the U. S. of no established religion A. In the U.S., I got used to people at least nodding once or twice in the direction of diverse beliefs. Even if those nods were sometimes more form than content, they were better than no nods at all.
Here, at least in rural Cornwall, spring brings Easter and only Easter—a solemn time of year when people gorge on chocolate and, in our village at least, kids roll eggs down a hill. For some people it’s a religious holiday, but for many it’s all chocolate, all the time. Still, religious or not, it is Easter. Almost everyone for miles in any direction, including up, down, and out to sea, is from a Christian background. Religious or not, the Christian holidays are part of their landscape.
Britain has an official religion, but that’s not the same thing as being a deeply religious country. I have a theory I can’t prove, but for what it’s worth I believe making a religion official drives people away from it in the long run.
I’m not sure how long that run is, mind you, and that’s handy, because if we’re discussing a place where it hasn’t played out that way I get to say, “Give it time.”
If I’m right and you happen to have a religion you like enough to want an entire nation to adopt it, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
This year the Church of England—the country’s official church, remember—accused the chocolate company Cadbury and the National Trust, which owns a gazillion historic properties and runs tourists through them and their associated gift shops in the classiest possible way, of “airbrushing faith” out of its Easter egg hunts.
What did they do? Well, instead of holding Easter egg hunts, this year they called them Cadbury egg hunts. The church is apoplectic. Or, in fairness, parts of the church are apoplectic, but let’s keep using shorthand and say it’s the church as a whole. The sentences get too complicated otherwise, because I’m not sure exactly which parts of the church we’re talking about.
The National Trust pointed out that Easter is mentioned 13,000 times on its website, and furthermore that it was up to Cadbury to name and publicize the events they cosponsored. To translate that, they’re saying nothing happened and we didn’t do it.
Cadbury defended itself by saying that they use the word Easter multiple times elsewhere in their publicity, but the church still isn’t happy. If the word Easter doesn’t appear in the egg hunt name, it just isn’t Easter.
It all reminds me of a game we played when I was a kid, Captain, May I? The kid who was It told someone to take a step forward—a giant step, a baby step, a banana step. I don’t remember what a banana step was, but on 75th Street we had one. Kids who took the step without saying, “Captain, may I?” went back to the starting line.
Well, Cadbury forgot to say Easter in the right line of the publicity and has to go back to the starting line.
A BBC article reproduces one of the egg hunt promos, showing the phrase “enjoy Easter fun” in more eye-catching type than the Easterless egg hunt phrase. But it’s just not good enough. The National Trust has to go back to the starting line too.
The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, said that not mentioning Easter in the egg hunt name was like “spitting on the grave” of John Cadbury, the chocolate company’s most Christian founder. But Cadbury’s several-times-great- granddaughter Esther McConnell spat back (firmly, gently, and metaphorically) that as a Quaker Cadbury didn’t celebrate Easter. “He believed that every day is equally sacred and, back then, this was expressed by not marking festivals.”
Take that, Archbishop.
The humanist society has called the whole thing a storm in an eggcup, but in case the flap wasn’t silly enough, the prime minister, Theresa May, waded in and said the decision to drop the word Easter was “absolutely ridiculous.”
Thanks, Terry. That deepened the conversation beyond measure.
Or do you prefer Terri?
Several articles have asked (and generally not quite answered) the question, Are egg hunts actually Christian? According to a Huffington Post article, the tradition of decorating eggs predates Christianity. But from an early stage, the egg was also claimed by various Christian groups as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection. So far, so ambiguous. A Wikipedia article (never mind a link—it will all have changed by now) said more or less the same thing. So the egg seems to be both Christian and pre-Christian. And quite possibly non-Christian, although no one I found addressed this.
And the hunt? Nobody seems to be saying.
What about the Easter bunny? That symbolizes how irresistible little fuzzy animals are. The basket of eggs symbolizes breakfast. No religion has an exclusive claim to eggs, bunnies, or breakfast. You can call them what you like without fearing the wrath of an archbishop.
Bunnies, in case you’ve ever wondered about this, do not lay eggs. They don’t eat them either, which is why the Easter bunny’s willing to deliver them to humans.
And chocolate eggs? They symbolize candy companies making a lot of money. In the most religious possible way.
What fascinates me about this whole uproar is that the Church of England seems to be taking the position that it owns Easter and any organization large enough to be seen from space has to pay rent in the form of proper wording. But the holiday long since slipped out of church hands and it’s now a secular as well as (not instead of, mind you) a religious holiday.
That’s the price a religion pays for having dominated the national conversation for so long—and here we’re back to my unproven theory. Some of its holy traditions became folk traditions, and when the folk wandered away from the church, as most people from Christian backgrounds have in Britain, they do whatever they want with them. If they want chocolate rabbits or Easterless egg hunts that include, as some bit of commentary put it, people of all religions and none, then they’ll have them. And other than fussing, there isn’t much the church or the prime minister can do about it.
While we’re on the subject of chocolate and silly upsets, let’s talk about a social media storm claiming (oh, the horror of it all) that Cadbury is selling halal chocolate.
We’ll get to what halal chocolate is in a paragraph or two, but first, what’s wrong with that? Well, gasp, Muslims can eat it. Shock. More horror. What will become of the country if it appeases Muslims by changing its time-honored chocolate recipes? Britain will cease to be British, that’s what.
What makes food halal? It has to be porkless, and any meat that’s involved has to be slaughtered in a certain way. Compared to the complexities of keeping kosher, keeping food halal is simple. Keeping kosher means, no pork, no shellfish, meat slaughtered in a certain way, meat and dairy have to be kept separate, and don’t get me started on what you have to do on Passover because I understand it in only the vaguest way, There are probably other rules, but that’s enough for a quick snapshot.
Jews and kosher, though, aren’t the bogeyman of the moment. Muslims and halal are.
But let’s go back to chocolate candy. It doesn’t have any pork. It doesn’t have any meat. It’s not made anyplace where it could be contaminated with either one. I used to work in a candy factory, so I’m prepared to testify on that. It was pigless, meatless, underpaid work. And my hair smelled like disgustingly chocolate.
So is chocolate halal? Um, sure. So are carrots. So’s lettuce. Ban carrots! Ban salad! Add lard to your chocolate bars! They’ll taste terrible and clog your arteries, but at least they won’t be halal. We’ll starve out the terrorists.
And what product was the flap about? According to the article I found, Cadbury’s Easter eggs. Which Cadbury’s was—as far as I can make out—calling Easter eggs and which probably aren’t marketed heavily to the Muslim market.
The photo accompanying the article was apparently from the Asia-Pacific market and showed someone with a halal certificate and instead of Easter eggs a couple of chocolate bars. Which symbolize the trouble you can get into on the internet by doing nothing more than making chocolate according to the recipe you’ve been using for years.
And finally, a quick roundup of grotesquely overpriced chocolate eggs, because here at Notes from the U.K. that’s how we celebrate Easter.
Hotel Chocolat sells the Ostrich Egg–Classic for £90. The dash in the name is theirs, although purists please note, I changed it from an en dash to an em dash, originally so it wouldn’t form a mid-dash break at the end of the line but once I changed the layout because I’m too lazy to change it back. It’s over a kilo of chocolate and the text says, “Ostriches lay the largest eggs of any living bird–and we measured a real one to create the heftiest shell in our range!”
First point: As a general rule, dead birds don’t lay eggs. So you don’t, strictly speaking, need to say “living.”
Sorry, I can’t help myself. I worked as an editor and copy editor, which is a way of saying that I misunderstood people for a living. Some things stay with you even after you retire.
Second point: That bit about the “heftiest shell in our range”? It’s like saying that at five foot not very much I’m the tallest person in my category. The problem is, what category are we talking about?
Poof. The text just disappeared in a puff of semi-organic cocoa.
But let’s move into a higher range. Fortnum & Mason sells the Collosal Egg for £90. It’s 1.4 kilos of chocolate and F & M defies anyone “not to be impressed” by it.
I’m not impressed, because Bettys (there’s no apostrophe in the name) of Harrogate sells its Imperial Easter Egg for £250. It weighs 5 kilos and is delivered personally, whatever that means. You have to call to work out the details–that’s how personal it is.
Winning the competition, however (and remember, this isn’t really a competition you’d want to win) is the Hotel Cafe Royal, which sells an Easter egg for £600. It weighs more than the planet it rests upon and takes three days to make. I have no idea how you’d buy one because it’s so exclusive the hotel website doesn’t mention it. That keeps the riffraff from trying to buy stuff that’s above their station.
That’s a very British concept, getting above your station. I should write about it but I understand it even less than I understand the intricacies of keeping kosher.
I also don’t know how the monster egg is delivered. Maybe you have to arrange to be born inside so you can eat your way out, but that’s not the kind of information the riffraff need to have, so I just don’t know.
For a final bizarre note, the Evening Standard calls a £57.50 egg from Bettys “reasonably priced” but recommends the £37 version “for those on a budget.”
That’s a hell of a budget. And no, if you live somewhere else and are trying to figure out what life in Britain is like, this is not real life.
Whatever you celebrate at this time of year—if you celebrate anything—I wish you a good, non-hysterical, and financially sustainable holiday.
Christmas carols, according to one source I found, weren’t originally Christian. They were solstice songs. Then the country was Christianized and it took the songs along with it, but they didn’t become church songs, they stayed outside, in people’s homes, as well as out of doors and in whatever the period’s equivalent of the pub was. They were seasonal folk songs.
Fast forward more than a few hundred years and Oliver Cromwell came to power, with his humorless version of Protestantism. He didn’t approve of fun, and he tried to stamp the songs out but they went underground and survived.
In the Victorian era they were rediscovered and became respectable (I think) and new carols were added.
End of history lesson. I won’t swear that it’s entirely accurate, but it seems to be somewhere in the neighborhood of accuracy. Close enough (as they say of guitar tuning) for folk music.
One of the many shocks of moving to Cornwall was discovering that the carols sung here aren’t the songs Wild Thing and I grew up with. Sometimes the tunes are different, sometimes the words, sometimes the whole damn song’s new to us. And when we’d comment on it, as we did at first, repeatedly whoever we were talking to would look unimpressed and say, “Oh, that’s the Boscastle version.” Or “That’s the Marhamchurch version.” Or that’s some other version. As if difference were perfectly normal.
Or dainty little American souls were scandalized. Because Christmas carols? They were supposed to be unchangeable. But here was every town, every village, practically every house, with its own variation.
That does testify to the genuine folkiness of carols. That’s what folk’ll do if you turn your back on them. They’ll change stuff. They’ll create new stuff. They’ll take the stuff you think is fixed forever and make it their own.
I should admire that, and in the abstract I do. But it also pisses me off. I have a dainty little American soul. Those are Christmas carols. They’ve been through the American Commercial Christmas Network that fed my childhood and you’re not allowed to change them.
But change them people have, and they did it long before the American Commercial Christmas Network got its fake-snow-and-glittery little hands one them.
This year, like every year, Christmas carols are everywhere. Not I don’t mean just piped into stores, the way they are in the U.S., although that happens too, and it always starts too early in the year. I just got back from taking the dog to the vet (I’m writing this in early December) and they’re playing them there already. The woman at the reception desk had reached her limit the day before and turned them off, along (accidentally) with the internet. I thought it was worth sacrificing the internet to get some peace and quiet. Sadly, the whole thing was fixed by the time I showed up.
But real people will also be singing them. Every local choir and brass or silver band (and there are as many of each as there are petitions on the government petition site) will have been practicing them and looking for a time and place to inflict them on the public. Cafes and pubs will hold special events featuring carols. Someone’s head will pop out of the sink drain and start caroling.
And none of them will be the songs that I know, ignoring all the evidence to the contrary, to be unchangeable. In spite of that, and in spite of how heavily I’ve slanted my language about them, a lot of people will be happy to hear them. Probably most people. After the first one of two, I don’t happen to be among them, that’s all.
A mid-December update on how inconsistent I am about all this: Friends asked me to join them on a version of “Silent Night” at the pub’s singers night. They need an extra alto; I have a low voice. I was pleased to be asked and I said yes. They’re nice people, and good singers.
It’s a beautiful version, even if it’s not the one I know to be, ahem, right. We ran through it a few times the other day and once we started singing, the pleasure of it took over and my quibbles fell away. Except for every so often, when I’d listen to myself and think, These are very strange words for me to be singing.
Which leads me to my yearly explanation of how this Jewish atheist ended up knowing (never mind singing) Christmas carols.
First, if you live in the U.S., you can’t help knowing them. Whatever your beliefs, if you need so much as a tube of toothpaste during December (or late November, or possibly July) and go to a store to buy it, Christmas carols will drip their way into your ears and seep into your brain. No matter how sheltered your life is, you will learn them.
My life hasn’t been sheltered. I come from a family of assimilated Jews. In other words, we were Jewish but not particularly so. We didn’t keep the Jewish holidays or traditions, we weren’t religious, and I grew up celebrating Christmas as what my parents called a national holiday. Our way of celebrating, they’d have sworn, had no religious elements.
Except, of course, for the ones that snuck in. Because, second (you remember that just above we were counting the reasons I know Christmas carols?), we sang carols. They were nice songs. They were part of the holiday. Which was, in spite of all my parents could do, at its core a religious holiday. I might have been about eight when I was with my mother and listening to, or possibly singing, “Silent Night,” with its line about “round yon virgin mother and child.”
I asked what a virgin was.
“It’s a young woman who hasn’t had a baby,” my mother said.
Well, that was resolutely uninformative, although I don’t think she meant it to be. She was as direct with us about sex as she could bring herself to be, but it was the fifties, so she was fighting the weight of the culture. What I had pictured was a mother and child sitting around a fire. So okay, I understood that I had to change my picture. They were sitting around a young woman who hadn’t had a baby.
Why would they do that and how would it keep them warm?
I don’t know how many years it took me to make sense of that line.
In a lot ways, I think, the innocence of children is overvalued.
At a later Christmas, an older cousin brought a girlfriend who was a singer, and the whole extended Jewish (with a few exceptions) atheist (with at that time, I think, no exceptions) family ended up around the piano singing Christmas carols. We had a great time, and it wasn’t until decades later that I realized how funny that scene is.
So I have warm feelings about Christmas carols, but the annual piped-music assault wore a lot of them away. And then I moved from New York, where a lot of people around me didn’t celebrate Christmas, to Minnesota, where for a while it seemed that everyone did, and I missed the sense that celebrating was optional. It began to feel like a requirement, and I developed mixed feelings about the holiday.
It’s also true that I was an adult by then, and the prospect of presents didn’t give me the warm, greedy glow it once had. That could have had something to do with it too.
And now, in Cornwall, where I seem to be one of only three Jews within a forty (okay, fifteen) mile radius? I get spiky at this time of year. And I feel the urge, now and then, to remind some random person that not everyone celebrates Christmas, even if I do, and not everyone sings Christmas carols.
Occasionally I actually do that, and for the most part, the random person says, more or less, yes but it’s just a holiday. They remind me of its pagan roots. They tell me you don’t have to be a Christian to celebrate it.
And that’s true, but I’m not just not-a-Christian in terms of belief. I’m not a Christian. You see the difference?
Of course not. I don’t explain it well, at least partly, that’s because I don’t make a big thing out of being Jewish. It’s not a huge part of my life. But I am still Jewish. That’s not a simple thing to be, and I don’t want to let it disappear behind the tinsel and the music.
And with that out of the way, I’ll tell you that by the time you read this we’ll have decorated the tree–in part with ornaments my mother gave us. And we’ll light Hanukkah candles because Wild Thing, the recovering Southern Methodist, loves to.
Like I said, it’s complicated. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Whatever you celebrate at this time of year, or celebrated if I’m late, I wish you a good one. And if you don’t celebrate anything, I wish you a moment of quiet amid all the aggressive celebrating.
Last Saturday’s Western Morning News had a story about a “£300,000 rural crime spree” in which six men stole four-wheel-drives, tractors, trailers, boats, farm equipment, and–this reads like it wandered in from a different story but I swear it didn’t–chocolate Easter eggs. Thousands of pounds worth of chocolate Easter eggs. I’d give you a link but I can’t find the story online. I read it in the print edition. It was on–do you remember paper? It was on paper. So you’ll just have to trust me on this.
Or not. If you think I made it up, no harm done. I’ll get credit for a bizarre imagination.
How much space does it take to store thousands of pounds worth of Easter eggs? Well, that depends on how much the Easter eggs cost, which (if you were buying instead of stealing them) is another way of saying it depends on your income, or at least outgo. It might take less space than you’d think. Hotel Chocolat sells one for £75, but at Fortnum and Mason, you can drop £90 for a chocolate Easter egg or £250 for a “chocolate beehive sculpture” (sorry–I can’t take that seriously enough to leave it outside of quotation marks; I don’t want the blame for that description). And for that amount, I’ll throw in more quotation marks: It’s made from “majestic” Valrhona chocolate. Whatever the hell Valrhona chocolate is, the price went up by £50 pounds when they glued that adjective to it.
I worked in a candy factory for long enough to lost my taste for the stuff, and although I wouldn’t say they used particularly good chocolate and I wouldn’t hold it up as setting the world standard for chocolates–well, what I’m trying to say is that I’ve never seen majestic chocolate.
Fortnum and Mason can’t send the beehive, by the way. Maybe at £250 you’re not paying enough for that or maybe it’s just too valuable to ship. Either way,you’ll have to pick it up at the store.
Or you can spend your £250 at Betty’s of Harrogate and get Betty’s “Imperial Easter Egg.” Betty delivers. “Personally.” That goes in quotes too. I assume that’s personally to you, not personally by Betty. In fact, I don’t even know that there is a Betty, or that there ever was. And while we’re talking about things I don’t know, I don’t know how much she charges to deliver, because you have to call to find out–the information isn’t online–but if you’re spending £250 for a chunk of decorated chocolate, why quibble about delivery costs?
Okay, let’s get back to that personal delivery. Have you ever had anything sent to you that wasn’t delivered personally? I’m guessing the personally, in this context, means by a person (as opposed to a drone) and to a person. Even if the package is left in the garage, or with a neighbor, it’s still to you, personally. Or, if they insist on it going directly into your anxious little paws, all it means is that you’re stuck waiting around for it.
Who writes this stuff? I once saw a real estate brochure for an apartment building that said it had an indoor elevator. That’s as opposed, presumably, to a trebuchet, which is a £250 word for the kind of catapult used in medieval sieges–an outdoor arrangement that delivers you memorably to granny’s fourth floor apartment if her place doesn’t have an indoor elevator. After you arrive splat in her living room, her place won’t have glass in the window either, blurring the line between indoor and outdoor.
I’ve wandered, haven’t I? We were talking about the Easter eggs.Betty’s is 5.4 kilos of chocolate, milk or dark, If you think in pounds rather than kilos, you can either multiply that by 2.2 or simply accept that it’s a shitload of chocolate. You can also multiply, divide, and go into shock over how much you’re spending per pound. Or ounce.
From Betty’s site I went to Cadbury’s, which asked how much I wanted to spend. The answer was, Oh, lots! and I clicked on the most expensive category, which was “over £50.” That’s me,the reckless spender, but the best they could do for me was offer hampers–enough stuff thrown together to take the price up to an even £50. Given where I’d just come from, I wasn’t impressed. So I checked out Lidl’s, the discount supermarket, where I could buy a bag of chocolate (I think) mini-eggs for £1.29, and they’ll ring them up at the cash register for me personally. After that, I can personally carry it out to my car, munching as I go. Except that I used to work in that candy factory and I’m immune to the lure of anything but good (although not majestic), very plain dark chocolate.
So–returning to the actual story I was telling, and you may have forgotten that there was one but I haven’t–it’s not clear how much storage space the stolen Easter eggs needed. Especially since the Westy didn’t say how many thousands of pounds of Easter eggs it was talking about. The Westy‘s like that. It tells you what it tells you, which is often that the neighbors were shocked and horrified, and leaves out what it leaves out, which can be a great deal. But it does spell neighbors with a U. Always.
Before I leave the topic entirely, I need to credit the members of my writers group, who pointed me in the direction of the Betty’s of Harrogate egg. They’re wonderful, and every bit as strange as I am.
If you celebrate Easter, have a good Easter. And if you don’t–well, neither do I. Whatever you believe, don’t steal any Easter eggs, okay? At the end of it all, you just eat them (it’s too late in the season to sell them) and eating a £250 egg–well, what does that leave you with?
Pancake Day came and went quietly this year. It’s a holiday I never heard of before I moved to the U.K. and it’s such a quiet one that I’d been here a couple of years before I even noticed it.
Pancake Day is also known as Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent starts. Traditionally, anyone who kept Lent gave up everything fun, and that put a lot of pressure on that last pre-Lent day. So New Orleans went wild with Mardi Gras and still does. Brazil cut loose during Carnival and keeps right on doing it. And the British? They eat pancakes.
Does this country know how to throw a party or what?
The logic of Pancake Day is inescapable. People were supposed to give up eggs, milk, and sugar during lent, so they used them up the night before by making pancakes. What were they supposed to do with the eggs the chickens went right on laying and the milk the cow kept on giving? Because cows and chickens don’t care if it’s Lent. They don’t believe in any religion, and even if they did biological processes are hard to control But what do I know? I’m Jewish and I’m an atheist, and if that isn’t enough I grew up in New York, where we didn’t keep a lot of cows or chickens. So I’m not an expert on this stuff. In fact, I thought all a person had to do during Lent was give up one thing, like orange bubble gum or blue frosting. But maybe that’s a toned-down modern approach.
Anyway, these days Britain’s long on tradition but light on traditional religion. So it substitutes eating pancakes for emptying the cupboards of all the good stuff and entering a somber season in a sugar-free, egg-free, lactose-free condition. And even I can get behind eating pancakes, although not on a fixed day every year, which accounts for me being late with this post.
So let’s talk about pancakes. They never go out of season.
British pancakes—at least the ones I’ve had—are more like French crepes, which is to say, thin. I first tasted them when a neighbor borrowed some flour because he had to make pancakes that night–it was Pancake Day–and in payment he brought us each a pancake, with lemon (I think) and (definitely) sugar. They were good. I can’t think of a bad thing to say about them. But sometimes a person just wants a thick ol’ American pancake. So be warned, I’m leading up to a recipe. Because no matter how good British pancakes are, I believe in the American version. What can I tell you? Talk to me about food and I’m capable of unreasoning patriotism.
I’ve seen British food writers offer approximations of American pancakes and they have some strange ideas about how we make them. One adds vanilla and honey but no baking soda or baking powder. Which is why she has to beat hell out of the egg whites. Another beats hell out of the whole mix until it’s thoroughly blended and lumpless, which is a good idea if you’re making a cake but not so great if you want pancakes, because they need a lumpy batter.
Why the food writers don’t just look in an American cookbook I don’t know, but here’s my recipe.
Serves 2 moderate eaters; for enthusiastic eaters, double the recipe and eat the leftovers cold and straight from the refrigerator
1 cup (4 oz.) flour
1 tsp. sugar
½ tsp. salt
¾ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. bicarbonate of soda
½ cup (or more) buttermilk (or plain milk with about 1 tsp. of cider or white vinegar added*)
1 Tbsp. (½ oz.) melted butter
Optional: blueberries, peaches, or raspberries
Put the dry ingredients in a bowl and whisk them together. That’s instead of sifting. I’m a lazy cook and this works. Beat the egg into the milk and add it to the dry ingredients. Add the butter. Stir until just barely mixed, leaving some lumps. Add more milk if you need to until you get a thick but pourable batter. The thinner the batter, the thinner the pancakes will be.
Stir the fruit in last.
Heat the frying pan (or several pans, which will let you cook them faster) over a medium-high heat until a drop of water bounces (in theory; I usually settle for it sizzling madly). Add a bit of oil or butter and spread it with a spatula. If you’re using a non-stick pan, you don’t need much; if you’re not, you’ll need more and will have to add more before each new pancake. Pour in a ladleful of batter. I generally make my pancakes a bit bigger than CD-size. but you can make smaller ones if you like. Hell, you can shape them into the letters of the alphabet if you want, but they’ll be hard to flip. Don’t put a cover on the the pan. Bubbles will rise and then break, signaling that the bottom’s probably done. Sneak a look and if it’s brown, flip the pancake. Leave the second side on the pan long enough for the center to cook through.
You may need to adjust the heat as you go. If the pancakes burn, turn it down. If they don’t brown, turn it up. You’d probably have figured that out without me saying it.
You can feed them to the ravening hordes as they get done of keep them warm in a very low oven until they’re all cooked and you can sit down yourself.
Serve with butter and maple syrup. Or if you’re in a Lenten kind of mood, with plain old yogurt, which is surprisingly good with them.
*The milk will curdle when you mix in the vinegar. That’s fine.
As Christmas approaches, carols leak into the folk (and occasionally other kinds of) songs at the pub’s singers night. It happens every year, and every year I ask myself if I shouldn’t take a week or two off to avoid them.
I have a couple of reasons for that. The first and simplest is that I expect carols to be unchanging and over here they’re not. Some have the same words as the American ones and at first the tunes sound like they’ll behave, then they take a sharp left and head off in some new direction, leaving me all alone and on the wrong note. Usually at full volume. In others the tune stays the same but the words are different.
The first few times I heard that, I’d turn to someone nearby and say, “That’s not the way we sing it.”
I might as well have said how shocked I was that gravity was operating over the holidays. Whoever it was would say, “Oh, I know. That’s the Cornish version.” Or the Boscastle version. Or the Padstow version. They’d learned a different version back in Shropshire, or Essex, or Truro, or Wherever.
I’d explain: In the U.S., Christmas carols are harder to change that the Constitution, which (to simplify things a bit) only needs a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate and then the approval of three-quarters of the state legislatures. It’s a high standard to meet, but at least a procedure’s mapped out and ready to use. Christmas carols, though? Sorry, but we don’t have a way to change them, so they stay fixed, the North Star of our culture.
Whoever I was talking to would hear me out and then tell me all over again about Shropshire or Essex or Wherever. Eventually I stopped trying.
So that’s one reason I think about disappearing for the holidays. The next is that some of the carols are—well, let me tell you a story instead of trying to sum them up: Wild Thing and I went to a school Christmas concert to hear a friend’s daughter, and one of the carols was about Mary’s womb. And there we were expecting “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Which, by the way, I hate.
Wild Thing leaned over and whispered that the Methodists in Amarillo never talked about Mary’s lady parts, let put them to music. In Amarillo, it was all “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o(etc.)ria.” They sang the same carols I did, whose religion had, at least to my ears, been worn away by repetition. But change the words a bit and toss in Mary’s womb and you’ll jolt me out of my dozy acceptance. It starts to sound, you know, religious.
I should add that the word womb doesn’t make for a particularly singable line.
I grew up celebrating Christmas as a secular holiday. The extended family came to our apartment (and later, to our house) to eat, give the kids presents, and enjoy an argument or two, usually about politics. What can I tell you? Arguing was a form of entertainment in my family. But one year an older cousin’s girlfriend played the piano and we gathered around and sang carols, and every Jewish atheist one of us knew the songs as well as the few non-Jewish family members did.
It’s a moment I remember fondly. It was decades before I stopped to think what deeply weird picture it makes.
Then I moved to Minnesota and started to feel smothered by Christmas, and that’s my third reason, if you remember after all these words what we’re counting. In New York—at least in the circles I traveled in—there were enough Jews around to create a space for people who didn’t celebrate, and that made celebrating feel voluntary. I never paid much attention to who was Jewish and who was something else, but this wasn’t about individuals. It was about the impact of demographics. (At the time, my experience was pretty much limited to Jews and Christians. I don’t know if the New York created space for other forms of non-Christians over the holidays.)
Minnesota, though, is packed with people who even if they’re not religiously Christian are at least culturally so, and that left less space for people who didn’t celebrate the holiday. Celebration stopped feeling voluntary, and I developed mixed feelings about it—part celebratory, part crabby.
And in Cornwall? As far as I know, I’m the only Jew for miles around, and probably ditto for the only person whose family wasn’t, at some point, Christian. I still celebrate the holiday, which is good since Wild Thing never saw a holiday she didn’t want to be part of and has a strong historical claim to this one, but the more insistently it surrounds me the more footnotes, caveats, reservations I add.
This year, the carols weren’t overwhelming at the pub, and the harmonies on a couple of them were stunning. My crabby meter registered only minimal grumpiness. Maybe repetition is starting to blunt the edges of the religion.
Whatever you celebrate and whether it’s religious or secular, I wish you a good one of it. And if you don’ t have a holiday at this time of year, tuck my good wishes away and save them whenever your next holiday comes around. If you still remember by then where you left them.
Health and Safety Warning: This post contains exaggerations that may be detrimental to your mental health. Or your credibility if you take them literally when linking to the post. The Druids did not actually worship brussels sprouts. No one knows much about what the Druids did. And with that out of the way, do read on.
What is it about the British and brussels sprouts at Christmas? I address this topic because judging from my search engine queries it’s what people want to know. Or at least what one very determined person wants to know. Within a few days, I had at least five variations on the question Why do the British eat brussels sprouts at Christmas? It may have been more. I lost track in there somewhere. Why the person kept coming back if I hadn’t already managed to answer the question I don’t know. Determination shading into obsession?
Anyway, the question matters, and I’ve addressed it before but I don’t feel I did it justice. Because I sidestepped several crucial facts.
First, if Google is to be trusted (it’s not) you can spell the vegetable with or without an S: brussel sprouts or brussels sprouts. The first spelling matches our pronunciation (we just can’t make the double S audible unless we say it while standing on our heads and gargling salt water). Besides which, it’s easier to type without the extra S. The second spelling replicates the name of the city where they didn’t originate. According to Brussels Sprouts Info (everything important has its own web site these days), they’re believed to have been grown in Italy as far back as Roman times and began to be grown on a large scale in Belgium as far back as the sixteenth century before spreading outward from there.
The more common spelling seems to keep the extra S.
Second, you can either capitalize the B or not, depending on whether you capitalize the F in french fries. I don’t, but Word does and gives me bad marks every time I go back and un-cap it. It’s easier to use a cap, which is probably why I don’t. It’s a small and pointless way to fight the monopolies that are taking over our spelling. Not to mention our lives, economy, and politics. Take that, monopolies: I’m using a lower case F and a lower case B. That sound you hear? It’s Microsoft crumbling in the face of my defiance.
Third, the world contains more than 110 varieties of brussels sprouts and I bet you can’t tell any one of them from the other more than 109.
You notice how vague they are on the actual number? It’s probably because someone’s out there devising a new variety even as I type.
So far so uncontroversial, but now we come to:
Fourth, the real reason they’re eaten in Britain at Christmas is a tightly held secret and I’m going to reveal it to you and only you because, hey, it’s just us here, right? No one else is listening. I’d get into serious trouble otherwise. So here’s the truth: The Church of England may be the official and established church in this country, but it’s a thin and brittle overlay. Underneath lies the country’s deeper religion, worship of the Great Brussels Sprout. (And here, yes, it’s capitalized. Even by me. It’s a god and all. You want to show a little respect.)
What did the Druids worship? The Great Brussels Sprout. They painted themselves blue and cultivated the sacred plant. And they were nekkid when they did it.
How’d they cultivate it if brussels sprouts didn’t yet grow in the British Isles? I did say Google couldn’t be trusted. Its sources are giving you the official history. You can only find the truth by going into the dark web, where danger lurks behind every pixel, so I don’t dare give you any links. Folks, I’ll take the risk myself but I can’t be responsible for your safety. You’ll have to find it on your own or trust my report: The truth is that the Romans quietly exported the brussels sprout from Britain to Italy, and once it was established there they claimed to have developed all more than 110 varieties themselves.
Back in Britain, the Romans suppressed both the Druids and all outward forms of sprout cultivation and worship, but the belief ran deep in the population, and it survived, waiting from the sprout’s return.
How’d it do that when the pre-Roman British tribes (the Iceni, the Caledones, the Parisi, the Cornovii…) were overrun by the Angles and the Saxons and the Vikings and the Normans, making for a choppy history and a messy but interesting language? Because knowledge of the Great Brussels Sprout is planted deep in the soil. You don’t have to learn it from your community. If you get yourself a shovel and start digging, it works its way into your bloodstream. You feel a compulsion to worship something green and brassican. Rumor has it that they made do with cabbages until the brussels sprout was re-imported and jogged their memories of what the Great God really looked like. These were agricultural people, remember. They had lots of shovels. So when Christianity became the dominant religion, the best it could do was drive sprout worship deep underground, and from there it rises, godlike, every year.
Do I consider it strange, you ask (or at least you should ask), that people eat the sprout they worship? Isn’t that a bit, um, grotesque? Not at all. The Great Sprout is the essence of all sprouts and is itself inedible. The sprouts people eat at Christmas are merely its representation. And those among us who claim the ones on the plate are also inedible? They’re closest to the holy nature of the Great Brussels Sprout and everybody should back off and stop giving them a hard time.
Fifth (we were counting, remember?), the brussels sprout ripens around Christmas time. How many other vegetables are willing to do that? So of course people eat it.
And on a marginally sensible note, last week I forgot to link back to Laura, at A PIct in PA, who first used to word tickety boo, giving me a great excuse for another important post. She’s a Scot living and raising her kids in Pennsylvania, and she keeps a fine blog with lots of nifty artwork.