The overpriced Easter egg report

It’s almost Easter, so let’s check in on the most absurdly expensive Easter eggs I could find online. I do this every year. I still haven’t figured out why.

Low end? An extra-thick dark chocolate egg filled with individual truffles. They’re made with gin, wine, rum, and–

No, sorry. I was going to write opiates, but they’re not listed. My mistake. 

Putting filled chocolates, or in this case, truffles, inside an egg is a British thing at this time of year. I never saw that done in the U.S. So there’s your vague gesture in the direction of intercultural education.

That’s from Hotel Chocolat for £29. With that, you get five paragraphs of prose, a generous side of adjectives, and a warning that the truffles aren’t for children. 

Marginally relevant photo: This is your Easter periwinkle. If you don’t celebrate Easter, don’t worry about it–I don’t either. As far as I know, it’s not an Easter flower.

 

Yeah, but surely we can waste more money than that 

Hotel Chocolat also has a £55 two-tier box of chocolates. It’s not actually an egg, but why should we follow the rules when I’m the one who made them? Since it’s expensive enough to be called a cabinet, not a box, it fits right in here. 

Yeah, it looks like a box to me too. Shows you what we know. 

The money must’ve gone into the packaging here, because you only get four paragraphs of prose, and they’re shorter than the ones that come with the £29 egg.

Cheapskates.

At Fornum & Mason’s you can find a £45 milk chocolate egg that Glamour Magazine tells us is a work of art with a flawless shine and tercentenary-blend chocolate. A centenary or so back, I worked in a candy factory and I never once heard of a tercentenary blend. But then we weren’t making high-end chocolates. And they wouldn’t have told me what was going on anyway.

Each egg’s handcrafted to make sure it’s a little different from all the others. And every last one of them is better than all the others. They’re all guaranteed to rot your teeth. 

Enjoy.

Glamour also wedges in a Fortum & Mason’s spring hamper, which is cheating but the prices haven’t gotten absurd enough yet, so let’s go with it. It costs £125 and whoever wrote their article swears that Glamour readers are snapping up F & M hampers. 

Uh huh.

The hamper includes biscuits, which are cookies if you’re American, and–oh, other stuff, including a rosé sparkling tea that’s 0% ABV. That means alcohol by volume. Most tea is 0% alcohol by volume–it’s one reason you drink it to stay awake–but you don’t usually pay enough for that to be mentioned. 

On the other hand, most tea isn’t sparkling. Or rosé

No, I haven’t the faintest idea what the stuff is. But do you really care what’s in the hamper? It’s from Fortnum & Mason’s. It comes in a wicker basket that’s called a hamper because that’s how they do things over here.

Where I come from, the only thing we called a hamper was the whatsit we threw our dirty clothes in. We kept our cookies somewhere else. We’d have kept our tea somewhere else too but we didn’t drink tea.

And yes, of course I read Glamour Magazine. Once a year, just before Easter. They helped me develop the look you can admire in the photo at the top right of Notes’ home page.

 

Onward

For £80, you can get 200 grams of boring looking chocolate egg, in milk or dark, from Marchesi. Except for the price, this is minimalism–one paragraph of low-key prose, muted colors, and not much in the way of decoration on the egg itself. 

For reasons they don’t bother to explain, it’s called Girl, even though it’s pretty clearly not a girl but a chocolate egg.

You can also get one called Boy, which is not a boy any more than Girl is a girl. When I worked at the candy factory, no one ever talked about the chocolate having either a gender or a sex, but maybe we were missing the obvious.

If you go up to £85, you get 300 grams of gender-free chocolate. 

The Hotel de Crillon, which unlike Hotel Chocolat seems to be a real hotel, offers a chocolate egg with a car driving out of it.

Sorry, did I say a car? “The famous D.S, the Palace’s iconic car,” and it doesn’t drive out, it “seems to emerge.” Which sort of implies that it doesn’t really emerge, it just fools you into thinking it does while it’s actually still in bed. But you’ll have to spend £70 to find out for sure.

Spend £100 and you can buy a kilo–that’s 2.2 pounds–of milk chocolate and hazelnuts from Venchi. It comes with almost no prose, but the photos dance around a bit, whether you want them to or not.

 

Eggs we’ve probably missed out on

For £150, Harrod’s has an egg that as far as I can tell is mostly air. (Ever wonder why the rich are thin?) It’s made of anorexic slabs of chocolate finished with gold leaf and separated by layers of luxury air. They only made fifty, so we’ve probably missed our chance.

For £140, you can get a ceramic egg with ears from Harvey Nichols. It comes with truffles inside. Only thirty were made, so we’re probably too late, but I’ve got a £1 bag of chocolate eggs in the other room and I’d be happy to share. When I was working in the candy factory, I lost my taste for candy anyway.

 

And at the top of the obscenity scale

The most expensive egg comes from Choccywoccydoodah (I had to cut and paste that) and costs–yes indeed–£25,000. Or possibly £10,000. I’ve found both prices quoted. I put it down to journalists going comatose in the presence of high numbers, but really, at a certain point, who cares? So what if it all get a little murky when we get to the cash register?   

Each egg weighs 220 pounds, or 100 kilos, and wrecks my explanation of why the rich are thin. More to the point, each one also has an intricately detailed scene inside, featuring dragons, or ducks, or hares, or whatever. And each one takes three weeks to make. 

And then, presumably, some barbarian comes along and eats the thing. Or doesn’t eat it and you end up with cockroaches. 

How is it possible to sell a chocolate egg for that kind of money? Well, as it happen yesterday morning’s paper let me know that in 2020 one of the directors of a gambling website was paid £48,000 per hour for every hour of every day–working, sleeping, and otherwise–that could be scratched out of the year. 

That may explain why a very few people lose their sense of proportion.

Starling murmurations

Whatever your holiday, if you have one just now, join me in celebrating the amazing things that starlings do at this time of year.

Photos by Ida Swearingen.

Starlings gather at dusk and if the conditions are right they create amazing airborne patterns before they settle into the trees and roost together. The roosting’s for safety, for warmth, and (the experts swear) to exchange information on where the good food is. The murmurations may be to confuse predators.

Starlings also gather for shorter times during the day, condensing onto power lines, where they pack themselves together wing to feather. So tightly, in fact, that they’ve caused the occasional power outage in the Scottish town of Airth. So many gathered on the lines, and they settled and took off in such a mass, that their weight made the wires bounce, shutting down the power, sometimes for seconds and sometimes longer.

Christmas 2020

The world needs a pandemic carol, and I’m convinced you do as well, and that everyone you know does too. Well, it just so happens that a friend wrote one. With her permission, here it is, direct to you from Duluth, Minnesota.

 

Christmas 2020
Bring on a brighter year

                        by Jane Whitledge

Hark! The herald angels sing,
We’re tired of social distancing!
What can I say of such a year,
Except “good riddance, disappear!”
Don’t come back with your virus
Now go away,  no more to tire us—
We’re weary of this isolation
Impatient for real celebration!

Each one of us now simply asks,
When will we be done with masks
And gobs of soap and sanitizer?!
Oh, bring good tidings, Moderna, Pfizer!
And though we love you, Dr. Fauci,
We’re really getting kind of grouchy
Standing here six feet apart.
When can the hugs and handshakes start?

Till then we’ll give to the food shelves
And may there be a lot of elves
To aid the little girls and boys                                                                                                  Who fear there won’t be any toys,
And save the fraught small businesses—
May they have future Christmases!
And as we sing bright carol verses
Bless the doctors and the nurses!

And to the scientists—goodwill!
Bless your work, bless your skill!
We’ll string the garland on our tree
With thoughts for others—empathy.
And in this troubled, cold December,
May hardship make us all remember
In pandemic’s darkest weather
That we are in this all together.

And though it be all you can handle,
Go ahead and light a candle.
Stay hopeful, cheerful kind, and clean.
Pretty soon the great vaccine!
So, “Merry Christmas one and all!”
Goodbye to bleach and alcohol
(except for wine, and, yes, champagne,
For when we meet—we will—again!)

May this two-thousand-twenty-one
Put the past year on the run!
And may your heart ring like a bell—
Happy new year! Please stay well!!
May this two-thousand-twenty-one
Put the past year on the run!
And may your heart ring like a bell—
Happy new year! Please stay well!!

© Jane Whitledge, 2020

Whatever you celebrate, I wish you a good one. And may the new year be kinder than this one has.

Santa Shih Tsu wishes you a happy holiday. She also wishes the photographer had moved the trash out of the background before taking her picture. It’s been a bad year when not even Santa gets what she wants.

Bring Your Dog to Work Day

June 26 is Bring Your Dog to Work Day. This seems to be a British event, although the website I found doesn’t say so. The clues are: 1) A picture of a dog named Winston, 2) a reference to rescuing dogs in London (although there’s also a reference to rescuing some in Asia, which discerning readers will notice covers a larger area than London), and 3) a .co.uk URL. Once you get past all that, your guess is confirmed by a British phone number in 3.25-point type at the bottom.

This is Moose, who doesn’t need to go to work with anyone else.He has his own job, keeping the vandal hordes from breaking in, even when they’re disguised as neighborhood cats. They don’t fool him.

You’re welcome to mark the day wherever you are. Especially if you’re working from home. As Jane Bernal pointed out on Facebook in response to my Bring your Cat to Work Day post, with social distancing and all, shouldn’t we have been celebrating Bring Your Work to Cat Day?

We should have. So even if your dog likes to travel, even if you’ve gone back to work, call in tomorrow. Explain that it’s Bring Your Work to Dog Day. You’re staying in.

Take Your Cat to Work Day

June 22 was National Take Your Cat to Work Day. I’m not entirely clear what nation that applies to, but it’s probably the U.S., since no one involved seems to remember that other nations exist and might be running on a different schedule. I’m American, so I get to say this: We do tend to forget those things.

Whoever’s nation we’re talking about, though, we’re (as cab drivers liked to say back when I was one of them) a day late and a dollar short, but I don’t see why we shouldn’t celebrate anyway, wherever and whenever we may be. Take your cat to work, friends. Don’t tell him or her that it’s the wrong day. Cats don’t care what the calendar says.

This is Fast Eddie on top of the drying rack, not caring what the calendar says. 

Do it especially if you’re working from home. And if you’re not–well, we all know that cats don’t like to go anywhere they didn’t decide on themselves, so just bring your work home and offer up a few treats in honor of the holiday.

And have a wonderful Take Your Cat to Work Day. From all of us here at Notes from the U.K., which has a wide-ranging, multi-delusional staff of one.

And a cat.

Hogmanay: What to do when you can’t celebrate Christmas

Quick, before it ends, let’s talk about Hogmanay.

Let’s talk about what? Why Hogmanay, of course, a holiday I never heard of before I moved to Britain. It’s celebrated in the farthest end of Britain from where I live–Scotland, and I’m in Cornwall–and runs from New Year’s Eve through the first of January. January second is an official holiday in Scotland, even though they have to pay for it by giving up one of the other national holidays.

It is–or so I’ve read–a Celtic / Norse fusion that happened when the Norse invaders’ solstice celebrations crashed into the Celtic Samhain traditions, which marked the start of winter. The result later crashed into Christianity and became Christianized. It was called daft days. People ate, drank (probably a lot, given the name), lit bonfires, and visited neighbors to do more of the same. 

Then the Reformation swept through Scotland, and a sober lot the Scottish Protestants must’ve been. They frowned on Christmas celebrations. (They frowned on a lot of things.) No more feasting. No funning around. Sober up, you lot, because this is serious stuff. And by this, I mean everything–religion, life, and anything else you happen to mention. For part of the seventeenth century, the Christmas break was banned. Christmas didn’t become a public holiday in Scotland until 1958. Boxing Day–that spare Christmastide holiday that falls on December 26 and that the English never quite manage to explain to outsiders–didn’t join it until 1974.

Scotland, remember, doesn’t run by English law. It confuses me too if that makes you feel any better.

And in case it isn’t already clear, both of those last two dates, the ones marking the time when Christmas was allowed to show it be-tinseled face again, are in the twentieth century.

So what was the result of all this sobriety? The fun moved to New Year’s Eve and its surrounding days. 

No one’s sure where the name Hogmanay came from. The origin might be French. It also might be Greek. It could be Anglo-Saxon. Or possibly Scandinavian. In an assortment of those languages, it might mean gala day, it might mean holy month, and it might mean your linguist is highly imaginative.

What do people do? Drink. Party. Hold a torchlight parade. Sing “Auld Lang Syne,” preferably with arms linked. Set off fireworks. Watch terrible TV programs. (I’m quoting that from the Metro there. The link’s above, turning, somewhat randomly, “or so I’ve read” blue. What people do on Hogmanay isn’t something I’d know, down here in Hogmanayless Cornwall. But since I’m already tucked neatly into parentheses here, I might as well point out that not all these traditions are traditional. That business with the TV, for example…)

But Hogmanay includes much more domestic, and probably original, traditions, like cleaning the house before the holiday, and take the old ashes out of the fireplace. 

And then there’s first footing. This is supposed to predict how a family’s year will go. If the first person to come through the door after midnight (together with his or her feet) is a tall, dark-haired man, all will be well. Blond hair? Bad luck. That may have come from having a countryful of blond-haired Viking invaders around, but it’s all lost in the murk of time. It could also be an earlier tradition. 

I’m not sure what a short, bald woman coming through the door predicts. Probably an eccentric year.

If the first footer brings a piece of coal and a roll made of rye flour, the family will be warm and fed through the year.

In Stonehaven, near Aberdeen, people set fire to  balls made of chicken wire, paper, and rags, then swing them around–as any sensible person would. In South Queensferry, people run into the freezing cold sea to raise money for some charity or other. In Kirkwall (that’s in the Orkneys), they play the Ba’ game–a street football game that can last anywhere from four minutes to eight hours, depending on how long it takes for one faction to get a goal. It can involve as many as 350 players. A BBC program described it as not so much a game as a civil war. Shopkeepers board up their windows in advance.  The ball weighs three pounds, the game has no hard and fast rules, and injuries are–.

Okay, serious injuries are “fairly rare.” Players have been known to try to reach the goal over the rooftops.

This year, Edinburgh’s old-fashioned Hogmanay uproar includes a street party with £85 tickets, put on by the Underbelly, which seems to have taken over a lot of Edinburgh’s public events and runs a lot of venues during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The events run for four days (I doubt £85 will get you access to all of them, but what do I know?) and are expected to attract some 70,000 people to the city.

Having gotten permission for the events, the Underbelly proceeded to overplay its hand, telling people who lived on the street where it was throwing its party that they’d have to apply for passes to get to their own homes. They could also apply for up to six passes for their friends. And if they wanted to throw their own Hogmanay party with more than six people? After a bit of uproar, they were told they could apply for more passes.

Oh, and the police and fire services would get information on everyone who was applying.

After a bit more uproar, it was all a misunderstanding. The Underbelly never meant to keep anyone from anything and, you know, it’s all just a traditional part of a good old-fashioned Hogmanay.

The police have said the restrictions are unenforceable. I’m writing this on December 29 and no one, including the Underbelly, seems to have a clue how it will deal with people heading for private parties in the area.

And in case I haven’t mentioned it, at least some of Edinburgh’s events involve bagpipes. If anyone’s exercised about how anyone’s going to sleep, the papers haven’t mentioned it.

Wishing you all a good Hogmanay. If this is the first you’ve heard of it, you have just enough time to organize something.

Victorian Christmas carols: a link

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.

British Easter eggs: it’s the price that counts

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.

Irrelevant and ever so slightly odd photo: This is Fast Eddie in motion. He doesn’t eat chocolate.

Ready?

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.

 

Christmas pudding and brussels sprouts

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.

Obviously relevant photo: This is the universal winter holiday penguin, worshipping the Great Brussels sprout. If you’re in the southern hemisphere, be patient. Winter’ll get to you eventually. Photo by Ida Swearingen. Fairly random cropping by me.

 

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.

No comment.

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.

British Advent calendars: nothing exceeds like excess

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.

600% relevant if slightly out of focus, photo: These are the Advent shih-tzus. They bring calendars to all the good adults. Unfortunately, neither of them can read, so people are likely end up with outdated calendars. No system’s perfect and we’ll just have to live with it.

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.