What’s all this Thanksgiving hoo-ha?

I don’t do reblogs unless they’re tightly linked to the sort of insanity I indulge in here, but Dream Big, Dream Often‘s “36 Little Known Facts about Thanksgiving” is a good introduction to unexpected aspects of the holiday. I’m not sure he really reaches 36, since he starts by lettering his list, then starts a second time, still using letters. then starts at third time at 1. But we’re among friends, so who cares? It’s worth a read.

Easter candy in the U.S. and U.K.: Special late edition

Our friend J., having read my post about Easter candy, sent us some from the U.S. Her cover note said to read the back of the Peeps package because it might inspire me.

“What’s a Peep?” you ask if you’re not from the U.S. It’s sugar, corn syrup, gelatin, yellow #5 (tartrazine), potassium sorbate (a preservative), natural [unspecified and I’d say hard to detect] flavors, and carnauba wax. Yum. They’re gluten free and fat free and shaped (if you have a bit of imagination) like a chick that came into existence by being spat from a spout. Each chick contains 28 calories. That’s 140 calories per serving, because, as an essential part of a balanced diet, serving size has been scientifically determined.

North Cornwall. Thatched cottage.

Irrelevant photo: Thatched cottage with gorse and may in bloom.

The text on the cover claims they’re marshmallow, but they taste like nothing that originated on planet Earth.

No, I’m going to backtrack on that, because I think carnauba wax is used on cars. On planet Earth. So if you’ve ever used your tongue to wax the car, the taste will be familiar. That means, all you Peep Corporation lawyers out there, that I retract my statement about planet Earth. Don’t sue. Please.

The text on the back of the package says that opening it “opens a world of possibilities! [Oh, the thrill implied by that exclamation mark. I’m so carried away I’ll add one of my own: !] From creative crafting and imaginative artwork, to delicious recipes and more, let the fun begin!” And I feel compelled to tell you that the repetitious use of open is theirs. They were aiming for one of those rhythmic poetic thingies. Isn’t it wondrous, the uses writing techniques can be put to?

So basically, what they’re saying here is that these things last forever and therefore can be used in any form of artwork. The Mona Lisa in Peeps? Why not? A Peep perched Thinker-like on the toilet? Sure! More exclamation marks? You got ‘em!

When I worked for a writers organization in Minnesota, one (or possibly two) of my illustrious co-workers impaled a Peep on the bathroom ceiling, where it remained for months without changing in any noticeable way. I’m not sure whether that was craft or art (it gets tricky sometimes, that art/craft question), but I do know the Peep didn’t rot or stretch or draw ants or roaches or anything else that would normally be drawn to food. Those insects? They know stuff. We could learn from them.

I have a bit more trouble with the delicious recipes the text promises. Peep pie? I don’t know what happens to them in the presence of heat. I’m not sure what happens to them, in fact, when they’re eaten. They appear to be indestructible. Do they pass through us whole or does the digestive system work its magic, even on Peeps?

Dedicated as I am to this blog, and to exploring every last aspect of the cultures of the U.S. and Britain, I draw the line at offering myself as a test subject. But I do, once again, wish those of you who celebrate it a happy Easter and those of you who don’t a happy non-Easter. To those of you who love Peeps, I offer my apologies. Our package has been promised to an American Peep-lover in the village, and she’s thrilled by the prospect of all those exclamation marks landing in her house.

And finally, to J. I send my profound thanks. For both the candy and the suggestion. I wouldn’t have thought to turn the package over and read it if you hadn’t told me to.

A foreigner’s guide to Boxing Day

If you’re not British, or living in a British-inflected country, you’re asking, What?

Boxing Day is the day after Christmas.

So what does everyone do, go out and hit each other?

The people Wild Thing and I know mostly stay home and eat the Christmas leftovers. Especially those brussels sprouts. For breakfast, you can use them in bubble and squeak (which does neither, as far as I can figure out). It involves leftover sprouts (or cabbage, or anything else along those lines) and potatoes, bacon, onion, butter or some other sort of fat, and a frying pan. More or less. It’s one of those recipes that use up whatever you have on hand, so there’s no point in being precise about it.

Christmas cake. Photo by James Petts, on Wikimedia.

Christmas cake. Photo by James Petts, on Wikimedia.

After that, you can start on the Christmas cake.

It may be called Boxing Day because it was the day that Victorian ladies and gentlemen gave gift boxes to tradespeople and the servants (who had to work on Christmas day, and probably had to work on Boxing Day as well). Or it may have come from a medieval tradition involving alms boxes, which were opened on Boxing Day and the money given to the poor. Basically no one’s sure, but if you repeat the stories often enough they take on a certain authority.

What’s certain is that it’s a second legal holiday that involves brussels sprouts. Only in Britain.

 *

I’ll be posting once a week until—probably—mid-January, when I’ll go back to twice a week. Enjoy the holidays, whatever you celebrate and however you celebrate them. 

Singing up the sun: A late report on an early solstice

The winter solstice celebration came to Cornwall early this year. No, the earth’s tilt hasn’t changed and the days hadn’t stopped growing shorter, but a group of people around here gather to sing up the sun on the summer and winter solstices and—well, the pub couldn’t handle that many breakfasts on the actual solstice, so having weighed the sun’s schedule against the pub’s schedule, the group met a day early. Or was that two days early? I’m the last person to trust on this kind of information, but what matters most in life, breakfast or accuracy?

Breakfast.

Stone circle at Minions

Stone circle at Minions

I’m not sure if I should say “they” or “we” as I write about this. I’ve joined the group twice now, but by definition it involves getting out of bed in the dark, so I’m a fringe member—always on the verge of rolling over and mumbling, “Next year.” So let’s go with “they.”

The place they meet is on the moor, where three ancient stone circles were built one right next to the other. Last year, a group of archeologists and volunteers uncovered an ancient pathway between two of the circles, then documented it and covered it back up, since that’s the best way to preserve it.

Not only is the place packed with ancient monuments and atmosphere, it’s also windy. The moors are like that. If there’s any wind at all, you’ll take a pounding. So it was cold and we didn’t stay out long, but we stood in the midst of the stone circles and sang, and the harmonies were beautiful. And in response, the sun did what it always does, which is to come up when it’s damn well ready. On this particular almost-solstice morning I’m sure it did come up but we couldn’t really tell. It was cloudy and anticlimactic and we walked to the pub and ate breakfast, but the harmonies really were beautiful and I’ll probably drag myself out of bed at silly o’clock when the summer solstice comes around.

Celebrating a Bulgarian British Christmas

Since my recent posts were about Christmas in Britain, I should send you to Not Another Tall Blog for a post on what it’s like to keep your original traditions–in this case Bulgarian–when your children are growing up British. Every immigrant has to find a balance between the two cultures they live with, and when you’re raising children in a new culture the issue must be even more pressing.

Angie’s post drew my mind to my grandparents, my father’s parents–Russian-Jewish immigrants who raised eight children in New York City at the beginning of the 20th century–and the decisions they were faced with. There’s a long story there, or may stories, but let’s save them for another day.

Again, happy holidays.

A foreigner’s guide to Christmas in Britain

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

What? you ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strange holiday habits of the British and of one wandering American

The attack of the Christmas cards has begun, and if we don’t deliver ours quickly we’ll have to leave the village. Come December, forget conversation, companionship, helpful acts, even love: Cards are the only measure of friendship. If we don’t give someone a card, they’ll think we don’t like them. Or that we’re such socially awkward clods, we’re not worth liking.

Actually, I’m making that up. I don’t know the thinking behind it is, although I do understand that Christmas cards are more important here than on any other part of the planet. Everyone gives them to everyone, and you have to do it. For all I know, everyone hates it but is as intimidated as we are. The entire country is running around buying and delivering cards only because they’re afraid other people will think they’re either awkward clods or hostile.

Whatever lies behind it, though, we’ve stocked up.

Season's greetings, y'all. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Season’s greetings, y’all. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Where we live, people sneak up to the door and push them through the letter slot. We don’t see the people, just the cards. We’ll be sitting around, our minds so sublimely at peace that we’re levitating inches above the floor, and flap, a card drops through the slot. We flop painfully onto the floor and pick ourselves up to collect the card, but by the time we open the door no one’s out there. Except for the signatures, which we recognize, they might as well be messages from the fairies.

People have a saying here: “Oh, she (or he) is away with the fairies.” (It always seems to start with “Oh.” Maybe that makes is wispier, more away-with-the-fairies-ish.) A number of people Wild Thing and I know could be, and have been, described that way, and maybe they’ve sent these back from wherever the fairies live. The fairies have a delivery service. That’s very thoughtful. But it only works at this time of year.

Okay, a few people deliver their cards in person. They stop in and have a cup of tea. Or they bring them to meetings and hand them around.  If you belong to a club or go to any regular activity, people will show up in December armed with cards and pass them out. Most people write name on the envelopes, which means they have to flip through them, once, twice, fourteen times, to find the right one. Some bring a few spares with no names in case they’ve forgotten anyone, or someone they didn’t expect shows up. It’s an odd mix of touching and impersonal when you get one of these.

It made us feel like awkward clods when we didn’t come with a stack of our own, so we’ve started bringing some (nameless, because we’re not well enough organized to predict who’ll be there). But bringing them makes me—although not Wild Thing—feel like a hypocrite. Not because I don’t normally send Christmas cards, but because handing them out this way strikes me as deeply weird.

I’m not going to try to justify that. It’s just one of those deep cultural weird things.

But I can’t talk about Christmas cards without talking about deep cultural weird things, so here we go: I grew up celebrating Christmas, but in a family of non-religious Jews. The kind of Jews who celebrated a non-religious Christmas. Our Christmas cards always said “Season’s Greetings.” I think that was to accommodate other people’s beliefs rather our own. I mean, we did celebrate Christmas, so I can’t see where saying “Merry Christmas” would be insensitive to our beliefs, but somehow I was left with the odd feeling that it would be. Were we such tender souls that we had to be careful not to insult ourselves? Not by a long shot, but don’t expect this to make sense entirely.

When I was old enough to send my own cards, I searched through box after box, reading the little tag on the back that said, if I was lucky, “Greeting: Happy Holidays.” Or “Season’s Greetings.” I’d settle for either one, although I like the second better. That search was a part of who I was. But it also made practical sense. My—and later our—friends included Christians, Jews, and atheists, and as time when on Buddhists, Muslims, some self-described pagans (no, don’t ask me what it means; my understanding of the word is that it’s what Christians called earlier religions, not what those religions called themselves, but if someone wants to call themselves that, it’s not up to me to call them something else), and some people I’ve left out because I’m not sure what they are. I’ve spent a good part of my life learning not to make assumptions and the learning’s never complete, but I don’t want to summarize where I’m not sure.

So Season’s Greetings it was, even though we all know a Season’s Greetings card is nothing but a disguised Christmas card. A more inclusive one, but still a Christmas card.

And then I moved to the U.K. Where I live now, way out in the country, I’m the only Jew of any description for miles around. I don’t know of any Muslims or Buddhists in the immediate area, and the pagans at least used to celebrate Christmas, whether they do anymore or not. Like the many people around here who aren’t religious, they come from Christian backgrounds, even if you have to go back several generations to find anyone who treated that as a religion. So Season’s Greetings cards are hard to find. And largely irrelevant, since after our first year here, when we sent cards to friends in the states and discovered that the postage cost a small fortune, we give them mostly to friends in the village. In other words, everybody we’re giving cards to celebrates Christmas—some with a religious bent and some without, but Christmas all the same. None of them, I’m sure, celebrates it with the complications that I bring.

And guess what? I still want my cards to say “Season’s Greetings.” It’s like my accent: It’s a part of who I am. I’m a Season’s Greetings kind of person, living in a Merry Christmas kind of place. (I have no idea why I’m capitalizing that except that it’s capitalized on cards, so it becomes a habit. This is what happens to copy editors when they retire: They do all kinds of inconsistent things, and they notice, and wince, and in my case leave some of them uncorrected. And find a perverse joy in that.)

Actually, people here say “Happy Christmas,” not “Merry Christmas.” But that’s a different complication.

Over the years, Wild Thing has alternated between impatience and understanding when I turned over box after box of cards to read the greetings printed on the back. Then she took up photography and we started making our own cards. They can say whatever we want.

Problem solved.

But we still have to sneak up on our friends and neighbors and shove the cards through their letter slots. Otherwise they’ll think we don’t like them.

Or something. I don’t know what they’ll think, but I do know we don’t want them thinking it.

So whatever you celebrate, Season’s Greetings.

Domestic Wildlife

Monday: We have a mouse problem. At least we think we do. The four-legged residents are paying a lot of attention to one corner of the spare room.

Let me be clear about this. We have two cats. Two of them. Enough, you might think, to vanquish even the wiliest of mice, but no, it’s the dog who usually gets rid of them. The dog who looks like a wind-up toy dreamt up by a particularly extravagant little girl. And not some tough, tree-climbing little girl, but the over-the-top stereotype of a little girl in the pink princess dress, complete with the wings and the wand. If she got the job of inventing a wind-up dog, Minnie to Moocher is the one she’d invent.

Never underestimate a foo-foo little dog. Or a girl in a pink princess dress. She—that’s the dog, now, not the girl—is a stone cold killer.

Minnie the Moocher, also known as Killer

Minnie the Moocher, also known as Killer

But we have to start back a way. We live in the country. The weather’s getting cold. Mice are surely looking for a nice warm place to bed down for the winter, but that’s not how the current one got in. I’m sure of that. Our younger cat, Smudge, brings them in. He wants to start a captive breeding program. We’ve discussed this with him, but have you ever tried arguing with a cat? Save your breath. They’re always right. He thinks like a feudal king: Once he stocks the forest—or the back room—with enough game, he’ll keep himself amused forever.

The little horror is one hell of a hunter. When he was younger he brought in birds, mice, voles, rats, and moles, some dead and some living. I’m not sure which were worse, the ones that were so mangled we had to kill them or the ones that were so unmangled that we ended up crawling all over the house, throwing furniture as we went, while we tried to catch them.

One of the rats was in perfect health. He’d brought it in courteously and left it to explore its new surroundings. I was nowhere around, lucky me—I think I was doing the book tour for Open Line—and it took Wild Thing a full day but she finally killed it by bashing it with the bread box. The hunt involved a lot of yelling and some interesting language, none of it on the part of the rat.

Wild Thing did not get her name by accident. And I really do call her that a good bit of the time.

When we found the second of the moles, it was trying to dig its way out through a wall. It’s almost a swimming motion, the way they dig. I got a plastic box with a lid and Wild Thing got the heaviest pair of gardening gloves she could find. She lifted it into the box, it tried to bite her, I put the lid on, and we drove it to a nearby field. The whole time it was in the box, it kept making those swimming motions, digging its way to freedom. When I let it go, it hit the earth still digging.

I’m a city girl so I don’t really know, but I hope the farmer didn’t mind an extra mole in the field.

When we have to catch living creatures, I’m no worse than Wild Thing. Okay, I’m not much worse. She’s bolder about it, but at least I’m useful. I am squeamish, though, about the wounded and the dead, and for the most part I leave those to her. It’s almost fair. She’s squeamish about cleaning the litter box or dealing with cat vomit. But when she had ankle surgery (which has happened three times now, and she only has two ankles) I’ve had to get over it. The first time, post-surgery, that I looked at a mangled but still living bird, I asked myself, Could you kill it if you were being chased by a bear?

I admit, the question makes no sense. If I were being chased by a bear, killing a wounded bird wouldn’t be at the top of my to-do list. I mean, how would that help? But it did focus my mind. I pulled myself together, took the poor thing outside, and bashed its little head in. It was quick and it was the best I could do for the poor beast.

I dealt with the dead and the mangled for many long weeks. Then Wild Thing started moving around without crutches and I got squeamish again. Funny how that works.

These days, Smudge doesn’t bring his prey home as often, and what he does bring is more likely to be fully dead, and if I find the corpse first I can make myself throw it away without waiting for Wild Thing to play undertaker. I use a broom and dust pan, then wash my hands as thoroughly if I’d just juggled a dozen dead rats and then gutted them, but still, I do get rid of it.

Wild Thing picks ‘em up by one foot or the tail.

Tuesday: We haven’t caught the mouse. For the past week, Wild Thing has had some kind of bug that involves waking up at 3 a.m., turning on the light, and coughing for half an hour, so she’s been sleeping in the spare room—the mouse room. Unless (we haven’t seen it yet) it’s a rat. Last night, when she went to bed, she heard some rustling in the corner.

You have to understand something about our spare room. It’s not large, but it does contain a single bed, a bedside table, a tall, narrow chest of drawers, a computer and computer chair, roughly 150 copies of the village calendar plus a box of envelopes for them, 196 plastic sleeves to protect exactly 4 posters for the village calendar, the prototype of the Soyuz space capsule, manuals for every piece of computer equipment that ever passed through our lives, most of which we no longer own, and a cement mixer. Plus a full-size Cornish gig, with all six oars.

I may be exaggerating, but I flinched away from taking a true and unflinching inventory. There’s a bunch of stuff in there, okay? And a mouse. Or quite possibly a rat.

Wild Thing, as I think I’ve already established, is not faint of heart. Her mother once faced down a pawing, snorting bull armed with nothing better than a broom, and won. Wild Thing is worthy of her heritage. But, c’mon, she was going to be asleep. And a rat—well, we both New Yorkers enough to know that rats are capable of crawling up to a sleeping person and taking a bite if their lips have a trace of food, and she’s been living on cough drops. When I say her lips are sweet, I’m not talking being romantic.

When she heard the rustling, she called out to tell me about it, at which point Smudge the mighty hunter went out the window.

I will say in his defense that he’s as sleek and beautiful as any cat, and as self-involved.

Wild Thing went into the living room, where Minnie and our older cat were still sprawled in front of the wood stove. She picked up the Minnie (who’s not allowed in bed), and took her to bed.

There were no rats in the bed that night. By the time Smudge joined them later in the night, there wouldn’t have been room for one.

The older cat is around 17 and never was much of a hunter. She killed a bird once, and Wild Thing took it away from her. She’s convinced Wild Thing ate it herself and she gave up hunting.

Wednesday 10 a.m.: After I wrote Tuesday’s section of this post, we set a trap, closed off the spare room, and caught nothing. As I type, Wild Thing’s tearing the room apart (I just heard a small avalanche; it sounded like paper mixed with broken crockery). Any minute now she’ll check the cement mixer and see if the mouse bedded down there. I expect it moved into the kitchen, though, or the living room, before we closed the room off. On Saturday we have a bunch of people coming over for a delayed Thanksgiving. Last year a mouse crashed the party and provided no end of entertainment. I’m hoping it doesn’t turn out to be an annual event.

Wednesday 4 p.m.: The spare room has a floor. I hadn’t known that. Everything that used to be on the floor is now piled on top of something else and looks frighteningly well organized. If you don’t look too closely. But what matters is that there were no traces of mouse or rat. What Wild Thing found was a set of wings. (Smudge is known for leaving wings, or the heart and lungs. What can I tell you. He’s a fussy eater.) I don’t want to think too hard about what Wild Thing heard and what the story of the kill was, although I’m sure Smudge would be not just happy but proud to tell the tale, in full detail and bleeding color.

We hope to get through our mis-timed Thanksgiving party without a mouse this year.

For the Americans reading this, hope you had a fine and mouseless Thanksgiving.

Planning Thanksgiving in Cornwall

We’ve started planning our Thanksgiving party. The guest list is limited by the size of our house, which is a shame because we’d love to add more people. And since there’s no competition—no one says, sorry, but I have to go to my brother’s this year—almost everyone we invite is available. And it’s an American holiday, which gives it an element of cool here.

Our tradition, both here and back in Minnesota, is that we cook the turkey, cranberries, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie (usually; back in Minnesota, as D. got older he became a very good cook and he brought the pies), and we ask everyone to bring something. Which is where it gets interesting.

Pumpkin pie--with a neater crust than I make. Photo by the Culinary Geek from Chicago, courtesy of WikiMedia

Pumpkin pie–with a neater crust than I make. Photo by the Culinary Geek from Chicago, courtesy of WikiMedia

The first time we invited we invited M. and J. to our Thanksgiving in Minnesota, was the first time I understood how rigid the traditions are. J. isn’t from the U.S. but she was the cook in the family, and as they told the tale later, M. said “No, you can’t bring that” to everything J. suggested. Macaroni and cheese? No, you can’t bring that. Chocolate cake? No, etc.

So this year, a different J.—an American—told me she’d have to explain to P. that just because root beer floats are American doesn’t mean you can have them at Thanksgiving. I looked at the list of what people were bringing: leek gratin, cauliflower cheese, quiche. Don’t bother, I said. We’ve given up the battle.

The only traditional elements of the meal are the ones we make—turkey, cranberries, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie. And baking powder biscuits, which weren’t traditional in my family, but Wild Thing’s from Texas and will never say no to biscuits. The rest is all stuff that would get us all deported if we tried it in the U.S.

So we’ve evolved our own traditions, one of which is the meal isn’t traditional. A second involves me, the vegetarian, cooking a dead bird. Which hardly even strikes me as strange anymore. A third—one we’re trying to break—is that I make cranberry sauce and forget to set it out. A fourth is that we have to have at least one dessert that isn’t pumpkin pie, because although pumpkins grow here they’re considered a squash and people are, um, let’s say hesitant about eating it as a sweet. But we do have to have it. That’s tradition for you. Besides, a few of us like it.