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.