Christmas Cake

Dear Meghan,
It’s me again! I hope this finds you doing well and that you are settling into life within the Royal Family and in the UK. You’ve certainly been busy this past year, what with publishing a cookbook, singlehandedly reviving the UK’s tabloid industry, and growing a whole new heir to the throne (admittedly number seven in line, but still, many congratulations!).
I am writing this on Boxing Day, that day after Christmas that the Commonwealth nations have in common but which the rest of world thinks has something to do with pugilistic endeavours and fisticuffs. However, as you are probably well aware by now, this is a day that has its origins within the British class system, and marks when tradespeople would collect boxes of Christmas leftovers from their more well-to-do clients.
Today, it is a beloved buffer zone between the festivities of Christmas itself and the post-holiday cleanup. Most people spend the day by going on a walk, visiting with friends and family, reading books or watching films they received for Christmas, or doing absolutely nothing while snacking on Christmas leftovers. It’s no surprise that it’s often everyone’s favourite part of the holiday period!
I know you’ve been involved in Windsor family Christmas celebrations for a few years now, but based on my own experience it can take a while to get used to a British Christmas. Some of it is just adjusting to new terminology, like how Santa Claus is Father Christmas, although the former has been increasing in popularity of late. Other aspects involve across-the-board substitutions: instead of milk and cookies, the traditional British offering for that jolly old elf is sherry and a mince pie, which may explain why he’s so jolly by the end of his journey.
In general, food is a big part of Christmas and may be slightly different than what you grew up with. While Americans reserve turkey for Thanksgiving, opening Christmas dinner itself to ham, chicken, or even fish (hey, I grew up in Florida, fish goes with everything), the main dish at a British Christmas dinner is turkey, full stop. Smoked salmon is an approved side, but another dinner requirement—even if no one at the table likes them—is Brussels sprouts. Why this humble vegetable has become a veritable symbol of Christmas, almost equal in status to reindeer, snowmen, and a partridge in a pear tree, is beyond me, but at this time of year they can be found gracing supermarkets, the windows of greengrocers, and greeting cards.

Following the main course is, of course, the Christmas pudding which, in this instance, is not the American variety of chocolate, vanilla, or tapioca, but rather a term for dessert. A Christmas pudding, in particular, is made of dried fruit, eggs, suet, sugar, and spices, and a proper one has been fed a diet of alcohol for months beforehand so that it is well preserved and flammable. If there isn’t enough brandy in the pudding itself, brandy butter can be added to top up the dessert’s alcoholic content.

Christmas Pudding

Then there is Christmas cake, which typically has a fruity base and a marzipan covering that can vary in complexity from plain white to incredibly ornate. Both of these are not to be confused with fruitcake. While often the punchline of jokes in the US, in the UK it is a perfectly valid dessert option at Christmas (it also doubles as a traditional wedding cake).
Somewhere amongst all of this eating is the ritual pulling of the Christmas cracker. Like many modern British Christmas traditions (and British traditions in general), this one starts in the Victorian era. The story goes that confectioner Tom Smith started to include little love poems with his bon-bons since they were common gifts that men gave to women. To diversify his audience, he experimented with packaging that would make a bang when opened, and included small toys and different mottoes in the package. From its original name of Cosaque (after the Russian Cossacks who were known to fire guns from horseback … the bang was supposed to sound like a gun … yes, Mr. Smith probably needed a bit of help with his marketing), the public settled on the name “cracker” and it became adopted as a festive tradition by the mid-20th century.
Over the years, crackers have evolved to include toys, bad jokes, and even charades to liven up the afternoon. One item always included in modern crackers is a paper crown. This is thought to have its origins in Twelfth Night celebrations, where a King or Queen was appointed to watch the proceedings; today, everyone gets to share in looking silly. Crackers are one aspect of Christmas tradition that I hope royalty has managed to improve upon, perhaps with giant sterling silver paperclips instead of the plastic ones we get, and maybe with actual crowns instead of tissue paper?

While the wearing of unflattering Christmas jumpers has become popular on both sides of the pond, the flooding of the airwaves with Christmas specials seems to remain a uniquely British tradition. Perhaps the most enduring tradition is the Queen’s speech on Christmas day itself, although I suppose one’s husband pointing out that “Grandma’s on telly” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Then there are the bonus episodes of popular television shows range from must see to best forgotten. But the period of Christmas Eve to New Year’s Eve is a good opportunity to catch up on favourite films, with all channels jostling to get viewers to tune in for a range of classics (for some reason The Great Escape is popular Christmas fare) to newish blockbusters (James Bond doesn’t exactly say Season’s Greetings, but you can catch all of the ones starring Daniel Craig on ITV). 

However, despite these general cultural differences, I am sure that each family—whether British or American—has its own unique seasonal traditions. I wish you the very best in blending yours as your family expands, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that you can start some new ones as well. After all, it was Victoria who popularised decorating Christmas trees on these shores; any chance you can promote some good old-fashioned American Christmas cookies?

All the best,

Every so often I publish a tongue-in-cheek letter to a slightly more famous American expat about what to expect from life in the UK; check out the others at:

Off the Beaten Track Wiltshire

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