Sunday, December 27, 2009

Boxing Day

With Toni on Holiday in Colorado (and suffering a bout of bronchitis) and me finding it hard to get motivated in the midst of a four-day weekend, I thought I’d just expound, however briefly, on the joys of Boxing Day.


Tomorrow is a holiday for me, whereas you folks in the States are going back to work. That’s because we have Boxing Day here in the UK, one of the most welcomed surprises awaiting me when I made this place my home.

I don’t know about you, but even while I was living in the States, with no knowledge of British culture, I always thought going to work on December 26th after enjoying the excesses of Christmas was just a bit much. So Boxing Day remains, to me, one of the best things about Britain.

What about you in the US of A? Would you welcome something like Boxing Day?

I’d like to write more about this but, hey, I’m on holiday.


Toni regrets she is unable to attend this week’s Pond Parley discussion. She is ill.

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Going Crackers at Christmas

This week: Christmas Crackers


About ten years ago I asked my husband to bring me some Christmas crackers back from his 17th business trip to London that year. My (then) two children were really getting into Christmas so I thought I’d throw in as many British traditions as I could. The likelihood of them eating sticky Christmas pud complete with brandy butter was remote, and Brussels sprouts were practically banned from the house, but I knew they would go for Christmas crackers.

Back in the day, you couldn’t get them in the US for love nor money. I once asked my mother to send some, but the postage made them ridiculously expensive, so I leapt at the chance to have them hand delivered by the Ball & Chain. I told the kids about these fabulous crackers and our excitement mounted as daddy walked through the door – and presented us with a lovely tin of Harrods ginger cookies or something. Certainly weren’t Christmas crackers. Disappointed.

This year I paid through the nose for three boxes of Christmas crackers from Cost Plus/World market, and took them into the Little Guy’s classroom. I was the “foreigner” coming in to talk about Christmas traditions from around the world. They seemed disappointed to find the crackers weren’t at all edible, but that soon dissipated when they saw the cheap plastic toy inside, and of course, the paper crown. I explained that sensible grown-ups eat their entire Christmas dinner with said paper crowns perched atop their noggins, and the kids looked like they didn’t believe me. What’s so funny about that?

We are spending this Christmas with my American in-laws, and wouldn’t you know, I have just enough crackers left for all of us.


I think Crackers are one of the coolest things about Christmas in Britain (Boxing Day is another), even though, on my first UK Yule Tide, when my wife was still my fiancĂ©e and her mum sent us to get the Christmas Crackers, I was confused that we didn’t go to the biscuits and cracker isle and headed toward the seasonal section, instead.

Now, of course, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without crackers. They appear at every festive dinner throughout the season and every time they do, they make people forget they are British. These normally staid citizens of Great Britain set upon them, snap them open with their table partners, willingly don the paper crown for the duration of the meal and read the achingly awful joke out for all to hear. As near as I can figure, there must be some sort of legislation compelling this behavior; I can offer no other explanation.

For the uninitiated among you, a Christmas Crack looks like a gaily wrapped, empty toilet paper tube, but with a naff gift and the aforementioned crown and joke inside along with enough explosives to put them in the “Dangerous Device” category, making them illegal to send in the mail and causing some airlines to forbid carrying them aboard least you attempt to bring down an Airbus A330 with one, but which, in practice, makes a sound about half as loud as a Greenie Stick ‘em Cap.

If you’re an ex-pat living in the UK, we’d love to hear what you think of these foreign, but irresistible holiday devices, and if you grew up with them, what are you’re feelings about them, and, most of all, what do you who have never heard/seen/experienced Christmas Crackers think of the idea? Crackers, or what?

Have a Merry Christmas, everyone!

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

How 'Bout That Weather

A little light commentary:


Not wanting to sound typically British or anything but what about this weather we’ve been having? Practically anywhere on either side of the Pond has had weird weather recently. However, I never really appreciated the temperate climes of England until I left. Growing up on the north east coastline could be pretty nippy when you had to wait too long for a bus, but there’s nothing quite like “lake effect winds and snow” racing over Lake Michigan down from Canada to give you a true sense of “cold”..

On Thursday we got up to an actual temp of 3 degrees Fahrenheit, with a wind chill taking it down to -20. That’s -16 Celsius feeling more like -28 because of the wind. When you get outside, the hair (and whatever else) inside your nostrils freezes. It really is the strangest sensation. Your eyes water because of the cold, and then the tears freeze halfway down your face. I remember years ago when the actual temp was below zero but the wind chill was- 40 (which, if you’ll remember is the same in both Fahrenheit and Celsius). My brother in England said “Toni, that can’t be right. That’s a walk- in freezer”. Yes, it is. That’s why the TV weather people tell you not to go out unless it’s absolutely necessary, and explain the initial signs of frostbite.

Fashion goes out the window in this kind of weather. Not only do regular (women’s) boots not keep your feet warm, they get ruined by the salt that’s poured on the roads every night and the nice leather soles usually turn into suicide weapons on the ice. Hats are a must, and I have yet to find a really flattering hat that also keeps your head warm. Don’t even talk to me about hat hair, which is permanent in this season. We usually also wear scarves that can be wrapped across the face, ski masks or gaiters that do the same. Trendy jackets and coats are traded in for ankle length parkas; if you don’t have one of those, layering lighter jackets also works. In either case you are rendered incapable of putting your arms down by your sides and if you fall over, you cannot get up unassisted.

Dressing children for school is a race against time, especially if you have more than about two. By the time you’ve got the last one suited up, the first has either fainted from the heat or needs to go pee. I would suggest standing them all outside once they have the ski gear on but I think that’s classed as physical abuse below a certain temperature. Oh yes, and they rarely get to play outside once the weather gets below freezing, so they come home bouncing off the walls.

How you doin’?


Very often, when I meet people for the first time and they realize I’m not from around here, they ask, “Don’t you just hate the weather?” Then I tell them about weather where I come from, and they gain a new appreciation for the mild, temperate (albeit, wet) climate we enjoy here.

I read Toni’s piece with a pang of nostalgia and a good deal of glee that I don’t have to put up with that any more. In Chicago, of course, the wind is the killer, but in my location, just south of the Adirondack Mountains, the real temperature got down to -22. Fahrenheit. (That’s -30 C.) At that temperature, there is no wind. There is also no bird song, or rustling of chipmunks in the wood. When the world is that cold, it is as silent as a deep sleep. The only sound is the soft crunch of snow underfoot, and your own whimpering as the snot freezes in your nose and your eyeballs glaze over with ice.

But it has its own beauty, a stark, still, silent beauty that I have to admit, I do miss.

I do not, however, miss digging my car out from under three feet of snow and driving to work. None of this two-centimetres-and-we-get-the-day-off crap. I also don’t miss shovelling my roof. Yes, you heard that right, “Shovelling. My. ROOF!

And that’s just winter.

Try 104 degrees in the shade (40 C) with high humidity. In temps like that the blacktop steams and sticks to your sneakers as you amble very slowly across it. (Cold brings movement to a standstill; heat only slows it down.)

No, the British climate may throw some chilly mornings, wet afternoons, foggy evenings and blustery nights at me, but it can never hope to touch the extremes I grew up with. In the weather department, moving to England was definitely a trade up.

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Sunday, December 6, 2009

To Tree Or Not To Tree

When is the proper time to put up Christmas decorations?


When you have kids, there’s a lot of pressure to put the tree up as early as possible. I didn’t used to have very strong opinions on when to put the deccies up, apart from banning anything before December. That’s just wrong, although it appears that once we’ve had Thanksgiving over here (complete with green bean casserole), it’s open season. However, it also constitutes cruel and unusual punishment to make the kids wait until Christmas Eve, and, as the person responsible for wrapping and putting presents out (and Santa’s reindeer food) I couldn’t even contemplate adding extra items to that to-do list.

We put our tree up yesterday, and now I have a firm opinion on when it should be done. I swear it was an exhausting, frustrating all day event. We have an enormous artificial tree which is erected in millions of numbered parts. The Ball & Chain corralled the teens into helping while I hid and wrote Xmas cards, till all the shouting and general mayhem had finished. The decision, after much deliberation, was to put the lights on next otherwise the ornaments would probably get knocked off. Cue wailing and gnashing of teeth as we plugged in string after string of lights to find the middle bulbs all out, argued colo(u)red over white lights (as Lord knows, we have plenty of both) and generally made no progress.

The Ball & Chain (with at least one child in tow) made no less than three trips to Home Depot (B&Q equivalent) until I finally told him to stop messing around and just bloody buy new ones. They cost about $5 for a hundred miles fer cryin’ out loud.

He then needed a long nap poor thing, and I attempted to dress the tree with a 6 year old who was bent on testing the laws of physics by piling everything on one side, and who then wandered off “for a rest”. The Queenager was a big help – as far as dressing the tree went, but suddenly remembered homework when faced with the five big plastic empty containers still to be put back in the garage, glittery stuff sticking to everything, and a big mess to tidy up. Two hours later the place looked somewhat presentable – and I was exhausted. So, the answer. The best time to put the tree up is when the person who’s going to be clearing up the mess feels the most energetic.


As Toni so deftly illustrated, putting the tree up can be a chore (a woman I used to live with who is now known only as ‘she-who-must-not-be-named’ had a tree ritual that took—no exaggeration—two full days) and that can make the faint of heart, or the curmudgeonly among us, put it off until the last minute.

But as an American, the proper time to start decorating (not necessarily put up the tree) is as soon as Thanksgiving is over. Sometimes that very afternoon.

I expect this tradition varies from clan to clan, but everyone I know subscribed to it. Thanksgiving may not keep the stores from decorating in the last week of August, but it is as good as a starter’s pistol for the average American family.

That’s why Brit’s aren’t really sure about when to start. Decorations begin to appear in November and sort of expand until Christmas week when everyone who is going to put up something has done so, then it levels out and things begin to disappear in stages after New Year.

As to when the proper time to take down the decorations is, we can look into that in January.

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