It snowed last week and for a while the world outside my window looked like a Christmas card—well, that is, if your Christmas card picture of snowy English countryside includes a British Telecom engineer up on a telephone pole.
Americans often romanticize England—no BT engineers allowed—and almost everybody romanticizes Christmas. So what is a modern Christmas like in our part of England? I’m going to have to take that question a little bit at a time, and I’ve left it rather late. I’ll start with food—in fact, I’ll start with just one dish.There are three traditional desserts at Christmas. It’s not that people choose one of the three; they generally offer them all. Many Americans will have heard of the most important one, Christmas pudding (also called plum pudding), even if they’ve never tasted it. The majority of English people would think a Christmas dinner that didn’t end with Christmas pudding was incomplete. Then there are mince pies the size of small tarts, which are more informal and are served not just on Christmas day but throughout the season to guests who drop by, or at teatime—or to guests who drop by at tea time. But the one I hadn’t heard of before my first Yule in England is Christmas cake.
First, you have to realize that the English idea of fruitcake is very different from the American “let this cake pass from me” attitude. British readers may not be aware that fruitcakes are objects of derision in American popular culture, right up there with accordions. (I was living in Belgium when I first saw the Far Side cartoon in which those entering heaven are issued their harps, and those entering hell are issued their accordions. My Belgian colleagues didn’t understand why I thought that was funny—one of the guys even said “My mother plays the accordion”—so I didn’t try to explain.)
Everybody in the US has heard tales of fruitcakes that are never eaten, but that make the rounds from new giver to new recipient every Christmas for decades, Christmas being virtually the only time that Americans eat fruitcake. The British wouldn’t necessarily get the humour in that; on the whole, they like fruitcake. If you’re invited over for someone’s birthday the cake will probably be a fruitcake, wedding cakes are traditionally fruitcakes, and no summer picnic is complete without fruitcake.
An English Christmas cake is a fruitcake topped with a layer of marzipan, then royal icing, and finally decorations, which can be as simple as a ribbon tied around the cake, or very, very elaborate. You can coat holly leaves in egg whites and sprinkle with sugar to look like snow, you can buy special molds to make your own sugar Christmas bells, or you can have another glass of wine and put your feet up, having bought some Christmas cake decorations ready-made and thereby bought yourself some time.Or better yet, if you’re really lucky, someone will give you heirloom Christmas cake decorations. The ones I use were passed down to me from my mother-in-law, who was given them by an English lady when their family lived in Sudan many years ago. Being an American, my mother-in-law hadn’t heard of British Christmas cakes and didn’t realize that’s what the decorations were for, so for decades she set them up as a little Christmas scene on the sideboard. When I encountered English Christmas cakes, we realized what we had, and now I decorate our cakes with those little old-fashioned figures made of plaster, wood, and some kind of bristles (for the evergreen branches): two snowy trees, a cottage, a cockeyed snowman every bit as big as the cottage, and a tiny church over which the little Father Christmas looms like Godzilla.
I made my Christmas cake this year ridiculously late, barely more than two weeks before Christmas. You’re supposed to start about Hallowe’en. You wrap up the cake in grease-proof paper, which is something like American waxed paper, and then foil, and then shut it into a cake tin, which you open every week or so to dose the cake with liquor, which is called feeding the cake.
You’re supposed to feed the cake by trickling a teaspoon of brandy into it, but I was way behind schedule and the bottle had only about half a cup left in it, so I just gave the cake the best feeding a cake ever had and emptied the bottle. A little more never hurt, surely. In fact, I think the problem with American fruitcakes is that they don’t put enough booze into them.Pretty soon it’ll be time for me to take the cake out of the tin, cover it with the marzipan, and mix up the dreadful icing which, while inedible, does cover a multitude of ills. I read about a lady whose cake came out dramatically lopsided, but she went right ahead and iced it, and decorated it with little figures of skiers, plunging down the slope. Now that’s panache.
So the icing blankets the cake in something like the way the snow blankets the landscape, and that’s a sort of romanticizing, too. The snow covers, or at least masks, all the imperfections—including the blue bathtub that the farmer across the road has in the field as a horse trough—leaving the viewer to imagine that an English Christmas is just like the ones on the Christmas cards or in the storybooks.
It’s starting to melt, but I’m hoping it’ll hang on. It’s only two days until Christmas.