Tag Archives: United Kingdom

But Christmas was over ages ago! (Oh, no, it wasn’t!)

(British readers will probably find the headline for this post trite, a cliche; American readers probably won’t know why.  Read on to find out.)

You think Christmas is long gone?  There’s one Christmas tradition in Britain that begins in earliest November, and in some places runs well past the end of January, without anybody complaining that it starts too early or stays too long.  And it’s almost invariably known by a diminutive of its proper name without anybody—not even me—complaining that people shorten the name.  And that’s panto.

The Genie of the Ring and the Genie of the Lamp at a neighbourhood production of Aladdin this season

The Genie of the Ring (Alison Moulden) and the Genie of the Lamp (Andy Wells) at a neighbourhood production of Aladdin this season

Yes, it’s short for pantomime, but there’re no coyly silent mimes grinning from under berets; panto is louder than most theatre performances, because the audience gets to talk back.  A lot. It’s not panto without audience participation.

A panto is ostensibly a play for children, although I’ve read that well over 90% of people in Britain see a panto every year, a total which must include people who, like me, have no children to give them an excuse.  They dramatize a few traditional children’s stories (generally Cinderella, Snow White, Babes in the Wood, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty, Dick Whittington, or Aladdin), but it’s common to see whole families showing up with three or even four generations.  In the best pantos—well, in my opinion—a lot of the lines work on two levels: straightforward and wholesome for the kiddies, with a second and ever-so-slightly racy sense for adults.

Abenazar, the villain, played by

Good vs. Evil stories sink or swim on their bad guys, and this production lucked into a wonderful villain, the sorcerer Abenazer, as played by Lara Milne, with enormous swishing cape and truly evil chuckle.  In another of those British-English spelling variations for words ending in -er, Abenazer appeared in the programme for this production as “Abanaza”.  (In the edition of the Arabian Nights I have, he’s only called “the African magician”, and has no name.)

All pantos offer dastardly villains, whom we are encouraged to boo.  Each stars a principal boy: a plucky young male hero played by a beautiful young lady.  Each includes a pantomime Dame: an older female character (or two, in the case of Cinderella’s evil stepsisters), played by an older man.  Assorted members of the company handle the parts that complete the story, as well as the musical numbers, slapstick sketches and other wacky mayhem the director has dreamed up.  The most fun I’ve had in years came when some of these players of unnamed parts—in this case, the Lost Boys and the “redskins” (ah, yes; we’ll come to them in a minute) of Peter Pan—handed out grey, foam-rubber, cube-shaped “rocks” to the crowd.  (Sorry, I don’t know the British term for foam rubber, although I do know it isn’t foam rubber.)  They told us to wait for a particular line, and then defend Peter Pan from Captain Hook by throwing our rocks.  Our cue came in the second act.  The air filled with flying grey blocks.  We threw ours from the ground-floor seats, got pelted with rocks that didn’t make it to the stage from the audience in the balcony, picked those up and threw them at the stage, too, while the pirates on stage picked up all the rocks they could and threw ’em back; it was total bedlam, and complete second-childhood bliss, all to the music of the 1812 Overture.

Ahem.

A theatre poster for an 1886 panto, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A theatre poster for an 1886 panto, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In calmer productions, the cast may throw candy into the crowd, or ask you to check your seat to see whether there’s a golden key hidden under it, or just ask for volunteers to come on stage to help with some of the nonsense.  Inevitably, there will be traditional lines for the audience, a sort of call-and-response that all British-born people seem to know, apparently having absorbed it with their mother’s milk.

The hero, you see, depends on the audience for messages about some of the action.  Often it’s that the villain is creeping up, which the audience indicates by shouting out together “He’s beHIIIIND you!”, to which the usual response is “What?” so that the audience can shout the line again and again, only louder.  Granted, this makes the characters seem a bit dim; they also seem rather contrary, going by the traditional disagreements, which go something like this:

Dame, as Evil Stepsister: “The glass slipper is MINE!”

Audience: “Oh, no, it isn’t!”

Dame: “Oh, yes, it is!”

Audience: “Oh, no, it isn’t!”

Dame: “Oh, yes…”

(Repeat until the last moment before it gets tiresome; timing is everything.)

Widow Twankay and the Emperor of China

Widow Twankey (Rosemary Woodcock) and the Emperor of China (Jo Heaphy).  Rosemary gets special credit for stepping into the role when the gent who was playing the Dame had to cancel; she did the cast proud, at one point turning a line she did remember–“I don’t know what to do”–into a hilarious cry for help–“I don’t know what to do.  I’ve no idea what to do [to crew offstage] Tell me what to do!

 This exchange may be the essence of panto.  Do an internet search on panto and I guarantee you’ll find headlines like “Traditional Panto on the Way Out? Oh, no, it isn’t!” or “Panto as Demanding for Actors as Serious Theatre – oh, yes, it is!”

Then there are audience lines I just don’t get, which nobody has been able to explain, most notably “Oompah, oompah, stick it up your jumper”.  Even if you take into account that oompah and jumper rhyme (well, sort of) in standard British English, it’s still nonsense.  But much of panto is nonsense.

Sometimes, though, it’s politically incorrect nonsense.  Peter Pan includes a tribe of “redskins” that I would venture to say would not be seen on any American stage today, certainly  not under the name redskins.  And then there’s Aladdin, which is set in China.  China?

Dan Leno, famous for his Dames, as Widow Twankey in 1896

Dan Leno, famous for his Dames, as Widow Twankey in 1896

As a child, I thought Aladdin lived just down the road from Ali Baba, in a land of camels and date palms—but listeners the world over like tales of exotic lands, and apparently the original Arabian folktale set Aladdin in China.   That China, however, is a land where shops close on Friday to observe the Muslim holy day, and the inhabitants are called by names such as Mustapha (according to my edition of the Arabian Nights).   The panto version sticks to the original as far as setting the scene in China—but not much beyond that.

In the world of panto, Aladdin’s Chinese mother conforms to English stereotype by running a laundry, which seems a bit culturally insensitive, but…okay; there must be laundries in China and somebody has to run them, presumably somebody Chinese, as it’s doubtful there’s a long-running cultural exchange program whereby English people run laundries in Beijing.  Aladdin’s brother, a laundry worker, is called Wishee Washee (hmmmm…) and their mother is called Widow Twankey—a name that comes from the supposedly Chinese brand-name of a low-grade tea once sold in Britain, chosen to hint that she’s past her prime, since that tea consisted of old leaves.  But then we come to the Emperor’s guards, a trio of Keystone-style cops—Woo, Choo, and Poo—who’re played as fools, and who swap their Rs for Ls.  They appear several times, “rooking for Araddin”, and talk about practicing karate, a Japanese art, as if Asian cultures were interchangeable.  With their entrance, the play descends so far into stereotype that in the US it would be frankly offensive, but it’s cheerfully accepted here as just good fun.

The Emporer and Wishee Washee, played by mother-and-daughter team Jo and Amy Heaphy.  I loved the orange hightops!

The Emperor and Wishee Washee, played by mother-and-daughter team Jo and Amy Heaphy. I loved the orange hightops!

We wondered, at our neighborhood production of Aladdin this year, what the family sitting next to us, clearly from some far-eastern country and very possibly Chinese, would think. To go by their reaction, Asian immigrants don’t mind.  And the girls playing the Emperor’s Keystone-like guards were, just like the girls playing Aladdin, Wishee Washee, and Rosebud (equivalent of Disney’s Princess Jasmin), so beautiful, they just glowed—despite enormous false moustaches, in the case of the guards.  You couldn’t help but cheer them.

This Aladdin, performed for friends, parents, and locals in a church hall, was a blast, every bit as much fun as a professional panto with big-budget bells and whistles.  Nobody minded when the villain, still in character, dropped suddenly off the script, following a silence after “Noooow, Aladdin…”, with “Noooow, Aladdin, I have forgotten my line”.  Somebody offstage helped, and the whole effect was so charming, it seemed inspired.  They ought to write such things into the scripts on purpose.

caption  caption  caption  caption  caption  caption  caption  caption  caption  caption  caption  caption  caption  caption  caption  caption  caption  caption  caption  caption  caption  caption  caption  caption  caption  caption

The Genie of the Lamp (Andy Wells) with two members of the chorus: Emily Moulden (left) and Ellie Wells (right), daughter of the Genie himself

For all I know, they have.  It’s traditional to change lines in the script, to add bad jokes (“My dog can talk!  How’re you feeling?” “Ruff!”  “What’s that on the tree?” “Bark!”) or to namecheck local places and personalities.  Characters in the local Aladdin went up the Farnham Road from Onslow Village, and saw the Hog’s Back—all local features, neither Chinese nor Arabian.  It all adds to the wacky (UK-ians might say “daft”) humour of panto that gives us a Wishee Washee in orange hightops, a Chinese/Arabian chorus singing Michael Jackson, and a Genie of the Ring who keeps a can of beer (UK: tin of lager) under her turban and whose theme song, played at her every entrance, is Nokia’s default ring-tone—get it? Get it?)

The Genie of the Ring meets her public (drink in hand!) after the show

The Genie of the Ring meets her public (drink in hand!) after the show

All over Britain, churches, amateur dramatics societies, and community groups put on local pantos at Christmas-time, while for professional actors, pantos are big business.  Sir Ian McKellan took time off from being Gandalf a while back to play Widow Twankey;  John Barrowman (of Doctor Who and Torchwood) defied tradition to take the part of Aladdin (in a production visited by Daleks) several years in a row; and a famous soap star (Steve McFadden of Eastenders) reportedly earned £200,000 (about US$300,000) as Captain Hook in a production about 5 miles from my house.  You can find them in the National Database of Pantomime Performance along with the smaller fry, and you’ll see there that some of these larger productions actually continue into March.

No, really–March.  So, do you think Christmas is over?  Oh, n—  Well, now you know what to say.

Advertisements

7 Comments

Filed under Arts, Culture, Current events

Crimbo Comes but Once a Year

Happy New Year to readers still with me after a 6-month hiatus in posts, during which my Anglo-American experiences kept me so busy I didn’t pause to document them, for which I apologize.  I’ll kick off 2014 with holiday-induced thoughts on the perennially interesting subject of our common language.

A dish of clementines on my dining room window sill.  Apologies for the vaguely noir-ish lighting.

A dish of clementines on my dining room window sill. Apologies for the vaguely noir-ish lighting.

I’ve mentioned my Theory of Trans-Atlantic Word Shortening before: Americans think that Britons brutally truncate perfectly innocent words, and Britons think Americans do the same thing, so the only reasonable conclusion is that we must all be shortening words, it’s just that we shorten different words, or shorten words differently.  Christmas in England offers a bunch of strange-to-American-ears examples, starting with decs (what you put on the tree) and pressies (what you put under it).  As for Christmas dinner, the British eat roasties (roast potatoes), and sprouts (Brussels sprouts), and no matter what else is on the menu, you’re almost guaranteed to end with Christmas pud (Christmas pudding). Oddly, the four-syllable word chipolata, which seems a good candidate for truncation, isn’t shortened, but I guess chips is already taken, and chippies is overloaded as it is; chippy can mean a fish-and-chip shop, a carpenter, a nickname for somebody with the surname Carpenter, or a young lady with dubious morals.

This year I ran into a new example when a supermarket’s TV commercial (telly advert) invited me to buy their “sweet clems”—clementines.  Where I grew up, we got tangerines in our Christmas stockings, we had heard of but had never seen satsumas, and we could get mandarins in cans(tins), but here you can buy all of those small orange citrus fruits, plus clementines, fresh.  Frankly, I can’t tell them apart, but clementines seem to be the traditional choice for Christmas.  I doubt that calling them clems is traditional, at least in our part of England; in 14 Christmas seasons in these islands, I’ve never heard that one, though I’ve seen it on greengrocers’ signs in the market (meaning signs on greengrocers’ stalls at the weekly outdoor market).

Linguists call these kinds of slang or informal terms, derived from existing words, diminutives; there’s even a British diminutive of the word Christmas itself.  Are you thinking Xmas? Nope, it’s Crimbo. The OED doesn’t know what to make of it, either, suggesting it comes from baby talk.  It’s not new: use of Crimbo dates back at least to the 1920s.  And, like a lot of diminutives, it’s slightly derogatory.  Crimbo is most often used by people poking fun, or worse, at the excesses and the materialistic aspects of festivities.

A box of "easy peelers", small clementines sold mainly for kids.

A box of “easy peelers”, small clementines sold mainly for kids.

There’s a more recent slang/diminutive here, said to originate in Liverpool but to be spreading, though I’ve never heard anyone use it. If you’re a Beatles fan you might already know it. John Lennon is said to have come up with Crimble as another name for Christmas.  You can hear it used in some 1960s Beatles’ Christmas videos for fans, but the Wikipedia page for Crimble is about to be deleted due to lack of evidence that the word is truly in common use.  (If you have evidence of the use of Crimble in Liverpool or anywhere else and you want to save the page, you have until January 6 to speak up.)

Recently UK media outlets have taken to using crimbo to mean a CBO, a Criminal Behaviour Order, which is a new type of court order similar to the older ASBO, or Anti-Social Behaviour Order (which I’ve written about before, too).  But that’s just an irony too far, if you ask me, and unnecessarily confusing.

Why do we shorten words in the first place?  Are we all just lazy speakers? Do we yearn for the cozy world of baby talk?  Some researchers suggest that we make up new words for old to boost social cohesion, which is presumably part of the reason for any kind of slang, as if we say to the world “Anybody can learn standard English, but we are the people who use this vocabulary”.  If true, then the people who are concerned that they can’t define “Britishness” in today’s melting pot of immigrants, a subject raised in the British press again and again, might find it useful to look at how we speak.  And if social cohesion is the name of the game, it makes sense that US-ians and UK-ians shorten different words: we are drawing lines to separate us, each group defining itself against the other.  And if that’s the case, then after 14 years in England, I ought to speak these days in a mishmash of words from both sides of the ocean—and I do.

Long live interesting differences in English!  And long live Christmas-Crimbo-Crimble!  I know people complain that the season starts earlier and earlier each year, but as for the celebrating itself, that’s one thing I don’t particularly want to see shortened.

10 Comments

Filed under Culture, Language

Wherein I make the acquaintance of the most prominent citizen of Dorset

Aerial photo of the Giant, courtesy of Wiki Commons

Aerial photo of the Giant, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Some years ago, when I was living in Belgium, my parents came to visit, and we drove over to England to see a cousin who lived here. (Well, we crossed the Channel by hovercraft, but you know what I mean.)

I don’t remember where we ended up going sightseeing, but I remember very well where we didn’t go: to the little village of Cerne Abbas, in Dorset, to see the Cerne Abbas Giant.  My cousin diplomatically vetoed that as inappropriate for the conservative sensibilities of the party there assembled; you can see why from the photos.

The naked and decidedly male Cerne Abbas Giant is one of many, many displays known as hill figures or chalk figures in the UK, but one of only three—the others being the Uffington White Horse and the Long Man of Wilmington—that are thought to date from ancient times.  Nobody knows who made them or why, but made they were, by cutting through the green turf and down to the white chalk beneath, and filling up, with more chalk, the troughs that were cut.   (You knew southern England is built on lots of chalk, right?  Chalk is what puts the white in the White Cliffs of Dover.)

The Giant, as included on an Ordnance Survey map of 1891, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Giant, as included on an Ordnance Survey map of 1891, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I finally saw the Giant last week, though he looked a little the worse for wear.  His head was pretty much gone, for starters, at least when looking with the naked eye—nakedness being something of the point of the priapic Giant.  Lots of the interior details—the lines that you might see as ribs or as a six-pack; the pectorals and nipples—that makes this figure different from most others, which are plain, seem to have disappeared, too, along with his left arm and a good bit of the club he holds in his right hand.  What he had instead, when I visited, was a somewhat polka-dotted (UK: spotted) midriff, with sheep as the polka-dots.

It takes a lot of work to keep the grass from growing back over the white outlines of a hill figure; it turns out that one good way of keeping the plants in check is to allow sheep to graze the hillside. (Not cattle; their hooves would mar the lines, apparently.)  But sheep don’t have the ability—nor yet the tools—to do the job entirely by themselves.  The National Trust, in charge of the maintainance, says it costs £1 per metre to re-furbish the white lines, which are about a foot wide (or 0.3 metre, if you prefer not to mix your measurements).  As the Giant is the largest hill figure in these islands at 55 metres (180 feet) tall and 51 metres wide, and carries a club 37 metres long, that’s a lot of metres of outline to keep up, and it looks like it’s been a while since the Giant has had an overhaul.

The Giant as I found him, lines fading, and dotted with sheep, who are clearly no respecters of persons

The Giant as I found him, lines fading, and dotted with sheep, who are clearly no respecters of persons

During WWII, the Giant was covered over on purpose, to prevent German planes from using him as a landmark.  More recently, he’s been used to advertise a variety of products, including condoms and, in 2007, The Simpsons Movie.  For that, a comparably scaled (but non-aroused) Homer Simpson, in underpants and waving a doughnut, appeared on the hill next to the Giant.  Funny, but…unfortunate.  Let the Giant have his gravitas.  (Homer was rendered in water-soluble paint, and washed away in the next rain, so that’s okay.)

Another man-made feature, known locally as the Trendle, sits over the Giant’s left shoulder.  That’s a rather odd name for a rectangular geoglyph (design on the ground) since trendle comes from earlier terms meaning round or circle or wheel.  The Trendle is also called the Frying Pan (again, a round name for a square figure); the Giant is also called the Old Man, or the Rude Man (or so say internet sources; I’ve never heard anybody use those names); and the hill itself is call Giant Hill or Trendle Hill.

Renovation work in 2008

Renovation work in 2008, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

And while we’re on place names, what about Cerne AbbasCerne may be related to words meaning a circle, or a cairn (a pile of stones), while Abbas indicates an abbot. And in fact a nearby abbey, complete with abbot, flourished there until Henry VIII rousted out all the monasteries and took their lands and money in the 16th century.

It’s not clear why the monks and their abbot allowed such a pagan symbol to dominate the skyline—and maybe they didn’t.  Some people claim the Giant isn’t as old as all that, and the lack of criticism from the abbey is part of their evidence.  The first solid written record—which describes money spent on the never-ending task of clearing the weeds from the white lines—seems to date from the 17th century, whereas writers in the middle ages mention the White Horse of Uffington; the late appearance of written records, too, might suggest that the Giant didn’t appear much before the records did.

A Roman depiction of Hercules with club and lion skin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A Roman depiction of Hercules with club and lion skin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

There are some—particularly since more lines, now obscured, seem to indicate the Giant used to carry a cloak or skin over his left arm—who say the figure is a traditional Roman depiction of Hercules, which would make him about 2000 years old, but then again, there are those who think some 17th-century servants cut out the Giant to criticize the way the landowner ran his estate.  I can’t imagine how servants had the time or the energy to organize such a protest, or how they thought it would help their situation, but that’s no more strange than the theory that somebody cut the figure to insult Oliver Cromwell (who helped overthrow the monarchy for a while in the 1600s) or that the monks themselves did it, to irritate the abbot.  Okay, this was before television and paperback books, but I thought the monks filled their long quiet evenings with prayer and/or flagellation, and besides—any monks, servants, or Royalists who started work on the figure would surely have been caught before they finished it; all the powers that be would have had to do was wait for them to come back.  (The Trendle, in any case, is an Iron Age construction, probably a fortification.)

Homer Simpson with the Giant

Homer Simpson with the Giant

A local legend says that a real giant was killed on that very hillside, and people cut an outline in the turf around his body, which would make Giant Hill the first crime scene to sport a chalk outline of the victim.  (Textbooks for modern detectives point out that such chalk outlines are seldom required, but also admit that every force seems to have at least one “chalk fairy” who can’t resist drawing them.) Many local people have, rather than speculate, accepted the Giant as a fertility symbol, whether they believed a woman who slept on the hill would conceive soon afterward, or that having sex on the giant assured fertility, or that dancing around a maypole in the Trendle assured fertility, or…there are probably infinite variations.  Some said a woman who walked around the figure three times would ensure that her lover was true; I’d say your lover could get up to a lot of mischief while you were hiking around and around.  In any case, every May Day, a troupe of Morris Men still dance in the Trendle and in the streets of Cerne Abbas to ensure good crops.

So I finally made the acquaintance of the most prominent citizen of Cerne Abbas. Long may he ensure the fertility of the beautiful Dorset countryside.

Panorama including Giant Hill (the Giant is in the red circle).  Courtesy of Ernest Adams

Panorama including Giant Hill (the Giant is in the red circle). Courtesy of Ernest Adams

7 Comments

Filed under Culture, History, Travel

An English Christmas 3 (Revisited) : Bring Us a Figgy Pudding

This post, part of the sequence that first ran in the Christmas season of 2010, should have been gone live yesterday, but my hosting duties got in the way of my posting duties.  Hope you’ll enjoy the original post and updates in any case.

Don’t want to make your own? Traveltrade.visitlondon.com posts this photo with a suggestion that you buy your pudding from Fortnum & Mason.

It’s Christmas day as I write this so, since I’ve told you about Christmas cake and mince pies, there’s just time to tell you about Christmas pudding before the holiday is over, and I’ll have covered the Big Three.

Christmas pudding is traditionally a steamed concoction of dried fruits and suet held together with a minimal amount of breadcrumbs or flour. It’s also called plum pudding, but doesn’t have plums and probably never did; the name comes from the prunes that it used to have and that some recipes still call for.

Update: But as I learned from a guest at Christmas dinner yesterday, at one time raisins could be called plums.  In fact, any fruit that in any way resembled a plum could be called one; the Oxford English Dictionary features a quote from the 18th century in which somebody refers to a “great Plum” that “is called Mango”.  Hmmm.

Some recipes use a lot of dried figs; puddings like today’s Christmas pudding probably inspired the “bring us a figgy pudding” line in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”.

And Christmas puddings are soaked with spirits—as is pretty much everything in the United Kingdom at Christmastime, including the inhabitants.

There are some pleasant traditions associated with Christmas pudding. For starters, for at least the last 150 years there’s been a tradition that everyone in the household should take a turn stirring the pudding, and the longer you stir, the more good luck you’ll have in the next year. Clearly some sly cook 150 years ago came up with this as a labour-saving idea.

In another tradition, the cook adds coins or other inedible prizes to the pudding, and each diner has a chance of finding one—if not breaking a tooth on it. Christmas puddings are best eaten carefully.

Originally the prizes were coins, and if you found one in your portion, you got to keep it. Nowadays it’s more likely that the cook will stir in symbolic objects, little trinkets about the size of charms on a charm bracelet, though the symbolism varies from family to family. For some, a tiny horseshoe means good luck, or a tiny anchor means you’ll find a safe harbour (which could be interpreted as a new home, a new job, or anything else you like).

Here again, I’m lucky enough to have heirlooms handed down from my mother-in-law. In our Christmas puddings, you might find a silver sixpence, a button, a thimble, or a ring said to be a grandmother’s wedding ring, though if it was, the grandmother must have had truly tiny hands. The coin predicts wealth in the new year, the button says you’ll get new clothes, the thimble means plenty of work, and the ring stands for love. (You can keep the luck, but you have to give the prizes themselves back. In the first place, they don’t make silver sixpences anymore.)

We had our Christmas pudding earlier today—flaming Christmas pudding at that. You pour warmed brandy over the pudding and put a match to it. If you dim the lights before dessert, it looks pretty impressive, with blue flames flickering all over and around the dark pudding. And in case there isn’t enough liquor involved in the making of the pudding or the flaming of the pudding, you serve it with a hard sauce made of butter, sugar and brandy, that melts over the hot pudding.

I was asked for fruitcake recipes after the Christmas cake article, so I’ve put recipes for Christmas cake and for Christmas pudding in the Featured Link section (right hand side of the screen). My favorite Christmas pudding comes from a chef called Nigel Slater; his is the only one I’ve seen that calls for dried apricots. The first time I made it, I didn’t have all the dried fruits it called for, so I substituted more apricots for anything I didn’t have, the result was fabulous, and now I add extra apricots on purpose.

Of course, you’re supposed to make the pudding ahead—in earlier times, some people made the pudding at New Year’s and kept it to eat at the following Christmas. For those who don’t have time for such things, or confidence that a pudding made 12 months ago is still edible, there are plenty of Christmas puddings in the supermarkets, most of them in microwaveable bowls so there’s no steaming.

Or you could order Christmas pudding at High Timber, a restaurant in London that serves the dish, but only to diners who sign a legal waiver. They’re afraid you’ll sue if you chip a tooth, or swallow one of the charms. A serving isn’t cheap, either, at £7, but that’s because you get to keep the charms—and they come from Tiffany’s.

Merry Christmas!

9 Comments

Filed under Culture, Current events, Food, History

An English Christmas 2 (Revisited): Mince Pies In Royal David’s City

Happy Christmas! Or if you’re American, Merry Christmas! This post first ran on Christmas Even 2010, but the ritual is the same…

When I lived in the US, Christmas always seemed to start just after Thanksgiving. Sure, there were Christmas displays up in some stores before that, but only to give people something to grumble about. We knew that it wasn’t open season on Christmas until Santa Claus showed up at the end of Macy’s parade.

Here in the UK there’s no national celebration in late November, so there’s no natural or definitive start to the Christmas season; it just creeps up on you. But there is, for many people, an accepted starting point for Christmas itself: at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve when BBC radio broadcasts the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from the chapel of King’s College in Cambridge. (I’ve put a link to it on the right-hand side of this page under Featured Links; the BBC will leave the recording there for people to listen to only for the next seven days, so if you’re interested, don’t wait.)

I listen every year, maybe because singing in a choir is the closest I ever got to playing a team sport, I still love the sound and remember what it feels like to perform, and I don’t have that many opportunities during the rest of the year to hear a really good choir. They usually do some of the medieval carols that I love anyway, but that are especially satisfying when sung in a medieval mini-cathedral like this “chapel”, built over a hundred years from the middle of the 15th century to the middle of the 16th. Why start Christmas at King’s? It’s traditional. But if you need more of a reason, you might be interested to find that King’s College is officially named “The King’s College of Our Lady and St Nicholas in Cambridge”, so there’s a pretty good connection to Christmas built in.

Some of the carols everybody knows here have the same words that Americans sing, but set to different tunes, and the British also have lots of Christmas carols I never heard until I moved here. Did any American readers out there grow up singing “Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree”? One of these new-to-me carols, “Once In Royal David’s City”, sung by one choirboy alone, always starts the service. As I understand it, two or three choirboys have practiced the part, but no one knows who will do the solo until everyone is in place, the director raises his hands, and finally indicates who is to sing. That, I’m told, is supposed to stop them from being so nervous.

Right. If I were one of them, the suspense would crank me up to peaks of anxiety I can scarcely imagine. It gives me palpitations just to think about it.

They also include modern carols, some of them commissioned for this Festival, either this year or in previous years; maybe these will grow on me, but they seem dark and muddy. Okay, the words may sound silly, but give me “Ding Dong Merrily On High” any time. Some of the modern compositions seem to have been stripped of any scrap of the joy and goodwill that make some of the traditional songs such a treat.

And speaking of treats—I was in the kitchen making my mince pies while I listened. That’s the second of the three English Christmas desserts. The British serve these little tarts with brandy butter, but that’s going too far for me; I want to taste the joy and goodwill of the brandy and orange zest, sharp and clear, and not muddy them up with cream.

So bring on Christmas. I’ve got the mince pies made and I’ve heard the little boy start the carols; I’m ready.

2 Comments

Filed under Culture, Current events, Food

An English Christmas (Revisited): Part 1

Most current subscribers and readers have been following my Anglo-American Experience for less than a couple of years, so I’m taking the liberty of reposting, this year, a series of Christmas posts from 2010.  I’m not updating it, although there’s no snow this year, which might be a shame; then again there’s no probablem with BT’s phone lines this year, which is a definite plus.  In any case, I hope you enjoy it, and I wish you a happy mid-winter festival, whichever one you may celebrate.

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 actually 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.

The three wise men on a Christmas cake.

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 British 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.

My family\’s Christmas cake decorations.

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.

Elaborate Christmas cake decorations to buy from http://www.cakecraftshop.co.uk. I’ve never seen a purple Christmas cake, though.

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.

5 Comments

Filed under Culture, Current events, Food

Update on Newton’s Apple Tree

A special welcome to new subscribers who came here after seeing the previous post on Freshly Pressed, WordPress’s showcase of selected blog posts. I was grateful that they included my apple-y article, and wonder whether, if that has been freshly pressed, we’ll get apple juice, and eventually cider…

The title card from the section of the Paralympics opening ceremony called “Gravity”

Turns out that the Paralympic opening ceremony was titled “Enlightenment”. Who knew? The section called “Gravity” used a title card (see illustration) , but the name of the production as a whole was never shown or announced. (One of the presenters said something about enlightenment being a theme of the evening and of Professor Hawking’s life; that was about it.)

Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams, the Enlightenment brains behind the Declaration of Independence

So what I saw (see previous post) as a tribute to the scientific revolution was really a tribute to enlightenment in many forms, including the capital-E Enlightenment of which Newton was a part—an intellectual revolution in which people turned to reasoning and science to determine how society should work. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson produced the Declaration of Independence as part of the politics of that Enlightenment, although today sometimes it seems we’re living, to go by current US politics at least, in the Endarkenment.

Sir Isaac Newton

Newton dedicated himself to truth, as a good Enlightenment scientist would, quoting in his notebook a sentiment that goes back to Aristotle that loosely translates as “Plato is my friend, but truth is a better friend”, meaning he would choose truth over whatever an authority told him. (A loose translation is good enough, not least because Newton wrote it in Latin when Aristotle’s original was in Greek—go figure.)

I would be doing Newton a poor service, then, if I didn’t correct mistakes when they come to light. So, many thanks to WordPress blogger 3arn0wl who suggested that the tree I said was a descendant of Isaac Newton’s original was in fact the original tree itself, still growing after more than 400 years, which turns out to be true, or at least, almost certainly true.

Pity the other trees in the Woolsthorpe Manor orchard. Newton might even have seen apples fall from this tree from time to time, but not on the one crucial occasion.

I spoke with Ann Moynihan, National Trust Support Officer for Woolsthorpe Manor, to get the true story, and found her a gold mine of information. The celebrated tree, the most famous apple tree since the Garden of Eden, was identified by about 1779 as the one from which Newton said he saw the apple fall; that’s less than 65 years after he died. So while we don’t have firm proof, it’s very likely to be the right tree; dendrochronology (tree ring measurements) show that the tree is over 400 years old; and we’re not likely to get any closer to the truth than that.   It’s possible that by 1779(ish) folklore could have pushed in already and marked the wrong tree as the hallowed one, but why, as William of Ockham might have said, complicate the story?

Ten years ago, Newton’s apple tree and 49 others were designated Great British Trees in honor of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.

The tree being so famous, when it blew over in a storm in 1810 the press got the story and ran with it, lamenting the death of the tree in quantities of ink—but the tree wasn’t dead. People rushed to make a profit on boxes and even chairs made of the dead branches, but the remnants of the tree sent up new shoots; there was life in the old fruit yet.

In fact, Ann suggested that the tree regenerated a la Dr Who.  (I’ll have to explain for those who haven’t encountered Dr Who, but with apologies to Ann, because a joke is never funny if you have to explain it; in short, Dr Who is a character in a science fiction television show who, whenever the actor playing the character quits but producers want to keep the show going, is said to have “regenerated”, and come back to life looking like the new actor who will take the character on.)

Key fobs made from branches pruned from Sir Isaac Newton’s apple tree, on sale in the shop at Woolsthorpe Manor.

Ann wasn’t familiar with the story I heard from the staff member in the shop at Woolsthorpe Manor, about the tree having been tested against the DNA of a piece of wood signed by Newton himself, but said that the Royal Society has a piece of wood from the same tree—and here, Americans and other non-British readers might want a word about the RS, which is proud to claim Newton as a former member.

The London premises of the Royal Society

Officially, it’s the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge; the American equivalent would be the US National Academy of Sciences, but the RS is 200 years older than the USNAS. It’s a nonprofit body of eminent scientists who support excellence in science, giving grants for research and education projects and advising the government on scientific issues. The RS has recently made a picture database available on the internet; you can try looking up “Newton apple tree” (see Featured Links), or better yet, read the RS’s blog about the pictures of Newton’s apple tree in their collection (click here).

And in its collections of amazing items from the history of science, the Royal Society has a piece of the original apple tree, a piece that’s been up in the space shuttle. The RS lent the 4-inch chunk to British astronaut Piers Sellers who took it up in 2010, along with a picture of Sir Isaac Newton, for what was meant to be the final voyage of the Atlantis shuttle.  (The Atlantis got a reprieve and kept flying, eventually carrying out the last shuttle mission when the program closed down in 2011.)

Piers Sellers, Anglo-American astronaut, took a fragment of wood from Newton’s apple tree on a space shuttle flight.

If you aren’t a space shuttle astronaut or a Fellow of the Royal Society, and you can’t get to Lincolnshire to visit the tree yourself, you still might be closer to the tree that you might suppose; shoots from Newton’s tree have been sent all over the world, grafted onto different rootstock, and produced genetically identical trees.  In Britain, the tree grows in Cambridge at Trinity College and in the University’s Botanic Garden; elsewhere in the UK they have the ‘same’ tree at the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Oxford, the Institute of Physics in York, and—though I haven’t confirmed this one—Kew Gardens in Kew, in London.  With pointers from Ann and some serious Googling, I’ve found more instances of Newton’s tree in the US (MIT), Korea (the Korean Research Institute for Standards and Science, in Daejeon), Australia (Monash University), and China (at Nanjing University and at TianJin University).

A descendant of Newton’s apple tree growing in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, although the photographer, rather unusually, seems to have been more interested in the trunk than in the leaves

I feel very much more enlightened now, on the subject of Newton’s tree, which is presumably not one of the enlightenments the producers of the Paralympic opening ceremony had in mind, but that’s okay; I took their point about seeing disabled people in a new light as well.  After watching Olympic athletes show how far you can push the human body to do amazing things, I thought I must have seen the absolute limit of achievement in sports, but the Paralympics showed me how wrong I was; like the best in any field of endeavor from sports to science, the Paralympians push the boundaries even farther.

Photos of Woolsthorpe Manor orchard are mine, the “Gravity” title card is a screen shot from the Channel 4 coverage of the Paralympics, and all other photos are from Wikipedia and used under the Creative Commons license.

9 Comments

Filed under Culture, Technology, Travel