24 December 2008

Comfort and Joy: Christmas in Barford

Christmas is a time of nostalgia and tradition. At is a time that we let go and give our “inner child” free reign, as we relish and embrace the familiar: age-old hymns and carols that we never tire of hearing or singing year after year; reuniting with families and friends; houses with trees trimmed in tinsel and light, filled with the warm smell of familiar comforting food; Christmas plays in church halls with bathrobe shepherds; and so on. Many of us were brought up with these facets of Christmas, and have dutifully and routinely replicated them throughout our lives.

As we age, we create our own traditions for ourselves apart from our families and communities of origin. As a sassy, single gal in NYC, I had a whole host of holiday traditions with my friends and church community in the West Village. That all feels very far away from me now. And although, Christmas is in many ways the “great uniting” holiday, in that it is celebrated the world over, by Christians and non-Christians alike, there are subtle differences that serve as a reminder that, I, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, am “not in Kansas anymore.”

Christmas in England has been a whirlwind experience. Choral concerts, The Nutcracker, Handel’s Messiah, dinners, parties, get-togethers, carol services, shopping and preparations! I have never been so rushed off my feet during a holiday season. Even when I was living in New York! And the Brits do enjoy “having a laugh,” so, I have also laughed more in the past few weeks that I have in my entire life! I think that is what I love most of all about Christmas in England, the incredibly healthy balance folks here seem to strike between Christmas being a time of frivolity and fun, and Christmas being a time of faith and reflection.

For example, the evening after the rather raucous W.I. Christmas Dinner was the St. Peter’s Church Christmas Dinner. (Note: all I seem to do these days is eat and drink. Lots. And lots.)

This was like no Church Christmas Dinner this girl, raised by Southern Baptist Puritans, has ever seen. The scrumptious dinner, lovingly prepared by W.I. and Church warden members, was, surprise! Not turkey! (Thank goodness.) We had yummy, yummy Cottage Pie, lots of veggies and Trifle for pudding/dessert. (I have fallen in love with Trifle, and would give my right arm for a good one.) And of course, there were Christmas crackers and funny hats that had to be worn.

And of course, there is always the requisite “After Dinner Entertainment.” Mind you, since this was a church gathering, I did assume that my zinger of a joke might be more than a bit out of place. So, no jokes here, but some wonderfully funny original Christmas poetry from a local poetess, such as one called “Spare a thought for the Turkeys.” Her act was followed by the local Magician. Yes, we have a local magician. And he’s very good. I’ve always been quite skeptical of these sorts of things, but I was very impressed by him.

The highlight of the evening was “the Pantomime”. This is a British Christmas tradition if ever there was one. It does surprise me that the whole “Christmas Panto” thing has never caught on in the States. It’s so zany and silly, you’d have thought we Americans would take to it like wildfire. The D.E.B. has promised to take me to a professional pantomime after the holidays. That dreamy Glasgow-born, Brit-American boy, John Barrowman (a.k.a., sexy Captain Jack Harkness from “Torchwood”) will be starring in a panto version of “Robin Hood” in Birmingham in next month.

I will confess—theatre snob that I am—that I hold rather low expectations of amateur dramatics, pantomimes, Christmas pageants and the like. But, let me tell you, the panto at the St. Peter’s Christmas Dinner was a riot! I laughed until I cried. It was a panto version of “Snow White.” What I loved about it was that it was very different from what I was expecting. It was not hammy, or over-acted, i.e., no one winking at the audience for a cheap laugh. The script was actually quite witty and smart, and not at all silly. The best part of the incredible humo(u)r was just knowing the actors themselves. ‘Mrs. Vicar,’ the Vicar’s wife, a strong, sharp, solid woman played a girlie, lispy Snow White, with a giant bow in her hair. The Vicar himself played “The Mirror,” earning huge belly laughs with his dead-pan delivery of such lines as: “I’m shattered.” Mrs. Godfrey was hilarious as the Fairy Godmother, trapped in the wrong play and looking for Cinderella. Mrs. Macbeth took top honors playing the Evil Queen...

No shepherds, no angels, and one could argue not really anything at all to do with Christmas per se, but gosh it was fun! Following the panto, we sang dozens and dozens of carols and hymns. The night ended with a raffle – it’s not a church dinner without a raffle, right?

Between then and now there have been countless carol services, mulled wine and mince pies. Following my grand turn at the W.I. dinner, the D.E.B. and I have had a flurry of Christmas cards and party invitations through our door. We are becoming quite the “couple to know,” as it were. Perhaps it would be more apt to say the “couple to welcome” because that is what I really feel here.

I have never been made to feel so welcome in a place. The other night, at the St. Peter’s carol service, Pam, one of my W.I. chums said: “Now that you’re here, we’re not letting you go!” It is hard to believe that I have only been here four very short months. This feels very much like home to me now. Like it has been always. Its quirky and sometimes more than a little zany, but it is also so very comfortable and cosy.

I am utterly exhausted from baking (a platter of chocolate chip cookies/biscuits) for the D.E.B. to treat his chums at work, and jam-making (the marmalade factory is in full-force now). Despite poll results, I am opting for “Sirloin Steaks with Stilton” for our Christmas Dinner tomorrow. I gotta keep it simple at this point. Organic steaks, of course. Home-grown and hand delivered by our local Lady Farmer, Di Trevis from Middle Watchbury Farm up the road. Tonight – midnight mass at St. Peter’s followed by a bit of bubbly! That’s a tradition I started with my friends in New York.

It's Christmas Eve and The D.E.B. is at work (along with Bob Cratchett and Tiny Tim, no doubt) hoping to get away a bit early this afternoon. Goodness knows in this climate it is a blessing that he has a job to go to! Two of his mates were recently made redundant, and right before Christmas!

Here’s a funny thing: yesterday, I went and did a volunteer stint helping to decorate the Church for tonight’s Midnight Mass. I was assigned to decorating the church Christmas tree with a small squad of children as assistants. I was handed a thin ladder with which to climb and place ornaments atop the tree. I am not afraid of heights, but I am deathly afraid of falling. Note to self and lesson learned: Never ever ask children ‘Where do you think this ornament should go?’ It was all I could do to talk myself through it: “Just breathe. Don’t look down. Don’t hyperventilate in front of the children.”


So. Here it is. Christmas 2008. Much more and better than I could have ever imagined. 

The downsides: I miss my friends. I miss St. Luke’s. I miss my Mom. 

The one and only testy little thing: The Christmas carols are not the same! i.e., “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Same titles, same words, but entirely different tunes and timing. Humph!

And a secret: I got the D.E.B. a very special gift. I mentioned previously (see previous post: “Northern Soul”)  that the D.E.B. had a collection of works by the Lake District landscape painter W. Heaton Cooper, the painter his parents collected. Long story short, the D.E.B’s “Ex” didn’t like the paintings, so the D.E.B. gave them away. 

He really regretted it after the fact. Bless him. Love can make you do some very foolish things. Anyway, I am proud to say that this year, the D.E.B.’s lovely family tradition has been revived. Carefully wrapped, lying securely beneath our sweet fir tree is a Heaton Cooper print of “Tarns Hows” just for D.E.B.  

Our little next door neighbour, Charlotte, with our Lucy, the Christmas Elf-Dog


Random Thoughts said...

Sounds like a lovely Christmas. Merry Christmas to you.

Iota said...

I'm so glad you're feeling welcomed in England. I know many Americans feel very unwelcome, and get the impression that the English are an unfriendly and cold bunch.

An American Girl in the UK said...

Unfriendly and cold? Never! :)
Thanks for your comment, Iota. Hope you are having a Happy hols in the USA!

SWC said...

okay, next year, me and my brood are partying over in Barford with you and D.E.B.

I don't like the sounds of cottage pie and being from the US, "crackers" have a whole other meaning, but a hearty laugh is lingua franca.

An American Girl in the UK said...

SWC: We'd love to have you guys in Barford next year! I'm sure you would also undoubtedly love all the fancy hat wearing! It's all about the glamour, right?