This past Christmas was significant as it was the first Christmas I've ever celebrated in the UK, away from my family. At first, I was really bummed about not being home for Christmas, but I soon got over that when I realized that Christmas in England is actually, well, pretty awesome. I kind of never wanted it to be over.
Here's my Top 10 list of the things that make Christmas so special in the UK:
1. A country walk after Christmas dinner
There's nothing better than retiring to the couch after stuffing your face at the Christmas dinner table ... well, except getting into the fresh, crisp country air with a long walk after dinner to help aid digestion. Not to mention, it's pretty darn beautiful out there. In this case, we didn't make it out until Boxing Day, but still, putting on a pair of Hunter wellies and taking in the beautiful Leicestershire country scenes made me almost forget that I live in a big, overcrowded, manic city.
2. Christmas crackers
I LOVE the tradition of pulling open Christmas crackers and putting on that flimsy colored paper crown inside! Crackers range from cheap (with plastic toys and corny jokes to be read aloud at the table) to downright luxurious (at Liberty and Fortnum & Mason, a box of their beautifully decorated crackers with luxury gifts inside retail for over £200 for ten!). They're festive and fun and there's nothing like trying to pop a plastic "jumping" frog into your brother-in-law's glass of dessert wine, as I tried to do shortly after the photo above was taken.
3. Christmas treats
I can't say that I love mince pies or Christmas cake (I'm not a fan of fruit cake or preserved fruit in general), but I'll definitely have a mince pie or two with a glass of mulled wine around Christmas time in the UK. In the US, we tend to have a lot more creative, spangly types of Christmas treats (have a look at the recipes on Pinterest and you'll know what I mean) with the stores dominated by colorfully iced sugar cookies with sprinkles on top, but I like how the British get back to the basics with festive treats that have heritage (as the mince pies and Christmas pudding do). But more "modern" confections also appeal to me. In the photo above, my friend Natalie made a delicious rocky road and decorated it with "snow", deer, and trees. Isn't it amazing? We enjoyed it while watching The Holiday, one of my favorite cheesy Christmas movies.
4. Two words: BRANDY BUTTER
I've never had brandy butter until this year (probably because I've never celebrated Christmas in the UK), but it is a REVELATION. A huge dollop of that with a generous helping of cream on top of my Christmas pudding, and I could eat that stuff forever. It also seems like the kind of thing that would only exist in Harry Potter books (I know I'm thinking of butter beer here), which is probably also why I love it, aside from the fact that it's sweet, alcoholic, and totally indulgent.
5. The Queen's Christmas speech
Watching the Queen's speech on Christmas Day was a first for me. It probably doesn't mean too much to people who have grown up with hearing the Queen's address every year, but I was (as the Anglophile I am), naturally, enraptured. She spoke of reflection and of Prince George, and as always, looked impeccable in a cheery, soft yellow dress suit and pearls. Long live the Queen.
6. The lights on Oxford Street and Regent Street
Brits are always stunned by the sheer magnitude and length that Americans will go to in order to decorate their houses for Christmas. I remember driving through specific streets with my parents when I was small, just to see the Christmas lights. There was a favorite house of mine in Sumner that featured an elaborate reindeer display and also went to town on their Halloween decorations as well. But in the absence of these OTT, competitive displays in UK homes (and sure, I've seen some impressive ones here, but trust me - they're nothing compared to American lights), I love taking the bus down Oxford Street and Regent Street during this time of year. The lights and the displays are positively magical and fill me with happiness.
7. Drinking mulled wine by a roaring fire in a pub
I like my mulled wine very, very sweet, with lots of spice. And there's nothing lovelier than enjoying it by a fire in a country (or London) pub. The best mulled wine I've had to date was from The Turf in Oxford (where, allegedly, Bill Clinton famously "did not inhale"). For a quick fix, you can buy packets of mulled wine spices or make it from scratch yourself.
8. Popular (British) Christmas songs
Christmas playlists are a must for me starting around mid-November. I hadn't realized how many British Christmas songs there were that we've never heard in the US (or at least, are much less popular) until I came here, like Slade's "Merry Christmas Everybody":
Or a personal favorite of mine, "Merry Christmas Everyone" (not to be confused with "Merry Christmas Everybody"!):
9. Setting your Christmas pudding alight
Unfortunately I don't have a photo of this (they're all too dark), but what's more fun than turning off all the lights, drizzling your dessert with a spoonful of brandy, and setting it on fire? Not much, I don't think. I may not be the biggest fan of Christmas pudding, but I sure love the excitement of seeing it being lit. That, and brandy butter.
10. The post-Christmas sales
London is as much of a shopping haven as the US is - you just need to know where to look! Every year, I lust after these beautiful ornaments from Fortnum & Mason (otherwise known as my spiritual home). And every year, I pass on them, because they retail for between £14-25 each!!! That's a little on the pricey side for me. But this year, I made a journey there after Boxing Day hoping to find a few treasures for my mom, who collects Christmas ornaments. Sure enough, I lucked out as some of these were reduced down to £3.50! Boxes of Christmas crackers were reduced from £50 to £12.50. I also spied some gorgeous Rifle Paper Co. cards as well for about £4.
So there you have it. Clearly, Christmas in the UK is fun. And now I'm off to my second Christmas in the States, so I don't have to be too depressed about the holiday season being over.
Merry Christmas, everyone.