It may seem excessive to say in mid-October that we are now approaching the pre-Christmas period, but once the month is over, those pumpkins decorating store windows around the UK will soon be replaced by tinsel, baubles and those familiar seasonal tunes by Mariah, Wham and Frank will be heard in shops throughout.
I’ve learnt that Christmas in the UK is anything but a one-day affair. No, Christmas is prepared for months in advance, with the retail market taking full advantage and pushing pre-Christmas ‘get your gifts early’ marketing to the max. As for the Boxing Day and post-Christmas sales, this was one phenomenon I quickly caught on to after arriving in the UK (I have the 2012 Boxing Day sale to thank for one of favourite possessions).
Growing up in South Africa, Christmas is a completely different story. First and foremost, it’s the height of summer. No dreams of a white Christmas there. The whitest thing about it is probably my skin, on display in shorts and a shirt. We’ll spend a lot of the day outdoors, usually eating outside. And what will we be eating? Not turkey. The first time I really realised that people actually eat the bird fairly regularly was when I lived in America. No, in SA we usually have chicken in a Weber (a kind of barbeque grill) and other meats, with all the extras, except our extras include cold and warm salads and definitely exclude Brussels sprouts (thank goodness).
But I suppose different places have their different traditions. The UK has a lot of them, and they begin weeks in advance. In the UK, Christmas really does seem an entire season. For some people, this causes them great displeasure. And for others, it’s their favourite time of the year. I take this opportunity to hereby declare that I have become one of those annoying ‘I can’t wait for Christmas’ people. And here are my reasons why.
The weather is obviously going to play a big role in setting the atmosphere, especially in the UK, where the weather makes and breaks moods. By the time we reach December in the UK, we’ve been experiencing the chills, wet and darkness of winter for some time, and perhaps even had a bout or two of snow. But, in the midst of this, Christmas is the bright, colourful break of winter that has the potential to turn rain-induced frowns upside down and brighten up the darkest day, both literally and otherwise. Lights adorn shop front windows, with displays ranging from a few colourful lights to the intricate displays in Oxford Street and posh neighbourhoods. Houses join the parade of lights and also range widely in the amount of effort taken and money spent. While I’m not a big fan of wasted electricity and lights that stay on throughout the night, I cannot but admire the glittering effect created by some of London’s beautiful Christmas displays.
Not only are UK citizens treated to extravagant Christmas displays, but they are also able to browse and enjoy a variety of Christmas markets. One of my favourites is the annual market on London’s Southbank. As I picture it now, it is not only my eyes that remember the scene, but my nose too. In fact, it’s probably the food I most look forward to! I look ahead with great delight as I prepare to treat my senses to the delightful smells and tastes of Christmas – the warmth of mulled wine or hot cider and the sweet crunchiness of caramel nuts. I’ve even been converted into a mince pie fan, something I once thought impossible.
Of course, preparing for Christmas also means organising presents. But when you have various groups of friends, as it often happens in a place like London, buying presents can become an expensive affair. Cue the brilliant concept known as Secret Santa, which was completely unknown to me before I moved to the UK – and I made that pretty obvious when I participated for the first time. It was a family Secret Santa affair, set up by my cousin. I had to buy something for my brother so I didn’t think twice when it came to buying a card, writing a message in it and signing it, of course. But it finally dawned on me, albeit a little too late, that there was a reason the tradition was called ‘secret’, and I’ve since learnt from that first experience. It is kind of funny, though, when you see people, myself included, trying to hint at the identity of the gift giver if their Secret Santa present is a hit.
And of course, no UK Christmas would be complete without the traditional Christmas jumper. Granted, this seems a fairly recent tradition compared to some of the others, but it certainly has become an integral part of the Christmas season in London at least. Each year, the jumpers become more extravagant and more entertaining. My brother, for one, seems to be on a mission to outdo his Christmas jumper each year, and I’m not sure what he’ll find this year to top years past. But no doubt, retailers have been planning their Christmas jumper line for some time and won’t fail to amuse and amaze avid jumper wearers everywhere. As for me, I found my winning Christmas jumper two years ago and will be wearing the same one for my third time in a row. I don’t quite see the practicality in buying a jumper I’ll only wear one day of the year. And besides, it’s a penguin wearing a Christmas hat flaunting a soft, furry bobble. I don’t think I’ll be quite as satisfied with anything else.
And of course, finally, back to one of my very favourite traditions (and generally one of my favourite things) – food. The day itself is filled with such a vast abundance of food that one doesn’t know where to start. Snacks and treats continue throughout the day, with the big Christmas lunch taking centre stage. It was my very first year in the UK that I sat down to a home cooked traditional Christmas meal with all the trimmings. Although I had family in the UK, I joined South African friends, united by their status as ‘orphans’, and we headed to the beautiful Lake District for a few days over Christmas. It was my first and only time there and it was as beautiful as people had described. Sure, it was wet and chilly, as most places in the UK are at that time, but the narrow, winding country roads, charming villages, quaint pubs and breathtaking natural scenery made for beautiful surroundings, no matter what the weather. On the day itself, we joined the locals in an old church in the morning, being reminded of the history of Christmas, where it all began and what it truly celebrates. And when we retuned, my friend and I got working on the Christmas meal. Thankfully, my friend is a great cook and has both UK heritage and living experience, so she knew how things needed to be done. But I was a happy helper in the kitchen, adding my two cents, relative cooking skills and non-traditional Christmas items to the mix – I was still fresh off the boat after all and didn’t quite understand how things worked at that point. When we finally laid the results on the table, we realised we had a major task at hand. Eat. As much as possible. And that we certainly did. Since then, I’ve enjoyed Christmas meals in restaurants followed by more festivities, and of course more food, at home.
It seems as though the beginnings of winter have now set in on the UK, and we may have already retrieved our coats and layers from the back of our cupboards in preparation of the months ahead. Some people might find this a very sad state of affairs. Sure, it will be cold, wet and dark at times, we won’t be able to enjoy the outdoors as much and we’ll start wearing so many layers that getting dressed will become an exhausting process. But with all the fun and festivities associated with the UK winter season, there is a lot that we can look forward to, and I for one will be looking ahead with anticipation as I dream of my very first UK white Christmas.