Christmas Crackers, Pantos and Mince Pies, oh my!
Thanks to Betty, of the DBE in Louisiana, quintessential holiday customs are illuminated:
Turkey – Introduced in the 16th Century and immortalized in the final pages of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, turkey is the traditional star of the Christmas dinner in the U.K. Click here to learn more about the bird’s history and click here for Gordon Ramsay’s Christmas Turkey and Stuffing on BBC Food.
Mince Pies – These delicious little morsels started life centuries ago as “Christmas Pyes”, and included a mix of meats, fruit and sugar. Crusaders returned to England with spices which were added to, and eventually replaced, the meat mixture. Mince pies were once illegal, have clubs devoted to them, and are believed to grant both good and bad luck. Click here for DBE LA’s step-by-step recipe or here for Rose Prince’s “fail-safe” recipe. Or, if you prefer to buy, click here for the Pie Club’s top ratings. Remember to never: stir the mincemeat mixture in counter-clockwise direction; refuse a mince pie; or cut it with a knife (all unlucky). Tradition calls for consuming a pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas (for luck) and making a wish when eating the first one. For more lore, click here.
Mistletoe – The magic plant that remains verdant while its host tree is dormant was once believed to be curative (it is actually poisonous) and was hung over a baby’s cradle to protect against fairies. Mistletoe-related kissing came about because the plant was thought to cure broken hearts and quell quarrels. DBE LA provides simple directions to grow your own mistletoe here.
Christmas Crackers – Invented in 1847 by Tom Smith, the Christmas cracker is a holiday essential. A festively wrapped cardboard tube with a strip that snaps when pulled, the cracker is filled with a paper hat, a prize and the requisite bad joke. DBE LA advises the proper pulling technique is to start by crossing your arms and pulling a whole circle of crackers around the table. Hold your cracker in your right hand, and pull your neighbor’s cracker with your free left hand. Read more about the history of the cracker at AbsolutelyCrackers.com (where you can also order crackers for all occasions) or click here to send a FREE virtual cracker via e-mail. Feeling crafty? Channel4.com provides step-by-step instructions to make your own crackers.
Pantomime – A Christmas tradition since the late 1800s, the beloved pantomime (panto) remains true to its origins. The story inevitably follows the classic template, where boy wins girl (aided by a helpful animal) and good triumphs over evil. Ensuring a good time for all, the productions also add hefty doses of silly character names, slapstick, double entendres, exciting chase scenes, and often, a celebrity dame. Audience participation plays a vibrant role, with patrons yelling warnings to the hero (“He’s behind you!) or disagreeing with the villain (“Oh no you’re not!). Click here to learn more about pantos, including some great images.
Father Christmas – From his humble beginnings as a nondescript Christmas entity in a 15th Century carol, Father Christmas has come a long way. In the 17th Century, Father Christmas (or Old Christmas or Sir Christmas) emerged, as a large man with ginger beard and green cloak, who visited houses to feast with families. By 1880, he developed into the gift-bearing, jolly old man in the symbolic red robe. Originally children sent letters to Father Christmas via the fireplace. On Christmas Eve, children leave a mince pie and drink (milk, sherry, tea, etc.) for Father Christmas and a carrot for the reindeer. A stocking or pillowcase is hung at the end of the child’s bed (or sometimes above the fireplace), in hopes that it will be filled with gifts. To track the sleigh’s progress, children can visit NORAD’s official tracker site at NORADSantaTracker.org . If you need a dose of old-school Father Christmas, be sure to read the classic ode to St. Nick, which can be viewed in its entirety here.
Have yourself a merry British Christmas!