A few days before my first English Christmas, I walked along wet cobbled streets, past the warmly glowing windows of the little honey-grey stone houses built right up to the sidewalk. The faint coal smoke trail lay a trace for my memories forever. Now when I smell coal smoke on a cold night I am brought back to my first winter in Britain.
Northumberland is a county of majestic landscapes and clustered cottages tucked in sturdy but picturesque villages. Hands in pockets, head dipped against the faint mist, I marched stiffly through one of these villages along the winding route to my host family’s house. I soon arrived at the gate in the low stone wall with the house name painted white on a black sign, chipped at the edges. I opened the gate and walked up the path to the front door. A holly tree sat hunched in an empty oval flowerbed in the middle of a small square lawn, its red berries bright in the warm light from the house.I rang the bell. Albert, my host father opened the door wearing a sleeveless sweater and a check shirt that didn’t match, cords in a practical colour that would go with most things, and brown shoes. Warmth from the house gently reached me but didn’t rush out at me.
‘Come in!’ he said, in a voice warmer than his house. I could smell spices and roast potatoes. He led me down the little hall lined with small prints of watercolours of the local castle, the Cheviots, and the North Sea coastline, into the little living room, opening and closing doors along the way. I had learned by then that British houses were mostly little rooms and doors, not many open plans in the UK. It kept the chill out, I was told.
In the living room there was a parrot in a cage, the red carpet was interwoven with bouquets of flowers, the curtains another array of flowers, and the sofa and two matching chairs matched nothing else, but they were very comfortable. Albert waited for me to sit, and then he sat on the chair he always sat on, you could tell by the thumbed copy of the Radio Times, a newspaper folded to the crossword, a pen clipped to the paper and a small bag of candy—boiled sweets, on top.
I sat on the edge of the sofa, as close as I could to the surprisingly little fireplace, with a little pile of coal glowing inside. He had taken my coat but I kept my scarf. I admired the Christmas tree. He said they had an artificial one because it was just easier than trying to get a fresh one home every year. We talked about how the British cold is a wet cold. And the cold in Minnesota is a dry cold, but how the Minnesota cold is enhanced by a wind-chill factor. We decided we would not like to be fishermen in weather like this.
In came Betty, my host mother, with a tray of little pies, a bottle of dark drink and three little glasses. The parrot in the cage chirruped at Betty. Albert perked up at the site of the tray.
‘Ah, mince pies and sherry!’ Do you like sherry, Michelle?’ I had a friend called Shari, in the States. I really liked her a lot. I had never had a drink called sherry.
‘I’ve never had it, but I’m happy to try it,’ I replied in the spirit of an adventurer.
‘Oh you’re in for a treat!’ I was not asked about the mince pies, which I expected to be savoury because I knew that the British called ground beef ‘mince’. I was given a pretty little glass filled with the dark rosy-amber sherry and one of the little pies on a little plate. I took a sip of sherry and felt colour immediately return to my cheeks. It wasn’t a kick-starter like whisky, but it was clear why Albert and Betty, in their cold damp climate, enjoyed a sherry before dinner. Then I took a bite of the pie. It was not meat, but sort of sweet, and spicy and chewy, there were raisins, and perhaps orange peel. I was reminded of fruitcake, which I disliked. I set it down, knowing I would need to finish it. I sipped more sherry and realised the taste combination was quite pleasant, so I continued to sip and nibble. We talked more about the weather, the forecast for the week and returned again to the subject of the Minnesota weather so Betty might have the benefit of learning about wind-chill factors. Albert also revisited the decision that to be a fisherman in weather like this would be unpleasant and Betty agreed wholeheartedly.
We exchanged presents, and then it was time for dinner. Albert and Betty had prepared a special early English Christmas dinner for me, as they would be travelling for Christmas to see their son down south in York. Betty left to bring the food to the table while Albert and I went through to the chilly dining room to be seated.
The table was set with small tube shaped presents on each of our placemats, wrapped by twisting the foil paper at each end so they resembled large foil wrapped candies. It was a sweet idea to put presents on the table like this, I thought. I wondered if they were food related, chocolates, perhaps.
‘Red or white?’ Albert asked, as he held aloft two bottles of wine.
‘I’ll have what you’re having,’ I replied politely. I was only recently 21 and being a mid-western American, I was not yet used to drinking with adults at a meal. I had no idea if I even liked wine—cheap beer and alcopops were my usual drink, and sometimes cheap whisky and coke. I could probably count on one hand the number of times I had wine to this point. Albert poured the red.
‘More warming,’ he said, ‘although Betty would probably prefer white with the starter,’ he added. When Betty began bringing through the food I offered to help but she told me to stay put then she told Albert he should have served white wine first as we were having melon to start.
‘Crackers first!’ announced Albert, once we were all seated and the food was steaming on the table and the melon slices placed in front of us. I liked crackers, but I wondered why we were having crackers at the start of a meal with the melon. He picked up the little present and handed it across to me, holding it by one end, rather than just handing it to me like one would normally. It was like something a child would do. And why was he giving me his present when I already had one in front of me?
‘Do you have crackers in the States?’ Betty asked, seeing the look on my face. I then knew crackers were not edible and that these presents must be crackers. I told her I had no idea what they were.
‘Watch,’ she replied and she and Albert each pulled on opposite ends of the cracker, it snapped loudly and things flew out of it like breaking open a little piñata and they both shouted with delight and began looking for the items scattered across the table and floor. I had never seen anything like it.
‘Ready?’ Albert asked, handing me one again. I reached across the table and held onto one end as I had seen them do and pop! The stuff flew everywhere. I looked at what fell out. A piece of paper with a joke, a little red plastic fortune telling curling fish and a piece of folded coloured tissue paper; all strangely cheap little things. When I looked up I saw Albert and Betty with tissue paper hats on their heads and I tried not to burst into laughter. What were they doing?
‘Go on! You have to wear it! It’s tradition!’ I carefully put my hat on, but it kept wanting to slide off. I finally ripped it I was trying so hard. Oh well, I didn’t have to wear it after all. I was not disappointed. But then Albert spotted what had happened.
‘Where’s the cello tape Betty! No, better yet, where’s the rest of the crackers?’ Betty indicated a box in he corner and Albert pushed back his chair and went over to the box, bringing back three more crackers.
‘We’ll do another. Each. Bad luck for a person to do only one.’
‘Nonsense, I’ve never heard of such a thing,’ Betty said.
‘I just made it up!’ declared Albert. Albert, I realised loved both wine and crackers.
After another attempt with the cracker (this time my ‘gift’ was a pair of nail clippers), I managed to keep my tissue hat on and we made it through our meal reading the corny cracker jokes through the courses, whilst balancing the tissue hats on our heads. I drank far more wine than I should have but the walk home was less chilly.
In the morning I found several little cracker jokes in my pocket along with a fortune telling fish, nail clippers, a wire puzzle, and a plastic frog that flipped if you pressed on a tab at one end. When I called my parents on Christmas Day and told them about the meal I read out the jokes I had saved. I tried to explain how light-hearted the English made Christmas.
Now, over 20 years later, I still love the English Christmas and I spend some considerable time looking at the selections of crackers to see which little presents might go down best at our Christmas table. Yes, I still struggle to keep my hat on, but I think everybody does. And when I have my first sip of sherry in front of the fire each year I always think of Albert and Betty in their little house in Northumberland, keeping out the winter chill.
Michelle Garrett is an American expat making a life in Britain for over 20 years. Yes, she's still homesick for the States and yes, she'd be homesick for Britain if she moved back there!
Michelle is a freelance writer and blogs at The American Resident.