During this holiday season, when we are all feasting on festive food (or fare as it is often called in England), some differences between traditions of America and the United Kingdom really strike home.
For a start, today — Dec. 26 — also is a holiday in the United Kingdom (maybe because the British obviously miss out on Thanksgiving). There, the day after Christmas is Boxing Day. This originated from a tradition amongst the nobility who, after requiring their servants to work on Christmas day, graciously gave them a day off and presented them with a “box” (a gift) to take home to their families. By the way, did you know that the British never say “gifts,” but always “presents”?
Christmas dinner in the U.K. traditionally is turkey with all the “trimmings,” although the ancient tradition of eating goose or even birds stuffed within birds like the turducken is making a comeback. Of course, the British have not overdosed on turkey at Thanksgiving, so turkeys are only associated with Christmas in the U.K.
The British way of preparing a turkey dinner is very different. We traditionally cook them with chipolatas (very small British style sausages) and English “back bacon.” Also, dressing is called “stuffing,” and we serve roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts and parsnips — never sweet potatoes and green-bean casserole.
When I first came to America, I was disappointed to discover that mince pies, which are made from “mincemeat,” are not part of the U.S.’s Christmas tradition. This is extra confusing because the English call ground beef “minced beef” or just “mince,” which is the staple of many a famous British dish such as Cottage pie. However, sweet mincemeat is made from dried fruit, distilled spirits, spices and sugar and is used to fill sweet pies and desserts.
The original English mincemeat recipes from the 16th century used both meat and fruit, but fortunately tastes moved on and, by Victorian times, mincemeat became a sweet concoction associated with the festive season. It is not only used in mince pies, but also in the traditional rich, fruit Christmas cake that is baked weeks in advance, left to mature, and then covered with a layer of marzipan made from “ground almonds” (almond flour) and then “icing” (frosting).
Mincemeat also appears in the famous British “Christmas pudding,” which is a rich, moist type of cake that is cooked by boiling or steaming for many hours after “ripening” for weeks. It traditionally is made four or five weeks before Christmas on “Stir Up Sunday,” wrapped in a cloth and hung on a hook for weeks to dry. Everybody in the household became involved by giving the mixture an occasional stir and making a wish while doing so.
Silver coins were included in the mixture, as they were meant to bring wealth in the coming year. Sometimes, other items were included such as a tiny wishbone (to bring good luck), a silver thimble (for thrift) and an anchor (to symbolize safe harbor).
The tradition only gets more bizarre when the Christmas pudding is cooked and served on Christmas day for dessert, decorated with holly, doused in brandy and set alight. The lights are turned off and everybody oohs and aahs as it is brought to the table with great ceremony! It is then served with brandy butter, and usually brandy as well.
As a child in England, it never occurred to me that this was anything but normal behavior, and it passed for entertainment in the 1970s.
I have learned to love the American Christmas cookies, gingerbread and yule logs, but there will always be a very British part of me that gets excited about the baking possibilities when I see a jar of mincemeat in one of those stores that import ingredients from the U.K.
I suppose that a fruitcake is the closest American equivalent to a British Christmas pudding. As the famous talk-show host and American icon Johnny Carson once said: “There is really only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other!”
God Bless America, and have a very happy New Year!
Lesley Francis grew up in London, England, and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009.