I have just returned from a visit to the land of my birth and while it was lovely to see family and friends, I was glad to return to warm Coastal Georgia – mainly because the temperature was between 30 and 40 degrees the whole time I was in England. It went dark at 3: 30 p.m., and I only saw the sun, briefly – twice in 12 days due to cloud, rain and snow.
My time in England emphasized to me some real differences in holiday traditions between Britain and the U.S. I have obviously become too used to the retail culture and convenience of living in the U.S. as it seemed strange to me that English friends were excited that shopping centers would unusually stay open as late as 9 p.m. for Christmas shopping. When I explained about midnight madness, Black Friday and the like, my British friends and relatives couldn’t believe it.
American New Year’s traditions differ significantly from those in Britain. In Scotland they call New Year’s Eve “Hogmanay,” which is a bigger celebration than Christmas. And the tradition of the “first-foot” is very important throughout the U.K.
The “first-footer” is the first person to cross the threshold of a home on New Year’s Day and a bringer of good fortune for the coming year. Although the first-footer can be a resident of the house, they must not be in the house at the stroke of midnight in order to truly be the first-footer. This person is traditionally and ideally a tall, dark-haired male who brings several specific gifts to ensure good luck for the coming year: a coin to represent financial prosperity; bread to represent food; salt to represent flavor; coal to represent warmth; and a drink (usually whiskey) to represent good cheer.
While in England, we enjoyed taking two of my young nieces to the pantomime. This is a very British tradition of the holiday season, which is still fairly popular in Canada but practically unknown in the U.S. It is a musical theater with plenty of slapstick comedy, and based on children’s fairy stories, such as “Aladdin” or “Cinderella.”
But unlike the Disney films these pantomime versions have some bizarre aspects. For example, the leading male juvenile character is traditionally played by a young woman, and the main older woman character is known as the pantomime dame and played by a man in drag. Audience participation is encouraged with enthusiastic shouting of corny but traditional phrases, such as “He’s behind you,” and risqué double entendre is included to keep the adults entertained as well.
The British tend to focus on traditions around Twelfth Night, which is not common in America. This Christian festival marks the coming of the Epiphany and concludes with the Twelve Days of Christmas (as in the famous song which ends with “a partridge in a pear tree”). It is considered unlucky to leave Christmas decorations hanging after the Twelfth Night of Christmas, the evening of Jan. 5.
In Tudor England from 1485 to 1603, the Twelfth Night marked the end of a winter festival that started on All Hallows Eve (Halloween) and included a traditional drink called wassail, a hot, mulled punch made from apple cider or wine, with cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. This is still imbibed in Britain throughout the holiday season, but especially on the Twelfth Night.
Of course one of the most famous and iconic traditions in the U.S. is the midnight dropping of the ball in Times Square in New York. Apparently this tradition began in 1907 and the original ball was made of iron and wood. The current ball is made of Waterford Crystal, weighs more than 1,000 pounds and is 6 feet in diameter.
I was amused when one of my stepson’s less academic friends earnestly asked me if we watch the ball drop on New Year’s Eve in England. My British sense of humor was lost on him when I said, “Oh yes, we wait up until 5 a.m. to see it.”
He obviously wasn’t listening when they covered time zones in geography class. I relented and explained about Big Ben chiming at midnight, which is our closest equivalent to the Times Square ball drop.
I particularly like the traditional Southern dish of hoppin’ John – first introduced to me by my husband’s aunt and uncle who live in Charleston. These black eyed peas, rice and ham hocks or bacon are meant to guarantee a prosperous year filled with luck, or as the old saying goes: “Eat peas on New Year’s Day to have plenty of everything the rest of the year.”
The peas are symbolic of coins, and did you know that leftover hoppin’ John is called skippin’ Jenny? If eaten on Jan. 2, it is meant to firm up an even better chance of prosperity in the new year.
There are, however, a number of new year traditions our two nations do have in common, such as fireworks that originated from ancient times when noise and fire were thought to dispel evil spirits and bring good luck.
New year resolutions are thought to date back to the ancient Babylonians and reinforced by early Christians who believed that the first day of the new year should be spent reflecting on past mistakes and resolving to improve oneself in the new year.
Whatever you are doing to celebrate this new year, I wish you and your family a happy and healthy 2012. God bless America!
Francis grew up in London, England, and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009 with her American husband, Carl, and English dogs. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.lesleyfrancispr.com.