Although I have lived in the US since 1999, when it comes to Christmas there are a number of essential “British’ items that must be present to make the season complete. While there are now a few retailers in the US that stock some of my must haves I am fortunate to be able to get a little shopping in on my last trip to London before heading home to Houston with the goodies.
Not only a table decoration, crackers are a crucial part of the Christmas meal experience. As soon as we sit at the table and start to pull the crackers memories of so many Christmas past come flooding back. For anyone unaware of what a Christmas cracker is let me explain. A cracker is a cardboard tube (think of a toilet roll inner) wrapped in festive paper with a twist at each end. The cracker has a ‘banger’ inside which is made up of two thin strips of paper coated with a tiny amount of gunpowder that ‘explodes’ with the friction of the paper being torn apart. As the paper rips, the banger goes off and all the goodies inside come tumbling out. Traditionally there will be a festive hat to wear, a terrible joke or riddle written on a small piece of paper, and a gift.
Depending on how posh your crackers are will depend on the quality of the gift, and probably the biggest reason to shop around for crackers. In 2014 the Mail wrote an article about the world’s most expensive crackers at around 4 million pounds (these contained Cartier diamonds and Aston Martin cars) but I usually go for the more modest 30 pound set of 6 from Waitrose.
A traditional fruitcake with royal icing is a must have during the holiday season. A lovely cup of tea and slice of cake are just the perfect afternoon snack. Type into google ‘Christmas fruitcake’ and you will see a huge variety of recipes, all claiming to be the best. I’m not the greatest cook (my family faints at this under statement) so the Marks and Spencer or Waitrose versions of this cake will more than suffice. Sadly this heavy cake comes with a pretty weighty calorific cost, but it’s Christmas so it has to be done.
Did you know that mince pies were originally filled with meat and made in an oval shape to represent the manger that Jesus slept in? Today they are usually round in shape and filled with sweet mincemeat made up of dried fruits, sugar, suet, and quite often a little brandy! In the middle ages it was believed that if you ate a mince pie every day from Christmas until twelfth night you would have happiness for the following 12 months. Mince pies can be eaten hot or cold and served on their own or drizzled with brandy butter, cream, or maybe a little vanilla ice cream.
Now I think this category will have a little flexibility depending on your families’ preference, although a tin of Quality Street seems to be many peoples favorite despite the shrinking size of the tin. This year I must have been thinking of my late mother when I was shopping as I purchased two of her favorites, a Ferrero Roche selection box and a tin of After Eight Mints. Of course we also added a Thornton’s mini variety pack and some other ‘real’ Cadbury favorites’ (funny how I type in American English now even when talking about British things).
This is the traditional dessert following a blowout turkey Christmas lunch. Now I must admit that while this is a must have, we quite often are so full after our huge Christmas feast that this is not consumed until later in the day. Some people will refer to this dish as figgy pudding or plum pudding but a traditional Christmas pud consists of various types of dried fruits, nuts, egg, flower, sugar, suet (although there are vegetarian options now) plus copious amounts of brandy. I remember from my childhood that the pudding had to be steamed for what seemed like hours, but today quick and easy ready-made microwave versions are widely available. The debate always rages in my house about what should be served to accompany the pudding with cream being the most popular (although my vote is for hot custard).
Not food related, but a Christmas must nevertheless. When my daughters were younger they loved the advent calendars that had a mini chocolate behind each window. Now that they are grown up the advent calendar that I give my girls has evolved into a little present that I wrap up for each day. Presents can range from magazines, kitchen gadgets or candy bars. This year while in the UK I managed to pick up a couple of the Marks and Spencer advent calendars that are proving to be a huge hit.
So that is my list of 6 British essentials for the Christmas holidays. Do you have your own list of items that make the holidays special?
Watch out for my Christmas videos coming soon to my YouTube channel to learn more about how this expat family celebrates Christmas.