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Tasteful traditions abound

I know that Christmas and New Year’s have come and gone, but I hope will you indulge me as I tell you a little bit about what Christmas was like for me this year.

Christmastime in England is a wonderful experience. I love Christmas and the holiday season, looking forward to decorating each year and putting on Christmas music, so I was especially excited to see how Christmas was celebrated in another country. As I tried to think about a good way to explain to you how I feel about Christmas in England, some older carols and holiday songs came to mind. You know, the quaint ones that sing about “bringing us some figgy pudding” and “roasting chestnuts”? Well, that’s how Christmas still is in England: traditional and festive.

When December rolls around, the pubs start serving mulled wine and cider alongside warm mince pies; it’s an excellent way to warm up from the cold and almost makes up for the fact that England doesn’t typically get the beautiful snow New Hampshire does. What is a mince pie, you ask? They originated as mincemeat pie, but since there’s no longer meat in them, the name is generally shortened to plain “mince.” They’re round pies filled with a spiced fruit mixture, usually palm-sized and often sprinkled on top with sugar. When the mince pies come out, you know that it’s Christmastime, and there’s a good chance you’ll eat a lot of them before the season’s through.

England also has a tradition of Christmas markets, imported from Germany and Austria where they originated. Christmas markets resemble farmer’s markets, in that they are a collection of booths where people sell good food and handmade crafts.

The difference is that the booths are wooden and peak-roofed, decorated with green pine boughs and lights, and the food is prepared. You can usually find German pastries and sausages, mulled wine, roasted chestnuts, and of course mince pies, and there are often carolers singing on corners. Thomas and I went to the market in Bath, England and it’s a lovely way to get in the holiday spirit and find a few small gifts.

One of my favorite English Christmas traditions is the Christmas cracker. They are a little hard to explain to people who have never seen them before. They’re tubes of cardboard, usually covered in shiny paper decorated with holiday themes, with twists at either end. They somewhat resemble long narrow candies. Each person at the table gets one, and in a complicated crossed-arms maneuver, the whole table pulls them all apart at the twists at the same time. There’s a little pop as they explode, and you are left with a paper crown – which must be worn for the entire meal, no excuses – a little trinket, and a paper with some jokes on it. You can often walk by pubs in the few weeks leading up to Christmas and through the windows see tables full of people wearing the colorful paper crowns. Christmas crackers are goofy and fun and a great tradition.

Now the holidays are over and I don’t know if I’ll be lucky enough to spend another one in England. But you can be sure that I’ll have Christmas crackers at the table each year (you can find them online) and I’ve still got a few mince pies left in the cupboard. In fact, I think I’ll go eat one right now.

Catherine McCosker is a former Peterborough resident currently living in England with her husband, where she attends the University of Oxford and thinks about food a lot. She would love to hear from you at CMcCosker.Oxford@gmail.com.

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