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Being Scottish in America … at Christmas

December 18, 2010

Be prepared to be shocked, or maybe just slightly surprised, depending on the strength of your feeling towards Christmas traditions, by the following revelations regarding the differences found in Christmas on the other side of the pond.

I moved to the US ten years ago as a student, met my husband and stayed. So I should be used to all this by now but I am not. Every year Christmas is just a little off kilter for me and truth be told my best “American Christmases” have been the ones where we have spent them with Scots.

What sets me off kilter?

Well, for starters there are no mincemeat pies! Yes, none!!! Most Americans have never heard of such delicacies and most look at me in a kind of horror as they think I mean I have beef with my raisins and spices. You can find them in the speciality stores, in the places where they sell a bar of Dairy Milk for two dollars. You can find jars of mincemeat if you search really well and are prepared to pay but don’t expect to find anything better than Robinsons, Marks & Spencer have yet to tap into this expat market. As someone who grew up surrounded by boxes and plates of mincemeat pies from the beginning of December until mid January, their absence at this time of year always feels strange and it never feels truly Christmassy.

That is just the beginning. Advent calendars. Back in 2000, Advent calendars were practically non-existent. I had to explain what they were and wax nostalgic about Cadburys doing ones with little chocolates waiting behind each door (not that we ever had those … a child could dream). Now Advent calendars have arrived in America, well in central Texas anyway. I am not sure just how permanent a fixture they have become in every home but I now smile seeing them in the stores at the end of November.

Tinsel. I grew up in a family where you knew it was Christmas because out came the three giant boxes from the attic full of tinsel. A Christmas tree’s purpose in life was to be throttled by copious strands of glittery boas and as kids we insisted on every strand being utilised in the decoration or obliteration of our tree. Tinsel in America is rare. Most trees are decorated with similar ornaments and lights to ones we have at home but with the addition of peppermint candy canes and perhaps metallic beads. American trees are always so much greener to my eyes than my memories of multicoloured tinsel wonders from home.

Back to food. Christmas dinner. Obviously there is no Queen’s speech to top off the meal or Eastenders drama of Grecian proportions to aid the [in]digestion. But those are not the only missing components of the Christmas dinner. There are no Christmas crackers! Yes, no crackers, no plastic toy, no silly riddles or jokes and no paper hat! The first time my husband experienced Christmas in Scotland he was amazed to see a family of mostly adults all sitting round the table eating their Christmas dinner whilst wearing brightly coloured paper hats. I meanwhile always feel somewhat naked at Christmas dinner in America.

You won’t be able to find any chipolatas on your plate either. Those little calorie packed nuggets of high fat scrumptiousness are absent. I was surprised that in the land of calorie devourers they forgot to carry on that tradition after the war of independence. Likewise, no bread sauce.

And then pudding … Christmas pudding … none! No tradition of it. Christmas cake … None of that either!!

Well we could always just forget food and go to the panto. Er, no … not done here. Most Americans are very puzzled anytime I try to explain panto. The conversation always ends up in a discussion of why Brits always seem so fascinated with men dressing up as women.

There are some things which are much the same however.

Santa and his entourage are here, perhaps even more so, entrenched as they are in every mall in the country from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve. Stockings hang from mantelpieces throughout the land and children are blackmailed into going to sleep by the threat that “Santa won’t come if you are awake!”. Everyone gives and receives Christmas cards and often they also come complete with the ‘Christmas letter’. Turkeys, the ones who thought they’d had a lucky escape in November, are served up on dinner tables, although pigs can also have a rough time of it at Christmas as those who ate too much turkey in November often opt for ham.

Then there are of course the different things that Americans do for Christmas that we don’t do on the other side of the pond. There is the straining of the electricity grid by festooning your house with lights and plastic light up figures – a tradition that is threatening to blossom in Britain too I hear.

Americans also love adorning their motor vehicles with wreaths, bows and even reindeer antlers; I saw a big Texan pick up truck with a pair of gold bells dangling from the trailer hitch where I assume there would normally be a pair of metal testicles (I’m not kidding!).

They make and decorate gingerbread men, women, children and houses impressively. Predominantly in the Mid-West, they wear Christmas sweaters that are decorated with every Christmas symbol imaginable and some even have bits that light up or play a tune.

Yet all of these things barely really scratch the surface because America, unlike Britain, is a huge country with a huge population that defies anyone, and particularly me, trying to define it and its traditions.

I have lived in four states and visited about half of the others. I have seen Christmas buried in multiple feet of snow, or 30C with ninety percent humidity and the air conditioner on. Christmas in America is very difficult to describe because it is so different for so many people coming from a melting pot of so many different cultures with different traditions. And for a considerable number of people there is no Christmas at all, there is Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, or Ramadan  or the Winter Solstice. There are even some Jews who have a “tradition” of eating Chinese takeaway food every Christmas before going to see a matinee at the movies.

In the UK everyone mainly watches the same TV, shops in similar supermarkets and has a tradition of Christmas that has been passed down for centuries from generation to generation in the same locale.

For Brits we have always, generally, had a singular Christmas tradition that we have all been a part of, whereas Americans have always had different ones to each other. The American equivalent to the British Christmas experience comes a month before Christmas in the form of Thanksgiving: the tradition that is wholly American and celebrated by everyone in unity.

So I suppose you could say that the American Christmas tradition is to meld customs and traditions from multiple backgrounds at the point when and where they intersect. So I will fulfill that tradition by introducing Christmas crackers, mincemeat pies, Christmas pudding, Christmas cake to our dinner this year and make my husband wear a colour paper hat and read a silly joke.

Merry Christmas and think of me when you eat a chipolata or go to a panto!

 

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