Summer spoils us with great choices of fresh flowers -…
Is there any difference between Christmas in Hungary and England? What is it like spending Christmas in the English countryside? What is a panto? This post explains all of my experience!
My first Christmas in England
I thought if I explained the first funeral I attended in England, I should explain the first Christamas I spent in the English countryside.
Although I have been living in the English countryside for a few years now, I have never spent Chrismtmas elsewhere than my own city: Budapest, Hungary. I was a bit excited, but as it often happens, some advice from a friend arrived just on time:
They say we have to live life like a child who is surprised about everything. Everything is new to a child as they can not compare things. Try to use this approach and let things happen at Christmas, be open and do not compare things.
I took this advice and I did not even listen to Hungarian Christmas songs at all, to avoid drifting off to memories of my childhood’s Christmases.
So how was my Christmas in England?
In all honesty, it is not THAT different to ours. I do emphasize, however, that Christmas in England is not better or worse, it is only different. A few strange things without being exhaustive:
Although Christmas is commercialised all over the world unfortunately, perhaps Christmas madness starts earlier in England than in Hungary. I can recall having seen the first chocolate Santa at Tescos when the school started at the end of August, beginning September. I can not get used to this – equally I cannot get used to shops starting to sell Easter eggs on 27th December. Beauty advent calendars (containing cosmetics) were completely sold out by the beginning of November.
Christmas lights are lit around 20th November. I have to admit, when I visited early December, I was pleased to see that in Budapest they waited with that until the first Sunday of Advent.
Perhaps the biggest difference is, that Christmas trees are up 12 days before Christmas or even at the beginning of December in some families. This is strange to me, but that is the way it is here.
In terms of the Christmas madness, it is the same here: buy your Christmas meals and gifts as soon as possible, buy your theatre tickets well in advance, go to the hairdressers before Christmas to have your hair done and book your table for Christmas at your favourite pub. This is strange for a foreingner: many English families would not bother with cooking and would simply have Christmas diner at a pub. Considering they booked their tables in September!
24th December, Christmas Eve
This is more important for us as we have our Christmas dinner and gifts on Christmas Eve which is brought by Child Jesus or the Angel – depending on the family belief. In England this day is spent with work or preparations and with some excitement and waiting.
In order to keep/follow some Hungarian Christmas traditions, I made salmon en croute, so a fish dish which we always have on Christmas Eve. For the first time in my life I made a yule log which turned out rather nice.
In the afternoon we watched TV – Poirot was on – and it was pleasant relaxing beside Christmas lights. Yet, I felt emptiness: it was strange not having family members running around, no gift openings because in Anglo-Saxon countries Santa Claus brings the gifts on Christmas Eve and gifts are opened on 25th December only. I must admit, I was looking at my phone several times to see if there was a message, a notification or an email from somebody… I did receive some Christmas greetings in the evening only and had a short video call with my brother and relatives. This was much needed and although it lasted few minutes only, it raised my spirit where spirits have to be at Chrsitmas.
At 9 o‘ clock in the evening we went for a Christmas walk with Bill. Why not? I told him when I was a kid, my grandma would take us for a walk after the Christmas lunch on 24th December whilst my parents did the preparations for the Christmas tree and gifts. My brother and I were checking which house still had some chocolate Santas and little red Santa packs in the window, left from St Nicolaus day (6th December). Now… I was walking on the Riverside by the Thames with Bill… When we got home, I made a fruit salad and the scent of the orange definitely helped to get more Christmasy.
We agreed days before we would go to chucrh for Midnight Mass. I am not christened and don’t go to church reguralry, yet for me Christmas has always been and is about the Birth of Jesus. I always watched biblical films at Christmas when I was a kid. Midnight mass is part of the culture as well, besides it somehow appears to be romantic, magical and intimate. I have only been to a Midnight mass once back in Budapest Basilica, but that was different as it always attracts crowds. But here I was in the English countryside waiting and hoping to be part of some magic on Christmas Eve.
We left at 11pm to the neighbouring village and I was pleased the weather was cold and foggy. If there is no snow, it should be cold at least, I thought. The fog made the English countryside mysterious, the half lit churchtower looked as mysterious as if it had been in a Sherlock Holmes film. I loved it.
The mass did not contain any surprise inspite of being an Anglican service. What I find good here is that they always print out some leaflets which contains the songs, the prayers and the entire service order including when you have to sit down or stand up.
When I asked my friend at home to buy me an English book in Hungarian she asked me whether I did not think my command of English was good enough to read it in original. I said, I was confident to read it in English, I understand every word and I do have the English verison at home, however, I genuienly believe when it comes to reading literature – does not matter if poems, novels or fairy tales – feelings, expressions come through in your native language. This is what happened to me in the church as well: I could not feel the Christmas carols they sang at the Midnight Mass. I could not get into the Christmas spirit no matter how hard I tried. Had the choir sung Hungarian Christmas songs like Mennyből az angyal (Angel from Haven) or Pásztorok, pásztorok (Shepherds, Shepherds), I am sure that would have been a different story. This is the power of the mother language.
The vicar mentioned in his speech how pleased he was to see how many of us came to church on Christmas Eve and he indeed seemed to be pleased with the turnout. He also said, we should ask ourselves the question, why we have come tonight. What brought us there tonight? I did think about it and tried to find the answer in the deep of my heart.
I found it rather nice that the vicar stood by the door and shook hands and wished Merry Christmas to all of us when we left after the mass. It was personal, human and you could feel the power of the community. When we got to the car, it was zero C and the windscreen was frozen and I was happy having been to a Midnight Mass in Sherlock Holmes’s England.
I think, the majority of the English families spend Christmas day in a similar way as we did: had a lazy morning and opened gifts. At midday, Bill started to cook the Christmas lunch and I was watching Sherlock Holmes on TV in Hungarian this time which made me even more relaxed. (No matter how good your English is, I think, it is always more relaxing to watch something in your mother tongue.)
After lunch we went for a walk just like many other families. Christmas is basically about the same things over here: family getting together, spending time together, playing games, going for ice skating, going for a walk (with the dog), visiting relatives and friends etc.
In the evening we went for a Carols by candlelight in another chucrh. The donations were given to Cancer Research which is a nice gesture. It was a full house which was really nice to see. The church was very cosy and had a nice ambience with the candles and Chrsitmas foilage and the choir were fantastic: they sang traditional English, Spanish, French, Russan and even American gospel, Christmas songs and I was pleased to see that the Church Of England is open for such a concert. Although I still was unable to feel the carols, the tunes helped me to get to the Christmas spirit. At home we crowned the evening with a lit Christmas pudding.
On the Second day of Christmas we relaxed, but in the evening I had a truly English Christmas experience: we went to see a panto!
A few facts about pantomimes:
- Pantomimes are comedy stage production designed for family entertainment and are played mainly between early December and mid January.
- The English pantomime developed from the comedy dell’arte, a form of a popular comedy perfomred by travelling professionals in Italy and France.
- Typical characters are: the young (eloping) lovers, the old man/father, servants (Pierrot and Harlequin).
- Early pantomimes were dumb shows, actors only danced and made gestures.
- In modern pantomimes performers speak, dance, sing. Stories are based on fairy tales.
I went to the theatre without expectations, however I had some sort of idea of what it would be like, but had no idea what I was going to experience. I must admit, I loved it a lot as it was light hearted and easy enough to follow. It was based on a fairy tale, there were songs (from ABBA to the Twelve Days of Christmas everything), the audience was involved in the story, so it was intercative and primarily it was meant for children, but there were some jokes for adults. For instance when Dick Whittington said that Basil Brush (fox) was the best Rat Catcher in whole Europe and in the world, Basil Brush said: “Soon outside of Europe as well…“ referring to Brexit. 🙂
All in all it was a great show, kids love it and it appears, adults enjoy themselves as well. It was a very special experience even if I could not follow every punchline.
I think there was nothing extraordinary or unexpected in the Christmas in England. The whole world got used to the fact that Santa Claus brings the gifts on Christmas Eve, that the English open their gifts on the 25th December, that they have different Christmas dishes etc. If something was different, then it was the Christmas feeling and lack of the Christmas spirit which I believe was because of the language.
Perhaps what I prefer in the English Christmas, is the period to running up to Christmas. Everything is beautifully decorated here, bands are playing Christmas carols on the streets collecting money for different charities, choirs also sing on streets and you have the Christmas Jumper Day when everybody is wearing a Christmas jumper and donate 1 pound for a charity. I think – however this is subjective – this period is more intensive in England. Not better, simply you have different impulses here. But Christmas itself is about the same: about family and about the Birth of Jesus.