Have you ever spent Christmas at your cousins’ house? It’s still Christmas; the tree is decorated, the table set with food, but everything feels different. Askew. It’s not the same as Christmas at home.
This year is our fourth Christmas with the cousins – our cousins across the pond that is. These past Christmases have been lovely. Gracious hosts, delicious food, dazzling lights, brilliant parties. But for us, as Americans living in London, they have also felt ‘slightly off’, because of the numerous cultural differences between the UK and the U.S. Here are a few:
1. What is a mince pie and where are the cookies? Before moving to London, I had never tasted one. Our first year here? I ate thirty. Not because I particularly loved them (sorry) but because these little sweet circles are pushed at every turn, inevitably paired with a glass of mulled wine. Where were the cookies? Where were the peanut blossoms and the green cornflake wreaths? The sugar cookies speckled with candy canes and jelly-filled thumb prints?
Americans like choices, choices, choices! evidenced by the diverse assortment of cookies each family produces. And if that’s not enough, because it’s not, we’ll engage in cookie exchanges so that by Christmas Eve, our tables boast 12 to 20 distinct species of cookies. Yes, it’s an over the top, blatant display of American excessiveness, but it’s delicious. Especially paired with eggnog, which you don’t seem to believe in either.
2. Christmas jumpers: the crazier the better. A jumper in the States is a little dress worn by a little girl. What the English call jumpers Americans call sweaters. Americans do enjoy the occasional competitive ugly sweater contest but for the other 374 days of the year, we keep our ugly sweaters shoved in the back of the closet where they belong. We certainly wouldn’t wear them for a Christmas service, unless we were four.
The British are reserved, or so I was told. So imagine my surprise to see babies and grown men alike sporting the loudest most unreserved jumpers imaginable: Santa on a raging T-rex. Darth Vader entangled in glowing Christmas lights. Glittery snowmen and sparkling presents. Some monstrosities even lit up or played songs. Dads in elf ears, mums in tinseled headbands… on adults. In church. On the platform on Christmas morning!
3. Christmas crackers are not served with cheese. Yet they are, we’ve learnt, a must-have for any Christmas Day table. Before the meal, you cross arms with your neighbours, grab hold of the ends of what looks like a giant wrapped candy, and pull until pop! And unto you comes forth the chintziest of trinkets: a scrap of paper with a Dad joke. Three pieces of confetti if you’re lucky. The sorriest attempt at a crown. If you want Christmas dinner however, and trust me you do, you place that flimsy crown on your head no matter how mature and dignified you think you are because there will be unexpectedly delicious roasted Brussels sprouts, and gravy-soaked Yorkshire pudding, and crispy potatoes, followed by Christmas pudding, and suddenly Christmas cookies don’t seem so important anymore.
Celebrating Christmas with the cousins has required a shift in expectations, which is good because really, when does Christmas ever go exactly as planned? Something will always be off: someone will get sick or disappointed or angry. There will be at least one argument, one gift that’s not quite right, one relative who tests our patience.
We will always fail to give our kids the perfect Christmas. And that’s okay. For in the midst of squeals of joy and squabbles, warm embraces and stony silences, there stands the manger. A hasty, unexpected substitute for a cot, made beautiful by Light and Life. There lies Jesus. Perfect so we don’t have to be. Humbled so we could one day live in glory. He is Christmas perfection. For you and me, my kids and yours. For brothers and sisters on this side and that side of the pond, and around the world.