Monday, December 29, 2008

A Family Christmas and the Boxing Day Dip

I am sorry I did not post last week, things got really busy with Christmas coming up so I took a little holiday break from posting. I promise not to disappoint on this post.

Today is our one year anniversary! I can't believe that this time last year we were getting married! Jason was thinking we would have to exchange gifts that had something to do with paper but I told him since its not 1870 we really don't need to follow that tradition if we don't want to. I didn't see the point in us getting each other things that may or may not be useful so I suggested that as a joint gift to each other we get a Blu-Ray DVD player. Right now the sales on items like this are really great so we were able to get our Blu-Ray player for 25% off. I figured since it is our anniversary it should be something we can use together and we do watch a lot of movies. We have a subscription to something similar to Netflix/Blockbuster Online and we can get Blu-Ray discs through this service for what we already pay each month.

Backing up, my first Christmas here was a lot of fun and very memorable. On Christmas Eve we did go to church. It was a very nice service and the church was really beautiful and it looks really old but by English standards it is actually a fairly new church, built in 1886. The oldest existing church in Hartlepool, St. Hilda's, was built in the late twelfth century. The service was very nice and surprisingly similar to what I am used to at home. I was expecting it to be much different but the whole liturgy was almost exactly the same as the Lutheran liturgy so I felt very comfortable there.

We went to a 6pm service so after church we headed out to a pub. The first place we went to was horrible, I just don't want to hear "The Thong Song" after coming out of a nice peaceful Christmas Eve service. After that we headed to a quieter pub and were fortunate to run into some friends there so the post-church festivities weren't a total bust.

Christmas morning was fantastic! I asked Jason for a food processor, and I thought that was going to be my "big gift" so after I opened that I was happy and content and figured the rest were just little things. The last box I opened I thought was going to be a sweater, but it was actually a brand new laptop! A MacBook Pro! I really needed a new computer so I was over the moon! After we played around with our new toys for awhile we headed to my in-laws' house for Christmas dinner.

The night before when we were at the pub someone asked me if I was bringing anything to Christmas dinner, and I said yes to which they responded "That is so American!" I guess here people don't bring a dish, its always just the host who cooks the meal and the guests just bring drinks. My mother in law had told me that I could bring something if I wanted because she wanted me to feel at home so I brought over my traditional cinnamon Christmas bread and party potatoes.

Before dinner, everyone opened their Christmas crackers. They had little jokes inside, a small trinket and of course a paper crown.

Me wearing my paper crown!

Jason and Abbie

Kirsty and Abbie reading their jokes

After we had way too much to eat everyone relaxed and we played some Wii games. Jason's sister Diane and brother Thomas both stopped by with their kids after they had Christmas dinner with their spouses' families. It was nice to see everyone for Christmas day and exchange gifts. My in-laws really spoiled me this year and made me feel at home.

In England the day after Christmas is also a holiday known as Boxing Day. Traditionally Boxing Day is meant to be a day of giving gifts to less fortunate people. However, most English people don't know this is the traditional meaning of the day, it is more or less like Black Friday in America. It marks the beginning of a shopping season. The day after Christmas is the day that all of the "January sales"  begin so this is one of the biggest shopping days of the year. It is also a day for adults. Christmas day is all about the children so Boxing Day is a day when the adults like to unwind, especially those who had to prepare a big meal for their family the day before. The pubs are very busy on Boxing Day and everyone just kind of kicks back and has a good time.

A local tradition here in Seaton Carew is the Boxing Day Dip. This is an event where people raise money for charity and then wear silly costumes and jump into the North Sea. The North Sea is always very cold and on December 26th the air is only slightly warmer. Jason and I walked down to the beach and it was pretty funny to watch. Everyone who is running meets at a pub up the road where they get a little drunk to prepare themselves and then they all jog across the street and down the beach and into the frigid water. I took this video, and below are some photos of the event. 

Overall, my first holiday season in England has been wonderful. I didn't feel like there was anything missing, and although I did miss spending Christmas with my side of the family, my in-laws made me feel comfortable and welcome.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


It is strange for me to hear and see pictures of winter in the Midwest. I am instinctually bracing myself for it, but in my mind I know that I am off the hook. It has gotten cold a few days, and we have had a tiny bit of snow and ice but it never lasts more than a day and the cold is never anything in comparison to what I can handle.

I asked Jason if the grass on the promenade in front of our building dies during the winter but he tells me it stays green year round. See, I accepted that there wouldn't be snow, but I can't quite wrap my head around the idea that there won't be total desolation. Granted, the leaves did fall off of the trees but there aren't really that many trees around here to begin with. I almost don't believe him, I am still anticipating that grass will die and turn brown.

I am happy to report that I am finished with my Christmas shopping. I basically finished it all last week. Jason doesn't read my blog, so I guess I can reveal a couple things I bought for him. His "big" gift, which also turns out is one of the smallest, is a new G-Shock watch. Jason's current G-Shock is being held by a rubber band so I found a great deal online and upgraded him to a nicer G-Shock. I also got him a new Wii game which was something he asked for. Its a WWII game that requires a gun attachment. I am a little surprised that he wanted a first-person shooter game. He doesn't really like guns, so this surprised me a little bit but it does look like a good game.

Jason comes home Friday and then he is on leave until January 3rd, which I am very excited about. This weekend I am hoping he will help me bake some Christmas cookies. His culinary skills don't go too far beyond heating things up, but when it comes to the "assembly" step of baking he is actually really handy. I hope he will not find the task of helping me with Christmas cookies too girly, but I'd like to have something to give our neighbors and some other people.

I am very excited for Christmas this year. I am hoping it will be a really memorable one since it is our first in this place and as a married couple. I ran the idea of going to church on Christmas Eve by Jason, and he didn't turn down the idea, but he did say that they usually go to the pub. So, basically the exact opposite of going to church.

We don't regularly attend church but it would be nice to go and the service probably wouldn't be that different to me. Most churches in England are either Church of England or Catholic which makes it easy. The Church of England which is also called Anglican is the same as the Episcopalian church in America. The Lutheran and Episcopalian churches do share many things in common and agree on much of their doctrine so it does work out in that sense. Not sure if we will be able to go to church or if we will opt for the pub, I can't really think of any way we could compromise on that. I don't think having a pre-communion cocktail before the late Christmas Eve service would be a great idea, but if it is going to happen anywhere it would happen here.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Christmas in this part of the world

We put our tree up the day before Thanksgiving because it just worked out that was the best day to put it up, so we have had it up for a couple weeks now. I am so grateful for artificial Christmas trees because the fresh ones here leave much to be desired. This is the typical Nordman fir, which is the most common species of Christmas tree available here.

The tree is very sparse and kind of short and squatty so when you have a tall tree, it is incredibly wide. I also think the way the branches stick straight out instead of sloping down makes them quite harsh looking. I just feel all around it is a really unattractive tree, so I am glad we opted for the artificial variety. We bought a 7' "Virginia Fir" and I really love this tree and I am glad we will be able to keep it for a long time.

This year is also our first Christmas together, we got a few "Our First Christmas" ornaments for our wedding since we got married right after Christmas, but this little one is my favorite because it is really fun!

We don't have a fireplace or a chimney here, but we do have a very nice radiator cover over the radiator in the living room that serves as a mantle. Jason just varnished it so it really adds a lot to the room. We hung our stockings here and its also a great place to display my Snowbabies. Snowbabies are little figurines I have been collecting for probably a little over 10 years now and I love to put them out every Christmas.

I remember as a kid in school we always used to study the ways people in different cultures around the world celebrated Christmas and we learned how to say "Merry Christmas" in many languages. I never once remember learning about the different customs in England, but now I am learning there definitely are quite a few.

First of all, people don't say "Merry Christmas" here, they say "Happy Christmas". Its funny to me because I think the word merry is a far more English word. Words like canny and fancy are still very much part of their everyday vocabulary, so why on earth did they stop saying "Merry"!

Another thing is that some of the Christmas carols have the same exact words, but the melody is completely different. So far two I have heard are "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Away in a Manger". Also, some of the carols, although they have the same tune, have slightly different words. My favorite is Deck the Halls! Along with adding an extra "fa" to the middle of "fa la la la, la la la la", the lyrics in this version are much more... festive.

Deck the hall with boughs of holly,
Fa la la la la, fa la la la.
'Tis the season to be jolly,
Fa la la la la, fa la la la.
Fill the mead-cup, drain the barrel
Fa la la la, fa la la la.
Troll the ancient Christmas carol
Fa la la la la, fa la la la.

See the flowing bowl before us
Fa la la la la, fa la la la.
Strike the harp and join the chorus.
Fa la la la la, fa la la la.
Follow me in merry measure,
Fa la la la, fa la la la.
While I sing of beauty's treasure
Fa a la la la, fa la la la.

Fast away the old year passes,
Fa la la la la, fa la la la.
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses,
Fa la la la la, fa la la la.
Laughing, quaffing, all together
Fa la la la, fa la la la.
Heedless of the wind and weather,
Fa la la la la, fa la la la.

Also, while the English do tell their children that Santa Claus (or Father Christmas) is from the North Pole, they also call the place he is from Lapland. Lapland is actually the farthest northern province of Finland. As a kid I always thought that Santa's workshop was somewhere in northern Canada or Alaska. I couldn't imagine being a kid and thinking that Santa's workshop is just on the other side of the North Sea, about a 4 hour plane ride away.

Another new English custom is the custom of Christmas crackers at the Christmas dinner table. These Christmas crackers are a cardboard tube covered in wrapping paper and tied at each end. One person pulls on each end of the cracker and when it opens, inside is a small gift or a motto or fortune as well as a paper crown. After everyone has opened their cracker, they all wear their paper crowns. I am certainly not too proud to wear a paper hat, but it is something I can't imagine Jason doing so I am really looking forward to this.

(I don't know any of these people, I just got this photo from Google Images)

I am really looking forward to Christmas this year. It is our first Christmas together as a married couple and I hope it is a very memorable and special one. This season goes by so fast, so remember to enjoy every minute of your holiday season this year.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Holidays are Here!

I am sure you are curious about how my very ambitious Thanksgiving feast turned out. I am happy to report that after two days of non-stop cooking, all of my dishes turned out great. My turkey was done on time and came out moist and tender, my apple pie was the perfect amount of sweet and tart, my homemade cranberry sauce was just the right consistency, basically everything came out exactly the way I wanted it to and my in-laws really enjoyed the meal. At first they were a bit reluctant to try things they weren't familiar with. The English are not very adventurous when it comes to food, and even things that they could identify the contents of they were skeptical to try but as some would try a bit of one thing and tell the next person that is was good they started to get a bit bolder and at least tried pretty much everything. The biggest hits of the meal were definitely the "party potatoes" which we went through two large casseroles of and the apple pie and apple cranberry turnovers. I boiled two sacks of potatoes, probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 medium sized potatoes, and every last bit of them went. I am so proud of myself that my first big meal was a success. I have never made so many dishes for so many people and there were no catastrophes.

The feast

The dessert spread: apple cranberry turnovers, apple pie and pecan pie

There were a few changes to the meal from what I posted last week. Sadly I was unable to find a baking pumpkin so there was no pumpkin pie which was a big let down since I really wanted everyone to try it. Instead of pumpkin pie I made pecan pie which I thought was equally traditional but also it was equally foreign to them. Some of them really loved it and for some it was just too sweet but its also a dessert that is too sweet for many Americans and the ones who didn't care for the pecan pie really loved the apple pie and the turnovers.

I was also unable to find poppy seeds so instead of lemon poppy seed bread I just made lemon bread but it was still a hit and there wasn't even a crumb left at the end of the night.

The only other small hitch was that the cream of mushroom soup I used for the green bean casserole didn't have a lot of flavor. Next year I will have to look for a better brand or bring some over from the States. I already have a list of some canned ingredients I will want to bring back with me in my suitcase on my next trip back home.

Another wonderful thing that happened for my Thanksgiving meal was that I wasn't the only American there. My former roommate and maid of honor Christine was vacationing in Madrid this week and her vacation took an unfortunate turn for the worst so in order to salvage the rest of her vacation she bought a very last minute ticket from Madrid to Newcastle and arrived on Saturday afternoon. It was so wonderful to have her here, even if it was just for a couple days.

Yesterday afternoon Jason and I took her to the nearby city of Durham. Durham is a very charming city which looks like it was ripped from the pages of a Dickens' novel. The winding cobble-stoned streets and picturesque town square make for one of the most whimsical places in England.
Christine and me on a street in Durham

The main attraction in Durham is the cathedral, built in 1093 and completed in 40 years it is one of the only remaining Norman cathedrals in England to retain most of its Norman craftsmanship. Most of the great cathedrals in England like York Minster and Salisbury feature Gothic architecture and in many ways if you have seen one you have seen them all. Durham's unique Norman style is more open and in my opinion creates an almost angelic effect.

Durham Cathedral is also a place of great political and military significance in the North of England. One of the most fascinating periods in Durham Cathedral's history was during the 17th century when Cromwell closed down the cathedral and used it to imprison roughly 3,000 Scottish prisoners of war during the civil war between England and Scotland. The prisoners were kept in very inhumane conditions and they also ransacked the tombs of the cathedral, beheading and dismembering all of the sculptures. Today you can still see some of the older tombs topped with nothing more than a rough stone torso as a reminder of this dark period in the cathedral's history. Most of the 3,000 Scottish prisoners died there and their bodies were dumped in a mass unmarked grave which wasn't discovered until 1993.

Despite this dark period, Durham Cathedral is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been and it is a place I will most likely visit over and over again in my lifetime.

The cathedral from the outside

The sanctuary

The rose window as viewed from St. Cuthbert's Shrine

Jason and I also decorated for Christmas this week but I will post those photos in my blog next Monday. I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving!