The first hint I got that my first Christmas in Britain, way back in 1992, would be a bit different to what I was used to came while I was in Canada. My husband and I had been married at the beginning of November that year in the town hall of the small Welsh town of Hawarden, near where we lived, and at the end of the month flew back to British Columbia for a short holiday and a blessing of our marriage with family members present.
During that visit Christopher discovered the delights of hockey (which he then called ice hockey). We also visited a farmer’s market on Steveston Highway in Richmond, across the street from where I had lived before my move, and while there he saw a display of cut Christmas trees.
“Is this the kind of tree you usually get?” he asked, a slightly worried look on his face. They were your standard six-foot Douglas firs—nothing fancy—and I replied “Yes.”
“Oh dear,” he said. “I think you might be disappointed.”
I didn’t find out what he meant until we got back to Wales. Christmas tree lots, such as I was familiar with, were non-existent. We checked out the Grosvenor Garden Centre just outside nearby Chester, and while they had live trees, they were all very exotic (and very expensive; I can see why the Duke of Grosvenor is one of the wealthiest men in Britain).
We finally found a small U-cut Christmas tree lot not far from home, and all was well. We got it set up and I pulled out the boxes of Christmas decorations that had accompanied me. The tree was trimmed, but there was one thing missing: strands of tinsel.
I looked in stores throughout Chester, but there was no traditional tinsel to be found. When I asked for tinsel I was pointed towards what we would call garlands, and that wasn’t what I was after. I ended up making a call to my parents, and a week or so later some packages of tinsel arrived air mail from Canada.
There were other differences. Brits don’t, by and large, say “Merry Christmas”; it’s “Happy Christmas”. Since British robins come back at Christmas time, they are ubiquitous on Christmas cards there. Santa is Father Christmas, and when he turns up at a mall for pictures he’s not at the North Pole or his workshop; he’s in his grotto.
I was introduced to different Christmas specials, such as the beautiful The Snowman, while How the Grinch Stole Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas were nowhere to be seen. The music on the radio was slightly different: Slade’s “Merry Christmas Everybody” seemed to be on every 10 minutes, as was “Walking in the Air” from The Snowman.
The difference in music also extended to the Christmas Eve service. One Christmas my parents and brother came to stay with us, and we went to the midnight Christmas Eve service at the church in the next village over, Penmynydd. At one point we all rose to sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, and my brother began belting out the hymn. Unfortunately, he did it to the tune commonly used in North America, which is not the tune the hymn is sung to in Great Britain (there are actually three distinct settings for that hymn, for those keeping score).
I’ve been back in B.C. for Christmas for 22 years, so have reverted to my old ways, although there are some reminders of those Welsh Christmases, such as some of the ornaments on the tree (I did contribute in a small way to the Duke of Grosvenor’s coffers).
Every now and then I’ll be reminded of attending Christmas service at the beautiful Chester Cathedral, and hearing the traditional hymns soaring heavenward, or enjoying a traditional Christmas dinner at Erddig Hall, and while “Merry Christmas Everybody” isn’t heard as much here as it is in Britain, I sing along with it every time.
However, and wherever, you’re celebrating the holiday: Happy Christmas to you and yours!