My First Christmas Abroad

I think I've been dropped into the middle of a circus. We're making turkey pie. Without a bottom, because it's hard to make a pie "without a soggy bottom, and we don't want soggy bottoms."

This is after my very first English Christmas. We went to church in the morning, which is not something I regularly (or, frankly, ever) do (the Man opted to stay at home and help cook the Christmas lunch). The church was a beautiful English village church, wood-beams, stone walls, but inside, it had been carpeted, which made it feel too soft and comfortable; too much like the modern establishments of my own youth.

A pair of boys handed us a bright leaflet with carols to sing. Scattered amongst the traditional songs were photographs of smiling children from disadvantaged backgrounds in the Middle East. The children were all called things Mohammad or Mehmet or Moshe and in spite of having families from Islamic or Jewish backgrounds every single one was holding a cross, or decorating a Christmas tree, or pointing at a picture-book bible.

The other leaflet, a green folded paper, let us know when we were meant to say things like, "Glory be to God," and, "Jesus is the truth, allelulia!" Midway through the service a woman stood up to distribute gifts to a few children in the audience, each time asking the child, "and what have you done for me today?" and each time receiving the rueful mumbled response: "Nothing."

And she would say back, "Nothing, exactly. You've done nothing for me, but I'm giving you this gift anyway. So this is a token of my love." Like most good religious messages, it turned out to be a metaphor: God loves us, the woman was saying, even though we've done nothing to deserve it.

"Oh yeah," said the Man when I returned home, feeling I'd been suitably guilted for the day. "That's standard C of E. That's not really considered religious."
"Have we really done nothing to deserve God's love?" I said, forgetting, in my religiously-coloured guilt, that I'm not even sure what I believe about God. "And how on earth is that not religious?"

As it turns out the English have just as curious a relationship with religion as the Americans. As far as I can tell, the Church of England is not so much a Church-with-a-capital-c as an establishment with some tenuous and primarily historical links to some tenuous and primarily historical religious beliefs. But it's pervasive. If you go to a church wedding in England every single member of the audience will know not only the words to all the hymns but, more impressively, will know when to stretch certain words that don't look like they should be stretched, or when to take a very long pause that isn't written into the music, or when to forgo breath because everything needs to be squeezed into one beat. They all know this because regardless of whether their education was public or private, they grew up singing these songs in school.

You couldn't, on the other hand, logically sing a song with the words,

Remember, Christ, our Saviour
Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan's power
When we were gone astray

in any American public school and not risk an uprising of mothers quoting the constitution. We have that famous so-called separation between church and state, you see; but actually, the English are the ones with the real separation. God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman (or any other carol) isn't seen, as the Man so aptly pointed out, as religious--just as traditional. If half the audience on Christmas morning had stood up and pronounced themselves Jews, or Athiests, I don't think anyone would have blinked--or thought it odd that they were sitting in on a Christian ceremony.

Our relationship with religion in the states, however, is just as bizarre. We claim to have severed the tie between religion and governance, but elect our leaders based on their religious ideals and affiliations (any political pundit will tell you that if you want to be president, you need to seem to have a good Christian family, regardless of how religious you are). We inspire an actual fear in our children that saying the words "Christ our saviour" means that we believe in something that might be objectionable to someone else, but one of our nation's most impressive artistic legacies, gospel singing, is a form of worship. What we forget, I suppose, is that we founded our country based on having the freedom to worship any way we wish, not on creating a secular society.


But regardless of the religiosity, or secularism, of English society, this was Christmas as I have never seen it before. For the first time ever, I set out snacks for Santa before going to bed (a glass of port, a glass of milk, two mince pies, two carrots--"why the milk?" I wanted to know; "in case Santa wants a choice," the Man informed me). The next day at breakfast we opened our stockings; after church we spent hours (no, I am not exaggerating) opening gifts, adhering to strict rituals of present-distribution. We commented on missing the Queen's speech. We took a very lenghty nap after a very heavy lunch. We played cards and sipped gin and tonics. We ate crackers and fruit and cheese for supper. We went for a starlit walk, our noses numb from cold.

Today I sit on the sofa in the lounge, South Pacific on the TV in the background. I hear a woman singing: "And they say I'm naive to believe anything from a person in pants..."

And because we are adults, but still not very adult, the Man and I giggle.

So yes, I missed my family this Christmas, and even the incongruous California warmth (when I was a child it angered me that Christmas came every year so hot and sunny); but here we are, and we're very, very happy, and we're together, which, as I told the Man when he suggested that Christmas was ruined because he had a cold (only a man would say that) is the most important thing of all.

"Here," the Man has just said to me. "Taste the beer-and-cheese sauce I've just made," and waved a spoon at me. I think it's time for me to rejoin the circus.