We spent the past few days in the town of Henley, a beautiful old rowing town along the Thames river. We arrived on Christmas Eve and departed on December 27th, so we got to experience all the British Christmas traditions, and we wanted to share them with you!
When Joe first heard the term “Christmas Crackers” he assumed it was some sort of special crunchy, biscuit-like thing. On the contrary, it is something else entirely. A Christmas Cracker is a cylindrical present filled with bits and bobs, wrapped like a piece of toffee. Two people pull from either side, and when it breaks open there is a loud “crack” made by a snapping device – hence the name.
Every Christmas cracker has three things in it: a small gift, a joke and/or riddle, and a party hat. There were Christmas crackers on our table on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing day. Some of the gifts we got were short pencils, mini notebooks, make-up brushes, a calculator, a tiny deck of cards, and a metal puzzle. The party hats turned out to be crowns made out of tissue paper, which many people proudly donned during their Christmas dinner. We got a kick out of seeing well-dressed British folks in a nice restaurant wearing tissue paper crowns. And, of course, we joined in the fun!
Here’s one of the jokes we got…
Q: What do you get if you cross Santa with a duck?
A: A Christmas Quacker!
The Queen’s Speech
On Christmas Day at 3:00pm, the Queen gives a speech that is televised to the whole country. This year, the Queen was not feeling well, so she prerecorded her speech, which was introduced by the army band outside Buckingham Palace. It’s a short and uplifting message (about 10 minutes)
given by the figurehead of the country. She talked about some people and organizations that were very inspirational in the past year, and encouraged everyone to inspire others by taking small actions and helping those around them. At the risk of being treasonous, I have to say that the Queen isn’t the most engaging orator, but for the age of 90, she’s doing remarkably well.
One of the most traditionally British things to eat is Christmas pudding. It’s the dessert served at Christmas dinner, which is sort of like a fruit cake, only with more fruit and less cake. We’ve heard that it is supposed to be doused in a brandy sauce and lit on fire. But at our hotel, it was served with a sweet cream sauce that was poured over the top.
Christmas dinner (or lunch) is always served in the early afternoon. The most traditional Christmas meal in England is turkey, including stuffing, cranberries, and more, much like a Thanksgiving dinner in the US. Most of our family ordered turkey, although I ordered steak, and they like to cover all their meat in a brown sauce. With my meal, I also got a Yorkshire pudding, which is like a puff pastry that can be filled with a sweet or savory filling.
Boxing Day is the day after Christmas. Traditionally, it was a day off for servants and the day when they received a ‘Christmas Box’ from the master. The servants would also go home on Boxing Day to give ‘Christmas Boxes’ to their families, giving the holiday its interesting name. There are a few traditions associated with Boxing Day. The first is shopping. It is common for larger retailers to have huge sales on Boxing Day. Many, though not all, shops and restaurants are open to cater to folks who are out and about.
Another Boxing Day tradition is the family walk. Families go for long walks together, presumably to walk off their Christmas turkey and pudding. We were even told by one Brit that this is the day when people will even greet each other during walks (apparently a cultural faux pas the rest of the year). The standard practice of averting your eyes when passing someone is eschewed in favor of a glance and a polite “’Allo!” When Britain lets its hair down, it really lets its hair down.
Finally, Boxing day is a traditional time for a festive drink like a Buck’s Fizz (orange juice and champagne) or a Bloody Mary (named for Queen Mary the first, according to our tour guide at the Tower of London).
Here are a few more pictures from our English Christmas…
On Friday morning we woke up to an overcast London sky, ate a leisurely breakfast at our hotel, and headed out for the day. To combat the cheesiness of the previous day’s activities, we decided to take in a few genuine historical sites in London. I have fond memories of touring the Tower of London from my first trip to England almost 30 years ago, so we hopped the tube to Tower Hill.
The Tower of London mixes the best of all worlds for traveling families. There is enough culture and history to satisfy the parents, enough tales of blood and gore and grisly murders to keep the attention of the children, and a tour of the Crown Jewels to impress the whole family. We opted for a guided tour by a Yeoman (aka, a “Beefeater”), who being required to have a certain amount of military experience, are skilled enough to get children to listen, and fascinating enough to keep their attention.
After the Tower of London we hopped a river taxi on the Thames to the site of the rebuilt Globe Theatre. The Globe was Shakespeare’s theatre, at least at the time of his death, but was essentially destroyed about 20 or so years after he died. Enough records exist of it that at the end of the 20th century there was a large movement (led by American actor and director, Sam Wanamaker) to rebuild The Globe to its exact specifications. If you ignore to fire exit signs, electrical lighting, and a few other modern amenities (required by code) I would say they have done a wonderful job!
Just down the street from The Globe we were starting to take the pedestrian bridge back over the Thames when we heard festive music and caught a whiff of deliciously open roasted meats. When we popped ’round the corner we found the last vestiges of London’s Weihnachtsmarkt (or “German Christmas Market”). We had stumbled on the last day of the market, and all of the vendors were selling their wares at considerable discount.
Sarah found some trinkets that she will turn into a Christmas tree ornament for home. Emily found some fancy nail polishes. Henry, of course, found a local young female vendor to flirt with. When we asked him if she was his girlfriend, he responded “No, we just like to wave to each other.” We enjoyed a dinner selection of roasted duck, roasted pork, and sausages. We ate out on a picnic table, just under the beginning of the pedestrian bridge that shielded us from the light rain that was falling over London.
When dinner was done we crossed the bridge to the other side of the Thames and caught a glimpse of St. Paul’s Cathedral. With our bellies full and our legs tired, we rode the Tube home and collapsed into our beds, ready to wake up and make tomorrow’s journey from London to Henley-on-Thames.
Our hotel, The Georgian House Hotel, is a small and adorable place that was established in 1851 and has an “award winning” English breakfast. When we first arrived, they were putting up a real Christmas tree that took up about a third of the relatively small lobby room. They had a tray of mini minced pies and a ceramic pot of hot mulled wine, which we enjoyed on the couch.
The hotel actually owns several small row houses, and we are staying in a ground-floor flat around the block from the main office of the hotel. On the morning of our second day in London, we woke up, got dressed and headed over to the hotel lobby, where the Christmas decorations were complete, and down a set of very old stairs to the breakfast room. The “Full Georgian Breakfast” was as traditional as it comes, and certainly earned whatever awards it has received. For those who aren’t familiar with it, a Traditional English breakfast features eggs, sausages, ham, black pudding, baked beans, mushrooms and roasted tomatoes. Ours included a selection of fresh breads, jams, and other condiments (including Marmite, a yeast extract paste that Henry definitely did not appreciate).
Once our tummies were full, we got ready for the day and headed out toward Buckingham Palace, which is in walking distance of our hotel. We arrived just before the changing of the guard, so there were tourists from all over the world crowding the entire gate and all of Leicester Square. We picked a spot and craned our necks to see the spectacle. But after about 15 minutes of marching and hoopla, we decided to move along. We were squeezing our way through the crowds of people going in all directions, trying to stay together when a police officer stopped us at the curb because the road was closing. By a stroke of luck, we ended up with front row seats right by the main gates as the English band, Scottish bagpipe band and the guards marched out right in front of us!
From there, we walked across Green Park to ride the Tube over to the neighborhood of Marlybone, home of two of London’s cheesier tourist attractions. First we headed to 221B Baker Street, where there is now a “museum” and recreation of the flat belonging to the infamous (and fictional) Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. A couple of blocks away is Madame Tousaud’s equally infamous wax museum. We took hundreds of cheesy pictures and enjoyed every second of it!
When we came out, we were ready for a little rest and nourishment, so we found a local Patisserie and sat down for an afternoon tea. Joe ordered the Creme Tea while the rest of us had a “high tea.” It came on a triple-decker platter and featured scones, clotted cream, cakes, pies, sandwiches, and, of course, tea. It was absolutely smashing*.
From there, we headed to King’s Cross Station, where there is another cheesy tourist attraction — Platform 9 3/4, which ostensibly leads to the Hogwarts Express from Harry Potter. There is even a cart going right through the brick wall where you can take more cheesy pictures, which, of course, we had to do! The kids donned scarves from their chosen Hogwarts houses, pretended to be wizards and tried their hardest to get through that brick wall. It was brilliant!
We took a gander at some of the Kings Cross neighborhood, popping into the British Library which has a bloody impressive archive of stamps, as well as a collection books that belonged to King George III (1760-1820). By this point it was getting late, so we grabbed the tube back to Pimlico, had some nosh at Pizza Express, and went back to our hotel.
Joe fancied a pint, so we left the kids to wind down with their screens and popped over to a local pub. He ordered a cask ale, and we toasted to another successful day. A group of 20-something Londoners came in and ordered a round of shots for themselves. We said we would have whatever they were having (which turned out to be a shot of tequila chased with lime cordial). That opened up some great conversation, and by the time we left we got several embraces and cheek-kisses.
You can see some of our cheesy (and not-so-cheesy) pictures from this day in our gallery here.
* I’ve chosen a few classic British phrases and adjectives to sprinkle into our posts. We will put them in italics, and it’s best if you read them with a British accent.
Our flight to London started at O’Hare International Airport where we took a short flight to Minneapolis. From there we boarded a plane bound for London Heathrow Airport. As we found our seats, Henry started up a conversation with a couple in the next bank of seats. Continue reading “We’re Travelers”
It’s back… the Schwab Family Christmas video card. While it doesn’t show everything we did this year, it covers all the things we could think to video with our phones at the time. We couldn’t be more proud of our kids, and it’s great to get a chance to show off some of their accomplishments, along with their goofy sides. From all of us, we wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!