Christmas Past

By Ron Burtz

Sara Bishop of Custer has fond memories of Christmases when she was growing up in the United Kingdom. She has kept those family traditions alive by sharing them with her American friends. Bishop is the payroll and accounts manager for the Custer School District and, after many years in this country as a resident alien, she received her U.S. citizenship last summer.

Part 1 in a series

Do your family Christmas traditions involve attending a Christmas pantomime, opening Christmas crackers, eating heaping helpings of “Bubble and Squeak” on Boxing Day or listening to the queen’s speech? If so, you probably grew up in England like Sara Bishop.

As the holiday season approaches, the Custer resident and newly naturalized American citizen finds herself reminiscing about the Christmases of her childhood in the United Kingdom. She can’t help comparing and contrasting the English traditions with Christmas in modern America. 

For instance, one thing  she misses is carol singers. “When I was a child growing up, my brother and I used to go house to house carol singing,” Bishop says. “People would give us a little bit of money or whatever.” 

She says larger and more formal groups of carolers were also a big part of Christmas in England as well. 

“If you would go to the towns shopping, the Salvation Army would have a choir and they would stand in the street…and they would be singing and playing instruments,” she said. Those performances, much like the Salvation Army bell ringers of today, were for the purpose of receiving donations for the organization. 

Another popular holiday tradition in England, according to Bishop, is the community pantomime. 

“Pantomime is a huge thing in England…difficult to explain to Americans,” says Bishop. She describes a pantomime as an amateur musical stage production of a story like Aladdin or Peter Pan with some rather unique features.

“The leading boy is actually a girl,” said Bishop, “and the old woman—there’s always an old woman in the pantomime—is a man dressed up in drag and it really is for the benefit of audience participation.” Bishop said there’s always a villain, which she refers to as “the Baddie.”

She recalls, “You always have that bit where the baddie comes on and he’s creeping along at the back and all the kids are going, ‘He’s behind you! He’s behind you!’”

On Christmas Eve, the family would always attend the midnight service in the Church of England. Then it was off to bed to await the arrival of Santa Claus, or “Father Christmas,” as he is often called there. 

On Christmas Day, the first order of business would be to check the Christmas stockings for toys and treats. Bishop says, if homes had a chimney, the stockings would be hung there, as the old Clement Moore poem says, but since her childhood home didn’t have a chimney, the stockings went under the bed, making for a much easier task of checking them in the morning. 

Another British tradition would come just before Christmas dinner: opening Christmas crackers. No, not the kind of crackers one eats with cheese. (Bishop would probably refer to those as biscuits.) 

These Christmas crackers are a tube wrapped in brightly-colored paper that pulls apart, making a cracking or snapping sound, releasing little gifts inside. 

Bishop says the items might include a little hat or crown one would wear during Christmas dinner, a toy and usually a short saying or motto. One cracker would be placed at each place setting and the family would open them just before dinner. To see a demonstration by Bishop of how Christmas crackers were opened, use the My Black Hills Country app on your smart phone to scan the photo with this article.

“I grew up with it,” she says. “Every year we’d have Christmas crackers.”

The most memorable aspect of Christmas dinner was the dessert, which always included a Christmas plum pudding and Christmas cake. 

Bishop says the Christmas pudding isn’t as common today in many British homes, “mainly because of the calories involved,” but her mother made one every year. 

“My mum would always make one from scratch and steam it for hours in a sauce pan on top of the stove,” she says. Then just before serving, she would put a sprig of holly in the top, pour brandy on it and “set light to it.” 

Bishop has a favorite picture of her mother coming out of the kitchen with the Christmas pudding, flames shooting out and a frightened look on her face. 

The Christmas cake is a “very, very heavy fruitcake.” It is baked a couple of months before Christmas, then sealed in a tin. Bishop says she used to make one every year, but hasn’t for a number of years. She says every week leading up to Christmas she would unseal the cake, poke holes in it with a knitting needle and pour brandy on it. Before serving, the cake is covered in marzipan and iced. The final touch would be little ornaments on  top. 

“We’d always have Christmas trees on it, Santa and all these little figures,” she says. 

For subjects of the British Crown, the most important aspect of the day is listening to the queen’s speech at 2 p.m. sharp, which is something unique to England as far as she knows.  

“It would be stop what you’re doing and sit down and listen to it,” said Bishop about the annual televised speech. Last year she was in England for Christmas and saw it live for the first time in several years. 

And the celebrating doesn’t stop when Christmas Day is over. Dec. 26 in England is known as Boxing Day. Bishop says it started as a day when the big landowners would give Christmas boxes to their staff and their servants and it has grown into a national holiday, often with an emphasis on collecting money for charity. 

Boxing Day has its set of traditions, like eating a concoction of leftovers from the Christmas dinner called “Bubble and Squeak.” Bishop says that might include leftover sausages, roast potatoes and vegetables which are chopped up and then patted down in a frying pan. 

“Then you cook it until it’s nice and crispy on the bottom and then flip it over and cook it until it’s crispy on the top,”  she says.

Bishop says it took her a while to get used to the absence of Boxing Day in America. 

“I know a lot of British people who say they have trouble getting used to the fact that they have to go back to work on Boxing Day, and it’s just not right!” 

It also took Bishop some time to adjust to other differences between Christmas in England and in the U.S. (like eating mashed potatoes rather than roasted ones). However, she has been able to keep some of her cherished traditions and finds joy in sharing them with her American friends. 

“If I have Christmas here with anybody they expect all the English stuff to come along as well,” she laughs.