Thursday 18 December 2014

Festive traditions, there and back again

There are things I miss about Christmas in the US.

 For example, the decorations outside almost every house. What's striking about these is that, in New York at least, many of them were pretty high quality. In London, the decorated houses stand out - maybe one in twenty -- and they're usually quite naff, all inflatable Santas and blinking lights. In our neighbourhood on Long Island, you'd be more likely to see giant candy canes, fairy lights round trees, red velvet bows on every window and -- on one house's immaculate lawn -- a real wooden sleigh.

I also feel bizarrely nostalgic for American Christmas songs on the radio. I'd never heard Dan Fogelberg's poignant Same Old Lang Syne (see below) or the insanely catchy Feliz Navidad before I moved to America and at the moment I wouldn't mind hearing Kelly Clarkson's Grown Up Christmas List. Magic FM, are you listening? It's fine to play Phil Collins' "Coming in the Air Tonight" all year, if you want to - but not on the 18th December, OK?

Then there's the Christmas cards. When we first moved to the States, I noticed with mortification that I was the only parent at the Montessori nursery not to have sent a "happy holidays" card featuring a lovingly chosen family photograph. The following year, we fell into step. We've now of course reverted to traditional cards, but as Christmas cards fall more and more out of fashion (I still send them, but more and more people don't) I can see the point of the  American card. It's more of a memento than perhaps receiving a hastily written card featuring a cartoon Santa -- and I have to admit it was rather fun choosing the photos.

But there are things that we missed in America, and are now totally gorging on in London. Like mince pies, mulled wine.....and carol services. We went to three last year, and this year have notched up two so far, as well as having lustily sung carols at two school assemblies. Littleboy 1, who didn't know any Christmas carols in America, is now in the school choir and is currently racing around the house singing Latin words from "Unto Us a Son is Born." (This was charming at first, and is now rapidly starting to grate on my nerves).

His brother meanwhile, read a very heartfelt lesson at the country carol service we go to every year. While they both missed out on Nativity plays (so I'll never see them play Joseph, or a shepherd, sadly), they've both recited lines about the Christmas story in their Christmas assemblies, something that would never happen in secular US schools. And most importantly, they now know the "silly" version of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (you know, the one that goes "like a lightbulb").

I also went to a very traditional work-related Christmas lunch last week, in a Soho boozer -- let's just say lunch didn't even start till 3, and by the time I left at 5.30, we'd only just had the main course and quiz. Somehow I don't think these happen in New York in quite the same way......

I hope you are enjoying the festive season on both sides of the pond -- what traditions would YOU import?

Tuesday 2 December 2014

Bears and royals: the UK in a nutshell?

We took some bears to see 'Paddington'
Apologies for the relative lack of blogging recently. I'm coming up for my sixth blogging anniversary soon, and I'm beginning to wonder if that phase in my life is coming to an end.

When my children were young, blogging was almost a form of stress relief; when endless winter afternoons stretched out with the boys napping or watching Cbeebies, or when I'd run in from a walk with the toddler Littleboys and bash out a blog post while I was waiting for the pasta to boil, just because it was such a blessed relief from thinking about chasing small children around the playground.

The older the boys get, the less demanding they are in some ways but the more time they seem to take up. Laundering sports kit. Supervising homework. And the birthday parties! I think I'm starting to lose it. For the first time ever, we arrived at a party on Sunday with no present or card, and what was worse, I hadn't left it behind. As we parked, Littleboy 1 piped up "Shouldn't we have a present?" and that was literally the first time it had occurred to me.......

Anyway -- London life remains busy and ripe with opportunity for experiences, from seeing the display of poppies at the Tower of London last month (brilliant) to taking the 176 bus all the way home to Crystal Palace after seeing a play in the West End (mistake). This weekend, either end of the two birthday parties, we packed in two contrasting cultural experiences: a play (King Charles III) and a film (Paddington).

The play is a "future history" written by Mark Bartlett; that is to say, it takes its cue from Shakespeare, is written in blank verse and has elements of both high comedy and high tragedy. It predicts what might happen when the Queen dies, and Prince Charles becomes King. Very quickly things go pear-shaped when Charles (the brilliant actor Tim Piggott-Smith) refuses to sign a bill concerning press freedom. Meanwhile, Prince Harry (whose scenes provide some hilarious comic relief) is romancing an anti-monarchist gal wearing Doc Martens, there's a groaning ghost around Windsor who sounds suspiciously like Diana, and Kate is busy supporting William's cause like a modern-day Lady Macbeth. Act One ends with Charles dissolving Parliament after a stand-off with the Prime Minister; I won't reveal the rest, but it's incredibly thought-provoking, whether you're a royalist or republican.

Paddington showcases another side of British life with a gentle humour that everyone, old and young, can enjoy. While few elements of the actual books remain (and there's a ridiculous, unnecessary sub-plot involving a taxidermist played by Nicole Kidman), the film captures the essence of Paddington -- an accident prone, but utterly well-meaning bear with excellent manners. Ben Whishaw voiced him perfectly, but it was Hugh Bonneville I was really impressed with. Forget Downton Abbey, what with this and the brilliant Twenty Twelve, he's shaping up to be one of the funniest actors we have. Paddington is also an illegal immigrant from "Darkest Peru", and with immigration a huge topic at the moment in the UK, the film had a lot to say about whether or not the British are welcoming to newcomers.

So there we are: British life in a nutshell, royals and bears included.

What have you been up to?