“Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business” – so spoke Jacob Marley, in the classic story ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens.
It is one of the most famous stories in the world. It has been adapted into film 25 times, into television 38 times and into theatre more times than can be counted. It is available in every bookshop and in more or less every language. The story of the miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, who is visited by three ghosts who make him change his selfish way of life, is well loved by many at this time of year.
But why did Dickens write ‘A Christmas Carol’?
It was published in 1843. At that time, Britain was evolving into an industrial nation of prosperity and production. For many people, though, modern life meant extreme poverty, disease, exploitation, misery and early death; the growing cities were home to millions who lived in cramped houses or out on the street. Where there was a great need for charity, very little existed. If a family had nothing, their only option was the horror of a workhouse.
Dickens knew poverty. In his early years, he had a pleasant life, but at the age of eleven he was sent to prison with his family because his father was in major debt. There, he was put to work polishing boots and living in misery. It was a short taste of working life for many people and it gave Dickens a sense of anger at the injustice of society. His biographer, Michael Slater, called it ‘A deep, personal and social outrage’. Dickens wished to turn that outrage into a story that could make people think.
The themes of ‘A Christmas Carol’ obviously centre on the need for more kindness in a cruel world, the conflict between wealthy people and the people they exploited to get there. Dickens felt very strongly about this. Scrooge is the stereotypical miser – motivated only by making money, his interest in the happiness of others is non-existent. This inhumanity in Scrooge grew as he became older and richer. This is why the first ghost in the story shows him his past, in his young days when he was in love and had at least a little kindness in his heart.
‘A Christmas Carol’ was very popular when it was published. It made a modest but meaningful impact on society, because people were reminded that charity and kindness was not very common. People with money and comfort normally ignored those in need – ‘A Christmas Carol’ made a few of them pay attention. There are a few genuine examples of wealthy people of the time deciding to do real charitable work and, if they employed people, to improve their conditions. One factory owner even allowed his workers to have Christmas day off because he was so affected by the story!
As well as this amazing influence on society’s attitude to the needs of the poor, it had another big effect. Before ‘A Christmas Carol’ was published, Christmas really wasn’t a particularly major event in British life. Since the age of the Puritans, two hundred years before, Christmas was judt a day of religious observance. There was not much merriment, dancing and good cheer that was so richly described in Dickens’ story. ‘A Christmas Carol’ changed that – it is true to say that the way we celebrate Christmas in Britain today is partly thanks to the vivid, festive words written by Broadstairs’ favourite resident. And to that, we say cheers, and a very merry Christmas to one and all!
In the first part of this post, we looked at the build-up to Christmas and how we in Britain typically celebrate. Let’s look now at the day itself.
If a household has children, then the day begins at about 6am with the opening of presents. This is generally agreed as the acceptable balance between parents’ desire for sleep and a child’s impatience. Depending on the country, Santa Claus has different roles at Christmas for children. In Britain, ‘Father Christmas’ will have visited at some point during the night to deliver children’s main present and enjoy the sherry and mince pie that was left out for him.
Without children, the present opening will happen at some point in the morning, perhaps after breakfast. Some people argue that presents should be opened after the Christmas dinner: these people are wrong.
Although many countries open gifts on Christmas Eve, or even perhaps after December 25th, in Britain and America there is definitely none of this. You are not even allowed to shake the wrapped presents before Christmas day.
Most adults in Britain are quite good at pretending to like bad presents. It is a skill they have practised since childhood, and we take pride in our unique Britishness here. Below is the typical ‘acceptance speech’ of a bad Christmas present:
‘Oh! It’s an automatic spaghetti fork! Do you know, I was saying to my wife last week that I don’t enjoy turning the fork myself!’
You will notice that the person has said what the present is. If they do this, it is a guarantee that they do not like it. You can also see that the person has given a reason why they think the present will be helpful to them in their life. Both these things are used to mask disappointment.
Christmas Day food in Britain is more or less constant. Apart from the main meals, there will usually be a buffet of nuts, chocolates and mince pies.
For breakfast, the traditional choice is bacon sandwiches with tea or coffee. However, in more recent times, the British taste has become a little more sophisticated and many people now choose smoked salmon with Cava, Prosecco or Champagne.
Christmas dinner then follows, which is served early to mid-afternoon. On the table you will always find a Christmas cracker for each person – these colourful cardboard bangers are enjoyed in most English-speaking countries and are pulled apart by two people. Inside is normally a toy, a joke and a paper crown that must be worn during the meal. The jokes are, by law, always terrible. Here is an example:
‘Why do birds fly south for the winter?’
‘Because it’s too far to walk’
Indeed. The meal begins with a starter that is often a prawn cocktail, then the main meal:
– Roast Potatoes
– Brussels Sprouts (at least one must be eaten by all)
– Pigs in blankets (sausage wrapped in bacon – the real treat)
– Cranberry sauce
For dessert, usually after a break, Christmas Pudding is served. This is a very rich and heavy boiled cake of fruit, spices and nuts mixed together with fat and alcohol. The pudding is served on fire – brandy is poured over the pudding and lit for a dramatic entrance to the table. Typically, a person can eat three mouthfuls of Christmas Pudding before politely pushing away the bowl and declaring it too much.
The Queen’s Speech
At 3pm, The Queen’s Speech is broadcast. If you’re a fan of The Crown, you’ll remember that a young Queen Elizabeth gave the very first TV Christmas message in 1957. In a pre-recorded message, she talks for about ten minutes about the year, and offers her thoughts of hope for the country. In previous decades, it was not unusual for people in their own homes to actually stand up when the programme started! Nowadays, it is still the most-watched programme on Christmas Day, even though many homes and families choose not to watch at all.
In the last couple of decades, Channel 4 has broadcast ‘The Alternative Christmas Message’, which is broadcast at the same time as the Queen’s Speech in direct competition. This message will be delivered by someone famous. In the past, the message has been given by Jamie Oliver the chef, Brigitte Bardot and in 2004 by Marge Simpson. The message is often based on something controversial or on an important political point. It is naturally a more challenging and critical message than the Queen’s Speech.
The Remains of the Day…
Most families then play physical games like charades, or watch TV – British television is usually very good and there are special Christmas episodes of people’s favourite programmes. In the era of internet streaming, it might be the only time when the whole family sits down to watch something together!
The rest of the day fades away with plenty of glasses of sherry and port.
Unlike the USA, Britain enjoys stretching Christmas far beyond December the 25th. This ‘post-Christmas season’ lasts at least up until New Years’ day. Most people have taken the week off work, as many offices and all schools are closed. In the last couple of years, this lazy, festive period has been given a specific name: ‘Chrimbo Limbo’. So, ‘Chrimbo Limbo’ begins on December 26th, Boxing Day, when families are still together but everything is a bit more relaxed. Leftover turkey is eaten in sandwiches, stews and curries. It’s very popular to watch a big football match on Boxing Day, and visit friends too.
For many people, the ‘Chrimbo-Limbo’ is their favourite time of the year, and some may even admit that they prefer it to Christmas Day itself!
If you like some of these British Christmas traditions, why not try them yourself this year? Whatever you do, we wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Every country that celebrates Christmas has its own particular traditions. Some of these traditions are the same across the world. Others are adopted from other countries and evolve into something new. In Britain, there are many traditions that we follow in the Christmas season; some of them are ancient and others are quite new and unique. So, let’s take a look at how Christmas is typically done here. In this first part, we will look at the build-up to Christmas.
The first thing to note is that Christmas celebrations in Britain start in the middle of summer. That’s typically when people, tired of the heat, start to ask each other ‘What are your plans for Christmas this year?’. The normal response for this question is ‘Ooh, probably just a quiet Christmas this year, nothing much’. That response is always the same, even if you are planning to hire a banqueting hall and invite several hundred members of your extended family.
We Britons then become distracted for a little while by Halloween and Bonfire Night (see previous blog post) but then, once November 6th arrives, it’s all systems go. The most enthusiastic Christmas fans will find it difficult to wait much longer to start decorating their house with lights and ornaments. Most shops will remove plastic skeletons and witches’ hats and immediately replace them with inflatable reindeers and elf costumes, more or less the same day. Britain is now in ‘Christmas mode’.
By the end of November, most conversations at work will be about the Christmas holidays: Gift ideas. How tall should the office tree be? When is the staff party? On that note, it has become perfectly acceptable to have a work Christmas party from the middle of November; people there might comment how early the party is, and decide that there should be another one in December because the first one was ‘just practice’.
So yes, Christmas is a big deal in Britain.
In schools, it is quite common to begin festivities at the beginning of December. The main event in primary schools (4 – 11 years old) is the nativity play. Children are selected to play the biblical roles for the birth of Jesus. In recent times, some smaller more obscure roles have been created so that all the children can be involved in the play. For example, a parent may receive a letter from the school to advise that their son or daughter has been chosen to play the role of ‘Door’ or ‘Second Sheep’, and they must find a suitable costume.
A few weeks before December 25th, any British people who celebrate Christmas start pretending to like the following food and drinks: Brussels sprouts, hot wine, Christmas pudding, extremely dry turkey meat and walnuts. People who take Christmas seriously will always eat and drink these traditional Christmas treats, even if they hate them. The general rule is that if someone offers you a glass of mulled wine (hot, spiced wine), you must say ‘Ooh, lovely, yes please’, then drink it with regret. In addition, most people are prepared to eat one Brussel sprout during the season.
By mid-December, most houses have their decorations up. Many families enjoy doing this while drinking sherry and eating mince pies (small, spiced fruit pies). People who go shopping are, by this point, already very tired of hearing Christmas songs being played in supermarkets and department stores, as they are in every country that celebrates Christmas. However, there are a selection of British Christmas pop songs, such as ‘It’s Christmas!’, ‘Do they Know it’s Christmas’, ‘Driving Home for Christmas’ and ‘Fairytale of New York’. Every person in the UK hears these songs approximately 436 times each during December.
So, December 25th is fast approaching, which for a British person means that it’s time to put on a colourful Christmas jumper and buy a copy of The Radio Times. This British magazine has become an institution over the festive season. A whole hour can be spent circling the various TV shows and films that people want to watch or record during Christmas. We truly know it’s Christmas when the thick, two-week bumper edition of The Radio Times is sitting on the coffee table.
Next week, we will talk about what typically happens on the day in Britain, and the days in between Christmas and New Year.
If you’ve ever visited Broadstairs English Centre, there’s a good chance that you took a walk down the High Street. Standing just next to the station, and very close to the school building is a flint tower:
This is Crampton Tower. It looks a little bit out of place, in our opinion, but all the better for being so. If you live and work in Broadstairs, then it goes unnoticed for much of the time. So it’s worth looking at it from a visitors’ eyes. Standing amongst the ordinary, functional town buildings and houses, what is this curious round tower doing there? It looks a little like something from Game of Thrones.
It is named after a Broadstairs-born engineer named Thomas Crampton. His engineering successes are numerous; to detail them on this blog would be a rather long read. In short, though, Crampton was at least partly responsible for:
– Modern train lines around the world (track width)
– The Channel Tunnel (drilling technology)
– The first transatlantic undersea communication cable
A busy fellow. His achievements, though, began in Broadstairs. When he was born in 1816, the town was tiny. As he grew up, so did Broadstairs. The town was rapidly becoming busier, more popular and established itself as the holiday resort we know today. To Crampton’s young, inventive mind, the town definitely needed some technological advancement.
He first built a gasworks and then the Crampton Tower perhaps not the most original name!) – which served as a gigantic water tower that supplied the whole town. Previously, Broadstairs residents used private wells for their water and this simply wasn’t good enough. Crampton Tower held 81,000 gallons of freshwater for the town and operated until 1901.
Thomas Crampton was also interested in architecture and was commissioned to build a tower on the Holy Trinity church, after Charles Dickens famously declared how boring it looked without one (he described the church as ‘a petrified haystack’). So the work and legacy of Crampton is wide and varied around Broadstairs.
Crampton tower itself is now a museum, dedicated to railways and the work of Thomas Crampton. Here, visitors can see his original drawings and several model railways from his era. It’s definitely worth a visit on a rainy afternoo
Standing on the harbour arm of the historic town of Margate is a large, cube-like and very modern building. This is the Turner Contemporary gallery, which opened in 2011 and is a focal point of the cultural ‘Old Town’ area of Margate.
Students sometimes visit this gallery for a taste of modern British art. It is named after the artist J. W. M Turner who often used the dramatic skyscapes of the Margate coast as the subject of his work in the 19th century. Indeed, Turner would often stay at a guest-house that was located on the site where the gallery building now stands. The gallery will always have some examples of his work on display, which changes frequently.
Many well-known names in the world of modern art have had their works displayed at the gallery over the years, including Grayson Perry, Gilbert & George, Damien Hurst and David Hockney.
The opening of the gallery was supported and partly funded by the well-known and controversial artist, Tracey Emin, who grew up in Margate. She is probably most famous for her ‘Unmade Bed’ piece: a mock-up of her messy, rubbish-filled bed, which was sold in 2014 for an eye-watering £2.2 million.
It is probably appropriate that a controversial figure such as Emin should be the name people associate with the Turner Contemporary. The gallery itself has faced criticism and controversy of its own. Some people argue that the gallery is part of an unwelcome ‘gentrification’ process of seaside towns – that it is more interested in big names in art and ‘cosmopolitan’ culture, rather than local artists and local people. Similar negative feedback can be found in places such as Whitstable or Brighton. Perhaps individual visitors can judge that for themselves.
However, visiting the gallery and looking thoughtfully at its contents is always an interesting experience. We often find that students engage very well with what they see there, and are often quite surprised by it – there is a lot of visual style that perhaps they’ve never seen before. Some of the art work on display is challenging and some of it can be totally mystifying! Ultimately, it’s a unique cultural experience for all ages; the gallery makes great efforts to engage younger people and inspire them with interactive elements to their visit.
Bonfire night, November the 5th, was enjoyed once again in Britain last night. It’s an important date in British culture because of the Gunpowder Plot. Let’s look at a bit of history about this event and the traditions we follow today.
When the topic of ‘The Gunpowder Plot’ is discussed, people usually think of one man: Guy Fawkes. Over the centuries he has become an icon of rebellion – his black hat and thin moustache inspired the infamous ‘Anonymous mask’ worn by modern-day protesters around the world.
Fawkes, however, was not the principal conspirator. That was a man called Robert Catesby, a Catholic whose ambition was to make Catholicism the main religion of England again. He asked Guy Fawkes, and four others, to join him in his murderous plans.
So what was so bad about King James that Catesby wanted to blow him up with 35 barrels of gunpowder? King James wanted a peaceful nation where Catholics were allowed to exist but, on the other hand, they should not grow so large in number that they might return to power. This was unacceptable to Catesby – the only answer for him was to kill the king, and other important people in politics, and destroy the Houses of Parliament.
Why, then, is it Guy Fawkes that everyone remembers? That is simply because Fawkes was the man who was caught in the act. He was an expert with gunpowder and his job was to guard the barrels hidden under parliament overnight and light them the next day. November 5th was the opening of Parliament; the king and every other important person would be there. The 35 barrels of gunpowder would turn the building into dust.
Of course, the plan failed. Guy Fawkes was arrested and, by torture, gave the names of the other people involved. You are free to read the unpleasant details of their executions elsewhere, but I don’t recommend it!
Bonfire Night is officially a celebration of Catesby’s failure to kill the king. However, like Christmas, it has become a chance for families to do something fun in the colder winter months. Fireworks and large bonfires are lit and special food is prepared.
Many towns and other communities or organisations host a bonfire for anyone to attend. A model of Guy Fawkes is usually placed on top of the fire. Hot drinks are served and firework displays are set up. Popular foods include toffee apples (apples dipped in toffee, then cooled and eaten from a stick) and hot jacket potatoes.
In more recent times, some official bonfire parties have replaced the traditional Guy Fawkes effigy (model) with someone controversial in the media who has recently divided opinion. The town of Edenbridge is most famous for this new tradition and this year burned a 30ft high effigy of Boris Johnson, the politician.
For many generations, the expression ‘Penny for the Guy’ was heard in the High Streets of every town in Britain on November 5th. This is because children would make their own model of Guy Fawkes using a mask and old clothes; people walking by would give the children a bit of money. However, this tradition has become very rare in the last couple of decades.
Because they are quite close together on the calendar, Bonfire night and Halloween often become part of one celebration, with fireworks being lit from late October onwards – to some people’s annoyance!
For more information, click on the following links:
Welcome to our brand new News Section.