Welcome to Britalian, the Christmas special – and I’m the Sugar Plum fairy that will sprinkle some tinsel and glitter on the ever-so-short days leading up to Christmas. This will be your essential guide to navigate the time of the year when the traditions of Britain and Italy are at their most entrenched, and for this reason, the most baffling for any foreigner.
First up –
On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me a partridge in a pear tree
I think once you know this song, you’re done, you’ve bagged half of the subtext of Christmas in Britain. (I’m not going to sing it all, don’t worry. The twelve days of Christmas goes through a list a of random presents you would not want to receive unless you are an ornithologist, or partial to a gymnastic nonagenarian. The list rapidly escalates to a merry band of people dancing, milking and drumming although I don’t think this would be compliant with my tier regulations.
Don’t ask me where this song comes from or what on earth it means, but keep your leaping lords, your turtle doves and your golden rings close to your chest on our journey towards Christmas: you’ll see all these happy chaps printed on cards, drawn on wrapping paper and referenced in jokes, tv shows and movies.
This song is supposed to start on Christmas day and finish on Epiphany, so I am doing it the wrong way round, but never mind, not everything has to make sense at all times in Britain, just embrace the chaos.
On the second day of Christmas my true love sent to me two hundred Christmas cards.
It feels like Christmas time when I start receiving Christmas cards. My boyfriend and I hang them from washing lines around the room, and they bring all of the colour and festive joy we need in our flat. I know a Whatsapp message is much quicker and possibly less wasteful, but the fact that someone has taken the time to think of me, choose a nice design and write something personal is quite endearing.
Some of the cards contain round robins, which are not chubby little red birds but newsletters with an update on the year that has just gone by. It’s quite nice actually to receive a round robin even from the closest friends you regularly keep in touch with. I love seeing children grow up and getting pictures from random weddings and trips that happened throughout the year, I realise how time goes by, I think back to the rest of the year, I get jealous at other people’s holidays abroad…
On the third day of Christmas my true love sent to me a blind woman who delivers presents in the North of Italy instead of Santa.
Saint Lucy was born and martyred in Sicily, promoted to a saint, and at some point her relics were moved to Venice, so there is this peculiar link between North and South. That’s why I am not surprised she then made an even bigger leap and colonised Scandinavia, where St. Lucy is a big big thing. On her name day girls are sent around carolling wearing a wreath and candles as a headpiece. See, St Lucy’s day was, before they fixed the calendar a few centuries ago, the longest night in the year, after which days would stretch back again. St Lucy would bring back the light.
In some areas of Northern Italy St Lucy is still the only one to bring presents to the children, fending off St Nicolas and Santa Claus and fighting for the rights of both women and disabled people to employment. Holy intersectionality. She is assisted by Castaldo, an elderly man, and unless she has taken an upgrade to first class recently, she rides around on a donkey. If you’ve been a good child she’ll bring you presents, oranges and chestnuts, otherwise she’ll just leave coal on your plate. Well, we call it coal, but it’s like honeycomb, a sweet rock-hard mass dyed black.
In Verona we eat puotti, sweet bread shaped like dolls. The baker in my village bakes them best, trust me. In Scandinavia, instead, they eat saffron buns shaped like an S and called, appropriately enough, Lucy’s cats. I always prepare St Lucy’s plate, full of chocolate and sweets, and leave it on the kitchen table for my flatmates to find in the morning. Since my baker won’t give me the recipe of his famous puotti, I decided to bake their Swedish counterparts instead. I used to live with a girl from Iran, the only country that consumes more saffron than Milan. I secretly baked the saffron buns and made her a surprise. She was so excited, our flat suddenly smelled like home for both of us. If you see me on the 13th of December, you’ll certainly receive a sweet from me. If you’ve been good, that is.
Dear St Lucy, this year I am on the nice list, please bring me a more accessible citizenship process and Settled Status to all my fellow EU citizens in the UK.
On the fourth day of Christmas my true love sent to me four tickets to a Pantomime.
Pantos are absurd. They are theatre adaptations of fairy tales. Beauty and the beast, peter pan, Jack and the beanstalk…few escape the panto treatment, and they are turned into something cheesy and kitsch, with actors wearing terrible make up and acting over the top. Either your career is emerging or is not quite sparkling anymore, pantos give work to C-list celebrities. A panto tends to feature a dame, which is a female role played by a male actor in drag, like, Snow white’s evil witch? She’ll be played by a burly man. I acted in an amateur panto once, my role was the Fairy God Mother in Cinderella and I wore a bra and a wig. It was fun. For a lot of people, and a lot of children, it’s the only time of the year they go to the theatre. There are some fixed phrases that people from the audience are supposed to shout out, for example:
“Have you seen Dick Withington? I cannot see him anywhere”
“He’s behind you”
“He never is!”
“He’s behind you!”
People sometimes heckle when they are not supposed to and actors are quite put off by it. Why do they do this? I don’t know, it’s a tradition.
I hope you haven’t had enough of me singing!
Oh yes we have!
Oh no you haven’t!
Oh yes we have!
Oh well, sorry not sorry. On we go.
On the fifth day of Christmas my true love sent to me five tons of raisins, as well as currants and sultanas, in the form of mince pies. The key of all traditional British baking is dried grapes. They’re everywhere: spotted dicks, eccles cakes, garibaldis, hot cross buns, Christmas pudding, birthday cake, Simnel cake…
What’s the difference between raisins, currants and sultanas? I sincerely wish I knew. If you don’t like them, tough luck mate. Mince pies are an uncanny puzzle for the unfortunate foreigner in Britain. The first time I was offered mince pies, I looked at them suspiciously. I mean, no. Mince? They looked cold, and I wouldn’t eat cold mince. I can’t remember why I decided to try one anyway, I must have been peckish. It was sweet, overly sweet, sickly sweet. Nice! So at some point in history someone must have switched their minced meat with dry fruit but nobody bothered to change the name as well. Mince pies are tiny parcels of crumbly crust wrapping raisins, sugar and suet. Suet? Oh no, it is not suet anymore, it is just vegetable oil and such. Traditionally, you should eat them only on the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany, but by Christmas day I’ll have eaten gazillions of mince pies, they pop up in every corner.
On the sixth day of Christmas my true love sent to me six Elves-on-the shelves,
this horrible plastic-y doll with long legs and a fixed stare that is supposed to keep children quiet, else he will report them to Santa Claus and no gifts will be delivered. I have had nightmares that were cuter than those cruel and slightly mad-glazed elves. The fact that Santa is an anagram of Satan doesn’t help. Teachers use them as much as possible to take control over unruly children before Christmas, but I won’t be surprised when a group of psychologically scarred adults takes legal action in future. Mark my words.
On the seventh day of Christmas my true love sent to me an animation movie with no words. This is the Snowman, an animation movie with a boy who dreams of a night adventure with a flying snowman – or did it really happen? It is as loved and played as often at Christmas time as Mary Poppins is in Italy. My boyfriend made me sit down and watch it and I must admit I was filled with awe and festive feelings and surprise (David Bowie introduces it!!!).
On the eighth day of Christmas my true love sent to me a Christmas service at church. My boyfriend’s church does a crib service and you place figurines of the holy family and their visitors into the stable. In my village on the Italian mountains after the Midnight Mass we all gather in the churchyard to drink mulled wine and hot chocolate, courtesy of the local Alpine police, and I get to catch up with everybody in my village because it is the busiest service in the year and everybody attends. I usually come back home late into the night.
On the ninth day of Christmas my true love sent to me nine brussels sprouts and a turkey to cook for the big Christmas lunch, even though nobody actually likes them! British people can’t cook brussels sprouts, they boil them for hours, then they hate them, but they still eat them on Christmas day… why? because “it’s tradition”. To accompany the turkey, Christmas lunch includes all the trimmings: stuffing outside of the turkey (an early form of the deconstructed meal), cranberry sauce and pigs in blankets, little sausages wrapped in bacon. Basically, take some ham, and wrap it in more ham.
On the tenth day of Christmas my true love sent to me ten Christmas crackers, those giant paper wrapped sweets that you pull and they shoot cheap, plastic-y thingies everywhere in the room. Doesn’t matter how expensive and luxurious your crackers are, the little gift is invariably not worth the effort to search for it in the corners of the dining room. Each cracker has a silly paper hat you wear askew for the whole Christmas lunch, and terrible, terrible jokes.
“What starts in T, ends in T and contains T?”
On the eleventh day of Christmas my true love sent to me eleven dozy people sitting in a room watching someone deliver a moving message to the nation – in Britain this is at 3pm, also known as the Queen’s speech. As an Italian, it is our President who usually delivers a message on New Year’s Eve, at exactly the same time as people are out celebrating and nobody really pays attention. Also, his message is about 20 minutes long, and it is live. Brace yourself! The Royal message is shorter, pre-recorded and perfectly brushed up, you can easily survive it.
On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me twelve dolls on a bonfire. That’s right, the Celts of Scotland and Ireland used to live in the North East of Italy, before Romans threw them out, and you may think Italians are all Catholics, but we are just pagans at heart with a thin layer of devotion on top. So you may have bonfires on the 5th of November, but we have bonfires on 6 January are called brusar la vecia, because we put a rag doll on top of it, and that’s the Old Lady (and there go all the battles for equality in Italy). We burn the doll, hoping the new year brings something better than the old one. And my goodness, if we ever needed a better year, it’s now.
Alright, after this whirlwind of partridge, turkey, mince pies, blind saints and evil elves, I hope you have a good time.
Thanks to the Passpartout Duo for providing the intro music, Ramona Bruno for her brilliant artwork, Nick for playing the piano and the extra voices, along with Barrie, John and Jo.
Thanks for sticking with me this year, it really means a lot to me. Buon Natale a tutti!