10 UK Christmas Traditions That Confuse Americans

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iStock

With Christmas just around the corner, it can feel like a time to celebrate togetherness and put aside our differences. But what about the differences in the way we celebrate Christmas? When you’ve been celebrating a holiday one way your entire life, it’s easy to assume that’s the way it’s celebrated everywhere—but just ask someone who celebrates Christmas across the pond, and you’ll see some subtle but strange differences. Here are just a few of them.

1. CRACKERS

No, we’re not talking crispy snacks here. These are a series of three cardboard tubes connected by a wrapping of colored foil. They are a British Christmas institution and you’ll see them on dinner tables right next to the cutlery. What are they for? Well, they’re somewhere between pulling the wishbone on a turkey and a fortune cookie. The idea is that you and the person next to you each grab an end and pull.

The tubes pull apart with a small bang (or crack) thanks to the tiny explosive inside. The winner of the game is the person with the lion’s share of cardboard tubes (i.e. two) and their prizes sit inside that middle tube. Now, unless you spend serious money on luxury crackers (which are totally a thing), don’t expect an incredible prize. Usually you’re looking at a small plastic toy or magic trick that barely works, a terrible Christmas joke on a small scroll of paper, and the most important thing of all: the paper crown—multi-colored, deeply embarrassing, and begrudgingly worn for about five minutes before being relegated to the trash.

Crackers stem from a Victorian confectioner named Tom Smith, who was on a visit to Paris in 1840 when he noticed how the French wrapped bon-bons in colored tissue paper and decided to try selling a similar product in Britain. After middling sales, inspiration hit him one evening by the fireplace when the crackling sounds caused him to imagine opening bon-bons with a bang (he was really into bon-bons). After finding the perfect mix of chemicals for his explosive new packaging, their popularity grew and grew.

2. MINCE PIES

The humble mince pie has been a part of British cuisine since the 13th century, when crusading knights returned home with exciting new ingredients from the wider world: cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon. There were quickly added to pies with dried fruit, suet, and minced meat.

After the puritan ban on Christmas and all things deemed unholy, the mince pie (like all Christmas traditions) went away for a while before coming back in a slightly altered form. By the 19th century the recipe had become sweeter, and the pies themselves much more bitesize.

3. WASSAIL? WHASSAT?

While spiked eggnog may very well be the booze of choice for the month of December in the good old US of A, the United Kingdom tends to prefer their festive tipple to be of the mulled variety.

“Wassail” in Anglo-Saxon means “Be Well” and was traditionally a greeting made at the start of the New Year. The act of Wassailing—going door-to-door with a bowl of spiced alcoholic beverage—was performed on the “Twelfth Night,” (January 5, 6, or 17, depending on which calendar you go by) and met with replies of “Drink well.”

The drink in question, depending on where you lived, was likely either a wine or a cider which would be heated up and mixed with various fruits and spices. More common nowadays is simply “mulled wine,” which follows much of the wassail recipe at heart, but without having to wait until the New Year.

4. CHRISTMAS PUDDING

A classic festive dish that dates back to the medieval era, the Christmas pudding is a sort of boiled fruit cake that’s heavily spiced, doused in brandy, and briefly set on fire. Traditionally, coins are hidden inside as an extra gift (or an unpleasant mouthful of metal).

The pudding’s medieval origin comes complete with some very specific instructions from the Roman Catholic Church, which say that “pudding should be made on the 25th Sunday after Trinity, that it be prepared with 13 ingredients to represent Christ and the 12 apostles, and that every family member stir it in turn from east to west to honor the Magi and their supposed journey in that direction.”

5. FATHER WHO?

Illustrated London News via Wikimedia // Public Domain

While he’s known in the U.S. as Santa Claus (an evolution of the Dutch settlers’ term “Sinter Klaas,” which is itself a shorthand for Sint Nikolaas), the UK refers to him almost exclusively as Father Christmas.

Although they’re generally thought of as the same person today, Santa and Father Christmas have very different origins. The modern-day Santa Claus owes a large debt to Clement Clarke Moore’s legendary 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” although he’s also inspired by a 4th-century Bishop of Myra (a.k.a. St. Nicholas) and, some say, the Norse God Odin.

Father Christmas, however was more of a winter presence than a gift-giver. He’s been traced back as far as the 5th or 6th century, appearing first as a Saxon “King Winter” who promised a milder winter climate if people were kind to him. When Normans invaded, the St. Nicholas story was mixed in with the Saxon mythology to create something that started to resemble Father Christmas. The first recorded mention of Father Christmas by name (well, almost) comes from a line in a 15th century carol, which says “Welcome, my lord Christëmas.” Lord Christëmas morphed into Sir Christmas and then Captain Christmas (which, frankly, should be brought back) before Father Christmas took its place in the 1600s.

Notably, while Mr. and Mrs. Claus famously reside in the North Pole, Father Christmas lives in Lapland, the northernmost region of Finland. There’s a huge Christmas-based tourism industry up there, with UK and Nordic travel agents selling all kinds of “meet Santa Claus” packages featuring reindeer rides, snowmobile adventures and, of course, an audience with the big man with the white beard himself.

6. MERRY CHRIMBO?

The British are seemingly notorious for their colloquialisms, so why should the holiday season be any exception? Christmas in the UK very often gets shortened to “Chrimbo” (or Crimble if you’re of the John Lennon school of phrasing). Meanwhile, the phrase “Happy Christmas” is just as socially acceptable as “Merry Christmas.”

7. PANTOMIME

 

Do you like campy theatrical productions of popular fairytales with a cast made up of minor celebrities and men in drag? Do you ever watch horror movies and have the sudden urge to scream “He’s behind you!” at the doomed protagonists? If so, pantomime may well be for you.

Pantomime, or panto if we’re continuing with the colloquialisms, is a type of musical comedy that’s a big deal in the UK. In 2012, during the throes of a national recession, the largest panto production company in the UK made more than $30 million during the Christmas period alone.

Pantomime is something that has to be experienced to fully appreciate it, so perhaps it’s best to be bewildered by this star-studded (by British standards) televised panto from 1998 seen above and wonder how it’s so profitable.

8. THE CHRISTMAS ADVERTISING SEASON

In the U.S., the commercial holy grail is the Super Bowl ad, with a 30-second slot costing $5 million at the 2016 game. As the UK isn’t exactly a hotbed of (American) football fanatics, the big commercial events appear around Christmastime. It used to be that the classic Coca-Cola ad served as a signpost for the start of the festive season proper, but for the past few years, adoration has shifted toward the always-anticipated John Lewis Christmas ad.

John Lewis is a high-end UK department store chain that has made a name for itself in the last 10 years with increasingly more saccharine short films that seem scientifically engineered to tug at your heartstrings. With a campaign this year costing an estimated $8.7 million, it’s clear that this is a Christmas tradition they take very seriously. But they’re not even the biggest spenders—Burberry’s star-studded, cinematic 2016 Christmas ad “The Tale of Thomas Burberry’” is rumored to have cost $12.5 million.

9. BOXING DAY

December 26 is more than simply “The Day after Christmas” to the Brits—it’s Boxing Day! Boxing Day is not only a public holiday (which means it’s an extra day off work), it’s also the starting flag for the post-Christmas sales. Much like Black Friday in the U.S., the Boxing Day sales aren’t for the faint-hearted. With shoppers flush with cash from the distant relatives who didn’t know them well enough to get them a meaningful gift, the bargain-hunting can be riotous.

The origins of the name Boxing Day are dubious, but it has nothing to do with a prize fight. Depending on who you believe, it’s either named for the Church of England’s practice of breaking open donation boxes to distribute among the poor, or for the aristocracy giving boxes full of presents to their servants on the day after Christmas.

Whatever its charitable origins may have been, most Brits who don’t spend it shopping or visiting relatives just tend to eat leftovers and watch TV. Something we can all agree on.

10. THE ROYAL CHRISTMAS BROADCAST

A true British institution, the Christmas broadcast by the reigning monarch has been an almost yearly mainstay in one form or another since 1932. Originally starting as a radio broadcast by George V, the broadcast evolved as the monarchy did, and 1957 saw Queen Elizabeth II deliver the first broadcast televised live to the nation. However, due to radio interference, some viewers apparently heard U.S. police radio transmissions mixed in with the Queen’s speech, including the phrase “Joe, I’m gonna grab a quick coffee.”

Since 1959, the broadcast has been pre-recorded, but is still faithfully beamed into homes across the country at 3 p.m. on Christmas day. The exception occurred in 1969, when there was no speech because the Queen decided that after a documentary about the royal family had aired earlier that year, there’d been enough of her on TV already.

The subject matter tends to be similar every year: a reflection on the events of the previous 365 days and overall message of togetherness. Since the ‘90s its popularity has dwindled, with TV station Channel 4 broadcasting their ‘”Alternative Christmas Message” at the same time since 1993. Their subject matter varies from the humorous (Marge Simpson delivered the speech in 2012) to the more serious and controversial—in 2006, a Muslim woman known only as Khadijah spoke about Islam and conflict in the Middle East, while in 2013 Edward Snowden was the chosen speaker.

All images via iStock unless otherwise noted.

Mardi Gras King Cake Ice Cream Is Coming to a Grocery Store Near You

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iStock.com/fstop123

Each year, Blue Bell Creamery celebrates Mardi Gras with a limited-edition ice cream that captures the spirit of the festival. Now, for the first time, the once-regional flavor will be available wherever Blue Bell ice cream is sold, KXXV reports.

Blue Bell debuted Mardi Gras King Cake in 2012, and for years it could only be found in places like Louisiana and Alabama. Exclusively available in the months leading up to Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday, the ice cream has become a seasonal favorite in that part of the country. Blue Bell recently announced it's expanding the flavor in response to nationwide interest to cover its entire distribution area in the southern U.S.

Mardi Gras King Cake combines two old Blue Bell flavors: Mardi Gras, which came out in 2004, and King Cake, which launched in 2006. It features pastry pieces, cream cheese swirls, and colorful sprinkles in cinnamon cake-flavored ice cream. (The traditional plastic baby is missing from this version).

Half-gallons of Blue Bell's Mardi Gras King Cake ice cream can be found in stores starting the first week of 2019.

Carton of Blue Bell Mardi Gras King Cake ice cream.
Courtesy of Blue Bell

[h/t KXXV]

7 Hangover Cures Backed By Science

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iStock

Science has a lot to say about bogus hangover cures (coffee, hair of the dog, and saunas aren't doing you any favors), but not as much about which treatments are legitimate. That's not for a lack of trying: The quest to banish the headaches, nausea, and dizziness that follow a bout of heavy drinking has been going on for centuries. We still don't know how to prevent hangovers or how exactly they happen, but if you're feeling miserable after last night, there are a handful of science-based remedies that might ease your pain.

1. Asian Pear Juice

Have some extra Asian pears at home? Run them through your juicer before your next night out. According to researchers at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, just 7.4 ounces of Asian pear juice is enough to soften the blow of a hangover. The scientists say that the juice interacts with enzymes that break down alcohol, speeding up your metabolism and leaving less surplus alcohol for your body to absorb. There's just one catch: The juice must be consumed before you drink anything else in order to be effective. Apologies to anyone currently reading this through heavy-duty sunglasses.

2. Music

Anyone who's ever suffered through a massive hangover knows that sound is the enemy. But while your roommate's 9 a.m. tap dancing practice might exacerbate your symptoms, music may have the opposite effect. Research has shown that listening to music can provide relief to migraines, which are similar to hangover headaches. As long as the music is pleasant and suits your taste, it should help to drown out the chorus of pain playing in your mind. Head sensitivity isn't the only symptom music helps with: According to researchers at the University of Edinburgh, listening to your favorite music also eases pain. There hasn't been research specifically on hangovers, but at the very least it should hide your pained cries.

3. Sprite

If you're looking for something to nurse your hangover, skip the Bloody Mary. A team of Chinese researchers found that Xue bi, the Chinese version of Sprite, is actually the best beverage to combat the lingering side-effects of alcohol. Of the 57 drinks tested, Sprite was the best at helping enzymes break down acetaldehyde, the metabolized version of ethanol that's blamed for some of the nastiest hangover symptoms. The scientists also identified which concoctions you should avoid: A drink containing herbs and hemp seeds was the worst offender, as it actually prolongs acetaldehyde metabolism instead of speeding it up. (We should also caution that this test was done in a lab and might not be applicable to actual drinking scenarios.)

4. Pedialyte

Although not the primary cause of your hangover, one of the many ways alcohol can leave you feeling worse for wear the morning after is dehydration. Alcohol is a diuretic—it makes you pee a lot more than you would otherwise. If your fluids are depleted when you go to bed, you can expect to wake up feeling groggy, achy, and all-around not your best. Water is the simplest fix for dehydration, but for more extreme cases, there's Pedialyte. The drink was originally developed to rehydrate kids sick from vomiting and diarrhea, but it's marketed as a hangover treatment for adults as well. It contains nutrients, sodium, and other electrolytes—all things that can nurture your body when it's dehydrated. It won't cure the hangover, but it might help alleviate the worst of it.

5. Anti-inflammatory drugs

If your first move when you're hungover is to reach for a bottle of aspirin, you have the right idea. Anti-inflammatory drugs may not do much to stop the underlying causes of your condition, but they can suppress your symptoms long enough for you to get out of bed without feeling like your head's been replaced with an anvil. On top of easing headaches and muscle pain, there's another reason these pills are good for hangovers: They may directly combat alcohol's inflammatory effects. But there's one over-the-counter painkiller you should never take while or after consuming alcohol, and that's Tylenol. Any drug that uses acetaminophen will only further abuse your recovering liver.

6. Eggs

The best way to tackle a hangover with food is to eat while you drink. Chowing down after the damage has already been done may distract you from your turmoil for a short while, but it won't soothe your physical symptoms. There are a few exceptions: Eggs, for example, have hangover-fighting potential thanks to a special ingredient. The food is packed with cysteine, an amino acid that breaks down the drinking byproduct acetaldehyde. So whether you prefer to enjoy brunch out or at home, make sure your meal includes eggs in some form.

7. Honey on toast

While you're at it, put some honey on toast next to your omelet. According to Britain's Royal Society of Chemistry, while it won't cure a hangover, the breakfast can help alleviate the symptoms: "The best breakfast is toast and honey (or golden syrup) which provides the body with the sodium, potassium, and fructose which it now needs." The BBC talked to a junior doctor about this hangover remedy and he recommended adding banana. While he cautions it's an acquired taste, the doctor explained, "Bananas are a high source of potassium—an electrolyte that gets depleted when you go out on the binge. The honey will give you that spike of sugar in your bloodstream and that energy rush to help you get back on your feet."

Bonus: Drink less

While this is definitely the least helpful of all suggestions, in 2005 an article in the BMJ looked at 15 studies of hangover cures, noting that "the paucity of randomized controlled trials is in stark contrast to the plethora of ‘hangover cures' marketed on the internet." Their conclusion? "No compelling evidence exists to suggest that any conventional or complementary intervention is effective for preventing or treating alcohol hangover. The most effective way to avoid the symptoms of alcohol induced hangover is to practice abstinence or moderation."

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