British Christmas: how we celebrate it and vocabulary we use to talk about it

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Christmas is round the corner (=very near in place or time), so let’s see how twenty-first-century Britons celebrate it.

These days the festive season (=the period around Christmas) starts ridiculously early. Christmas-themed shop-window displays make their appearance at the beginning of November, as soon as Halloween is over, or even earlier. Naturally, they go hand in hand (=together) with the arrival of Christmas decorations and posters promoting the idea that it’s time to shop for the main holiday of the year.

Christmas shop-window display at Selfridges in London in 2016
(C) Anastassia Sakharova

Christmas office parties start early too. I remember a few years ago my husband’s employer arranged one in November when it’s cheaper to rent a venue (=place) for the occasion (=event). At my husband’s work Christmas lunch (we’ll talk about it later) is traditionally served in the canteen in the run-up to (=before) the holiday to get the employees in the festive spirit I guess.

Another thing that makes for the Christmas atmosphere is Christmas cards. Despite the advent (=coming) of electronic ones, Britons still send lots and lots of paper ones keeping The Royal Mail (=the British organization which is responsible for collecting and delivering letters and parcels)busy and prosperous. It’s customary to put them on display on the mantelpiece (=a wooden or stone shelf which is the top part of a frame surrounding a fireplace) and other horizontal surfaces or on a piece of string like bunting (=small flags on strings, used to decorate buildings and streets on special occasions).

A Christmas card display

In the UK, Christmas, often shortened to Xmas, has now lost most of its original religious meaning and like other public holidays has been massively commercialized. Christmas Mass (=an important church ceremony)which is celebrated on the night of Christmas Eve (24th December) is often attended by those who otherwise don’t go to church as a sort of entertainment rather than in reverence (=great respect and admiration)for the birth of Jesus Christ. It is though much more common to spend Christmas Eve making the last preparations for the day ahead.

Christmas Day (25th December) is not only the most joyous day of the year in the UK, it’s also the quietest as public transport is not running and pretty much everything is shut (though some pubs and restaurants remain open to serve Christmas lunch as well as some small shops whose owners either don’t celebrate Christmas or don’t want to miss the opportunity to make some extra money while all other stores are closed).

Christmas is a family holiday and in my husband’s family it gets really busy when all his siblings (=brothers and sisters)with their spouses (=husbands and wives) and kids get together. It also means an awful lot of cooking for the hostess, though these days you can order your Christmas food online and have it delivered to your door. Starters and puddings usually come ready to eat, mains require (=need) a little bit more work on your side – you need to pop them in the oven before serving.

Typical Christmas lunch (roast meat and veg, sprouts, balls of stuffing and gravy). Image by Lesley Negus from Pixabay

Britons are amazingly conservative when it comes to Christmas lunch. They don’t mind having the same things year after year – beats me (=I can’t understand or explain it)! There’s some variety in starters, but the mains are pretty much invariably the same – roast meat (more often than not turkey, but beef, lamb, pork, venison (=deer meat), and goose are popular alternatives too), vegetables (roast potatoes, carrots and parsnips, sprouts (=a small green vegetable like a very small cabbage), peas), stuffing (=the stuff you normally put inside the turkey but often served on the side) and gravy (=a sauce made from the juice that comes from meat as it cooks, mixed with flour and water). You put a bit of everything on your plate but somehow always end up absolutely stuffed (=so full that you can’t eat any more) so the pudding (the most popular one is probably trifle – a cold British sweet dish made of layers of cake, fruit, jelly, custard, and cream) is often left untouched.

Trifle, a popular Christmas pudding

At 3pm on Christmas Day the Queen’s speech is broadcast but having lived in the UK for ten years I haven’t seen anyone watch it once, which I think is a shame.

Christmas stockings waiting to be emptied

26th December is Boxing Day. Originally it was the day when the rich gave gifts (=presents) to the poor. The gifts were packed in boxes, hence the name. These days people still exchange presents (or, informally, pressies) at Christmas, though no one can be bothered to wait till Boxing Day. In my husband’s family the presents are done after Christmas lunch. The kids, however, start ahead of everyone else with their Christmas stockings filled with sweets and little things. Sadly, they are often inundated (=get too many) with presents and don’t seem to have much appreciation (=a feeling of being grateful)for what they get. Adults often choose not to waste money of Christmas presents for several reasons: firstly, these days in the West most people have everything they need and even more and therefore see no practical reason to stick with (=continue) the tradition; secondly, more often than not Christmas presents turn out to be a disappointment rather than a delight and end up either in the bin or a charity shop more or less right away; and last but not least, some people, in accordance with the true spirit of Christmas, prefer to give the money they could otherwise spend on presents to charitable (=relating to giving help to those in need)causes instead.

This is what British Xmas is like in this day and age. Hope you’ve learnt something new from this post. I wish you all a very merry Christmas and a joyful and prosperous New Year.

The British Library by Theresa Shiban

The British Library

Originally part of the British museum, the British Library was separated from its parent in 1973 to become one of the world’s greatest cultural institutions in its own right. A quarter of a century later, it moved into its own home at London’s St Pancras.

The impressive modernist red-brick building designed by architect Sir Colin St. John Wilson caused a lot of controversy while it was under construction and continues to divide opinions to this day.

The King’s Library Tower at the British Library

One of its most spectacular features is the six-storey King’s Library Tower containing precious volumes from King George III’s collection that was gifted to the library at the British museum after the monarch’s death in 1823.

In her 2007 free verse (=poetry that does not have a fixed structure and does not rhyme) Theresa Shiban gives a vivid description of this colossal yet very welcoming temple of knowledge whose doors are open not only to students and researches but to every book lover.

The first thing you notice is what you don’t
it is not imposing
overwhelming
you are not made to feel insignificant
with monumental humility
it is the box the words come in
storey upon storey hidden below
not towering above
to impress or oppress
its exalted purpose democratised
grandeur and majesty achieved by an honest brick
A British Institution
wrestled down to size
to a human scale
and gifted
I am welcomed by the horizontals
elevated not cowed
the masses ennobled
by nothing more than literacy
or rather nothing less
a gentle spectrum
(reds browns whites blacks greens)
wraps around a space for meeting
a Lego tower points the way
I am invited in

* * * *

and enter into light
a cathedral space of secular worship
(in the beginning was the word)
vaults of them, below and above
a bank of words you spend and spend but never lose
I tread soft rounded stairs
handling marble leather brass
(material of privilege offered to the proletariat)
mirroring the gold embossed spines of a king’s library
more light
(where is it coming from?)
directed coaxed refracted toyed with
a conjurer’s trick of mirrors
made to bounce around corners
and softly illuminate the illuminated
verticals of stripy colour
alpha digit diamond dot
Volume 1
A – K
Volume 2
L – Z
a 6-storey jewel box
glowing

* * * *

I detour through Humanities
more laughing light
whites and warming wood
the visual rhythm of grids and open cages
(Someone let the words out again!)
multiples of plug-sized squares
magnified and morphed into the sculptural
ceiling above
a latter day clerestory for contemporary scribes
boxes within boxes within the biggest box of all
My work Is Obviously Important Look Where I Do It

* * * *

I continue up the familiar stair
to A&A and the desk I claim is mine
(8115)
safe
protected
cherished, even
in a room of one’s own
(my own)
(your own)
I sit and begin to work
to distil the great chorus of language treasured
within this building
into one simple word
gratitude

© Theresa Shiban, reprinted with permission

10+ alternatives to ‘clever’

In his book ‘How to Be an Alien’ George Mikes writes,

In England it is bad manners to be clever, to assert something confidently’ as ‘the Englishman is modest’.

I wouldn’t say much has changed in this respect since the book was first published in 1946 – the British code of behaviour still strongly disapproves of any displays of one’s intelligence. In other words, if you’re smart, keep it to yourself.

It should now come as no surprise that the English language (or at least British English) has far fewer words and expressions for ‘intelligent’ than, as we have seen, it does for ‘stupid’. Let’s have a look at them.

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

1. Bright is used especially about children and young people (you may have read Evelyn Waugh’s Bright Young Things or seen the film based on the book).

She’s the brightest student in the class and loved by all the teachers.

2. Brilliant means ‘extremely clever’.

Albert Einstein was one of the most brilliant scientists of all time.

However, it can also be used sarcastically to mean the opposite!

(At the airport) You left the tickets at home?! Brilliant! What are we going to do now?

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How to Say Hello and Goodbye Like a Native

The very first thing you learn to say in any new language is, without doubt, how to greet people. And there’s a good reason for that – you can’t possibly strike up (=start) a conversation without saying hello first. Well, technically speaking, you can, but we don’t do that in polite society (=educated and well-mannered people).

Image by GimpWorkshop from Pixabay

Hello is a universal greeting – it works at any time of day and in any situation, especially with people you don’t know well and older people.

Hello Mrs Smith. How are you today?

It’s also the word we use when answering the phone.

Hello. – Hi Jenny, it’s Katy. – Oh, hi Katy!

Hello there can be used to address either one person or a group of people.

Hello there! It’s ages since I last saw you. How have you been?

We also use it rather informally when writing to someone whose name we don’t know (or can’t remember!). For example, you want to buy something on Ebay but have questions to ask the seller. Hello (or Hi) there is a perfectly acceptable way of starting your message.

Then, there’s hi, which these days is by far the most popular greeting among native English speakers as it’s friendlier and less formal than hello. It’s used both in conversation in informal writing, i.e. emails and text messages, with family and friends, colleagues and clients, people who do things for us, such as shop assistants and waiters, and so on. The only restriction in its use is the age difference – don’t say hi to anyone who’s much older than you, unless you’re on intimate terms with them as I am with my parents-in-law, for example.

Continue reading “How to Say Hello and Goodbye Like a Native”