Tuesday, February 24, 2015

An English Christmas

I have been so busy getting back into the swing of Paris and still discovering new places there that I have neglected to finish my series of posts about my Christmas in England. Here we are, a month and a half later. (Is it just me, or does January always fly by?) So here I will be sharing some of pictures and adventures of the second half of my adventures in England.

We last left off on Christmas Eve with me barely making my train out of St. Pancreas back to Hereford county. As soon as I landed at the Leominster station, I was whisked back to the ever-welcoming Pound Farm, where I joined the rest of the family for a little homemade Shepherd's Pie. Having not eaten all day, I don't know if I've ever had a better Christmas Eve meal. But no time to dilly dally, or we would be late for the Christmas Eve carol service. So, pulling on our wellies, we sent out into the frigid winter darkness, walking through two fields to the village church, where all the local townsfolk were filing in, mostly families who had lived in the area for generations, farms passed down from father to son. The church was built in the 1300s, and we could see our breath as the steward handed out plain white candlesticks to everyone. The organist warmed up the pipes, and we sang a handful of carols intermittently with some local children reading the Christmas story. You have never heard anything cuter than miniature English humans reading the Christmas story.

After the service, it was back out into the magical winter air, and the stars seemed to know it was a special night as they shone their best and brightest across a vast midnight sky. But the night wasn't over yet, no; in fact, it was about to get really English...

Once we had pried off our boots and picked off clumps of mud, the parents set out for a neighborhood holiday bash as us young ones went off to the local pub. Now, I can't say I've ever been to a pub on Christmas Eve, but apparently it was the thing to do because the place was absolutely packed well into the evening when we left. Only one more sleep til Christmas!

Christmas came quietly in soft pastel peaks of morning. Not so quietly came Emma bounding onto my bed announcing it's arrival. I feel a Christmas without someone bounding into my room to wake me up just isn't Christmas (looking at you, Gracie). We sleepily padded our way downstairs and after a light breakfast, it was time to gather round the tree for presents. Of course, as a houseguest during Christmastime, I was perfectly content to watch all the joy happen around me as wrapping was ripped open and gifts were touted about for everyone to see. But then I was surprised by a gift from "Santa," then another, then another! And do you know what? That generous family had not only invited me into their home during their holidays, but also bought me presents like I was one of their own children. Not only that, but their son also had a guest over for the holidays, and he too received presents. Really, one doesn't feel generosity like that very often.

The grandparents arrived shortly thereafter, with even more presents in stow! I enjoyed a lovely long conversation with the grandfather, who had researched all about Ohio and proceeded to quiz me on our state flower, our state bird, and even the Buckeyes! What a delightful surprise. After this we all gathered around the table for Christmas lunch, which was really very similar to our Thanksgiving dinner as far as the food. The only real additions were the parsnips, which I really loved, and the Christmas pudding, which I really did not love, but ate anyway for the sake of tradition. I was assured by the father that it's the same with the English anyway. It's a fruitcake that has been marinated in rum monthly since June, and then is lit afire before serving. There is also Christmas cake, which is almost identical minus the lighting on fire bit. We ate this for Christmas supper. (The English in fact have four true meals a day: Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and supper. Dinner is usually  the dominant evening meal, and is served around 5 or 6pm, followed by supper, a light meal, around 8 or 9pm.)

The rest of the day was spent Skyping friends and family back home and playing British trivia games. Don't worry, my fellow Yanks, I didn't disappoint the stereotype that Americans know nothing outside of their own country. And why don't we have a toilet paper brand named "Velvet"?

The next morning was an early rise, for it was Boxing Day, and we were going to see off the Fox Hunt! Remember the part in Mary Poppins when they jump into the chalk drawing and end up riding carousel horses in the midst of all those fellows in red coats? That's a fox hunt, and nowadays they have been outlawed due to their cruelty to foxes, but this was one of the few that still survives to perform the ceremony. The whole town turns out to see them off in the village square, so it was a real people-watching treat.

I was really quite surprised by why the horses and hounds arrived, and melted into the crowd instead of being kept separate. The hounds were very friendly, and even the horses didn't mind being surrounded and petted by strangers. There were notably more women than men riding, and the only ones wearing red coats were the hounds masters, who would lead the "hunt". There was such an air of excitement and conviviality that I quite forgot everything else about the trip in that moment and was swept up into the excitement. Riders kept pouring in on horses of every shape, size, and color.

Finally the hounds master announced the beginning of the hunt, the little bugle was sounded, and the horses were trotted out of the city square with the bellowing hounds at their heels. That was the end of it, a bit anticlimactic after being swarmed by animals just moments before, but nonetheless such a fun cultural experience.

The rest of the day was spent touring through the actual city of Hereford, where our hosts showed us around their old school grounds. The largest medieval map known to exist rests in the cathedral of Hereford, usually behind lock and key. Imagine our surprise then when upon turning a corner in the far back reached of the cathedral, we happened up the Hereford Mappa Mundi, just chilling in its glass case inches from our fingertips.

My last evening in Hereford was spent in true English fashion by the stove fireplace watching The Holiday with takeout Indian food in hand, followed by some warm tea and biscuits (cookies). I couldn't help thinking as I watched, Wow, I'm actually living this movie right now. Except I was missing my huge LA house, big-time film career, and of course, my Jude Law. But I guess there is always the next Christmas I spend in England...

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