Advent is a fine time to go abroad. Christmas preparations take on a special relish when observed in a foreign country. My earliest independent holiday took place one December when a schoolfriend and I visited Paris.
It was thrilling to see the markets, even if a shopkeeper attempted to arrest us because of the enormous army-surplus greatcoats we were wearing, on the assumption that garments so oversized could only have been bought for shop-lifting. (That’s the French for you-no sense of style.)
In America, they talk of ‘the holidays’, not Christmas-and yet, bar non-stop jingles in hotel lobbies, they do it rather well. Lights sparkle in trees, green boughs are twined around staircase banisters and obesity comes into its own when Father Christmases are being recruited.
But they fall down on the cake. It’s become a joke, a byword for everything outmoded and repulsive. (Strange, given the nostalgia with which friends spoke of Thanksgiving dishes, flavoured with mushroom soup.) Christmas pudding is a thing unknown. I had to explain its sacrificial nature. You spend hours looking for the ingredients, even longer steaming the result, and then set fire to it. ‘I don’t suppose you’d like the taste,’ I said. ‘Most children don’t.’ They seemed to find that odd.
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