Monday, December 5, 2011

Lincoln Christmas Market

I took the train to Lincoln a couple of days ago to see the German Christmas market. It's
apparently a big and well known thing as I discovered by how very packed the train was going there with only the odd person getting off at any of the stops between there and Nottingham. Almost everybody was going for the market. The nice thing about that was I soon realized that I didn't really need to attentively watch the stops, I could just get off when everybody else did.

I was one of the ones in the back of the train who had to stand for the journey, which was a little over an hour. Happily I had thought ahead and brought my ipod; having music always seems to help when I'm stuck in a crowded situation. It gives me the illusion of a little isolated bubble even when I'm choking on the smell of somebody who likes perfume a little too much or the handle of somebody's umbrella is pressing into my hipbone. I also bought a decent pair of headphones the other day and there's really nothing like a good pair of headphones to make one remember how amazing music is. 

I had to be careful though if I wanted to be able to listen to music for the entire journey. My ipod is rather old and the battery is starting to wind down. Charging it before a trip is no guarantee that it'll last much longer than a couple of hours before shutting itself off. So I did my best to conserve as much battery life as possible by turning off the backlighting carefully selecting music that wouldn't make me want to skip forward or back, and then oh-so-carefully select the volume level that could be more or less satisfying. One little twitch up or down and it could be a goner. Happily it did last long enough for me not to go completely stir crazy before we arrived and all spilled out onto the platform in one merry little market-going heap.

German style Christmas markets are quite a thing. Tons of stalls full of locally made items for the most part, and lots and lots of German style sausages, English hamburgers, and desserts that I can't even remember the names of but I assume were from Germany or some places near it. I didn't taste any of the bratwurst due to the fact that I have to be careful of foods that might contain wheat, but I did buy myself a cup of dry riesling, partly because it came with a free little souvenir glass. 

It was crowded. Really crowded. Really really crowded. Having a look at any stall required a real committed effort with lots of “excuse me”'s, “so sorry”'s, and a powerfully resisted urge to say “Get out of my way!” or “If you had spilled my riesling when you bumped into me so help me I would've ton something terrifying and nasty.” If you were able to fight your way to the front there was usually something very worth looking at. Hand-made jewelry with celtic and germanic designs, very strong cheeses, leather-bound books, metal rimmed wooden beer stines: all sorts of neat things that were generally pricey but fun to examine.

I'm going to have to go back to Lincoln once the market has dispersed, because from what I could see of it the town looked really nice. I even managed to break out of the larger throng for a bit and circle the cathedral and discovered that there was a medieval Christmas market section behind it. I must confess that at this point in the day though I was tired and had had enough of crowds that I couldn't fully enjoy their costumes, the straw on the ground, and all the various “thy”s and “thous”s and really just took a stroll around so that I could say I'd done it, then went and caught the train back to Nottingham. I had a seat this time and was able to relax with my music for a good half an hour before my ipod gave up somewhere before Burton Joyce. That might be symbolic of something, seeing as Burton Joyce is where my dad and his sisters grew up and where my grandparents are buried, but I don't know what.

Maybe next year I'll go to Berlin for Christmas. The Germans sure seem to know how to do Christmas.

Pictures coming soon.

Saturday, December 3, 2011


I was e-mailed by several people and told that they tried to comment on here but couldn't. I think I've fixed the settings and it should accept comments now.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Christmas Sweets

Current Location: Nottingham

I suppose I should start my blog about my travels at the beginning, but I'm not going to. I promise that at some point I'll write about the plane flight and my ten hour long layover in Reykjavik and my incoherent self upon arriving in London, assuming anybody reading this is suitably interested.
However, it's the first of December so I'm going to talk about Christmasy stuff instead.
Here is some context about where I am and what I'm doing with this blog. I am currently in England after having recently received my first British passport. Much to my delight I found out after some research that since my father is originally from England I am legally a British citizen and am entitled to a passport and all the little details that go with such things. Well it seemed to me that my new founded and certified dual citizenship was an excellent reason to go on a European adventure.
So here I am, starting out by visiting my English relations and experiencing all the differences that I wasn't fully expecting, including the fact that I apparently don't speak English. I have days where I have to ask somebody to repeat what they said several times and slowly. I have gotten looks more than once that tell me that the speaker is trying to weigh my mental capacity.
I'll be heading to Prague in January to do a Teaching English as a Foreign Language course. I don't speak a work of Czech yet, which means of course that my fun linguistic adventures have only barely begun.
They take Christmas seriously in England. Christmas decorations and cards suddenly started appearing in November. Now, in America most places will at least make a vague attempt to hold off the Christmas rush and advertisements until after Thanksgiving (woe to the evil person who thought up Black Friday), but of course Thanksgiving over here is referred to as “Thursday,” and has no remarkable powers to stave off the invading festive spirit. I was commenting on how much Christmas stuff I was seeing during second week of November, and my aunt Tam informed that I hadn't seen anything yet. I was warned that once it hit December there would be parties and tasty treats everywhere.
It is now December, and so it begins.
For the last week my aunt Su has been busily making mince pies, informing me of the great importance of always having a stack of mince pies on hand leading up to Christmas.
Here is an interesting fact: “mince” is sometimes referred to as “mincemeat” because it used to be made out of meat. All those odd little leftover bits of meat that really shouldn't go to waste would be boiled together with some fruit to make one large gelatinous meat mixture which would then be cooked into pies. These days mince generally refers to a spiced fruit mixture without the meat part which is cooked into little tartlette style pies that are eaten in great quantity the closer one gets to Christmas time. Having an English father growing up we did often buy cans of mince when they suddenly sprang up in the supermarket the second that Thanksgiving was over.
My first attempt at making a mince pie, hoping to stir up some of my dad's childhood memories of Christmas, I made it in the large style that one generally makes pies in America and added a top layer of crust as an afterthought. It may not have looked like a traditional English mince pie but it was still very tasty and achieved the goal of bringing a smile to Dad's face as he spoke about how very cold his house was growing up and the fun danger of attaching real candles to the Christmas tree. I still find it hard to fathom that my parents would have real candles on their Christmas trees growing up.
Christmas pudding was also a new experience for me. My aunt Su has recently been certified as a lay reader and so the Christmas pudding was made on Stir-Up Sunday as is traditional. It's meant to go with the prayer that marks the beginning of advent:

Stir up, O Lord,
the wills of your faithful people
that, richly bearing the fruit of good works,
they may by you be richly rewarded;

through Jesus Christ our Lord
who is alive with with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever.


“I'm sure that Christmas pudding is exactly what is meant by the “wills of your faithful people.” I said.
“Well, of course!” Su responded.
Christmas pudding, as it's prepared in the Reid household, involves lots of dried fruit that is initially soaked in a small amount of boiling water and some form of spirits. Brandy is usually used, but we used single malt whiskey instead. After that's had a chance to soak and soften for a while a separate bowl of eggs and flour is beaten together, which is then combined with the spicy fruit and booze mixture. Just think of all the hands that a coin that was minted in the eighties will have passed through by this point. The last step is the “stirring-up:” everybody in the house has to take a turn stirring the Christmas pudding and make a wish as they do so. My uncle George had to be called in from the garden to assure that he took his turn, or else it would not have been a proper Christmas pudding.
After everybody has taken a turn and made their wish you add the coins. We had many different type of coins which were thoroughly cleaned in boiling water and scrubbed hard with soap, and then wrapped in pieces of wax paper just to be on the safe side, seeing as money is really gross.
The pudding is then wrapped up in foil and is left to sit for a few weeks so that it gradually forms into a sweet tasty blob of tasty Christmas goodness. Su opts to freeze it instead just in case.
My aunt and cousin then asked me what we normally have in the states if not Christmas pudding or mince pies. I'm sorry to say that I really couldn't think of one particular sweet that gets served as part of the holiday. I supposed cookies were a think, in my family we have a particular cookie recipe we follow. Referred to as “Great Aunt Elma's German spice cookies,” it's one of the few recipes to survive the purge my grandfather did when moving house of the recipes my grandma kept. They're butter less but contain large amounts of sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. They're fairly hard when baked and are wonderful when dipped in coffee. My mother and I always make about four batches at a time. You can never have too many spice cookies.
However, as for a widespread treat common to most households I couldn't think of one right away.
It was while finishing off the last tasty morsel of my mince pie and sternly telling myself that I was not going to have what would be the fourth one of the day (but only the second for the evening, one part of my brain rationalized, and did what you ate earlier in the day really count once it got dark outside?), I suddenly thought of a holiday sweet you see all over the place in the States and generally start to roll your eyes at the sight of come Christmas Eve.
“Candy canes!” I declared proudly as if I had been the one to invent them, which wouldn't be likely since I don't like candy canes or any sort of peppermint candy. “You see candy canes all over the place in December.”
My aunt then asked a question that I was not expecting.
“Candy canes.” I repeated as if saying the name of it repeatedly would tell her everything. “You know...candy canes.”
“What on earth is that?”
I admit I was dumbfounded for a moment by the idea that somebody would not know what a candy cane is. They're all over the place in December to the point where you get sick of the sight and taste of them. They're handed out like...okay, like candy – everywhere you go. By New Year's Eve I will often find a fine white and red powder lining the bottom of my purse, not because I eat so many of them (see above comment about my preference regarding candy canes), but because I'd be handed them by various people in shops or at offices where I went to inquire about important things like renewing my driver's license or if the kind people in human resources had had a chance to read my resume, and felt that I could not be so unbelievably rude as to refuse this kind offering of Christmas cheer. Especially if they might have a say whether or not I have a job. When I was little kid I would just give them to my brother who would eat them quite happily. He lives in Florida now and I can't be bothered to package up all the half crushed candy canes I receive during a Christmas season and mail them to him.
So, I described this red dyed striped candy to my aunt.
“Oh, it sounds like they're similar to rocks.”
Rocks? I had seen many rocks in England and while I was as unlikely to want to taste them as I was candy canes I can't say I saw a resemblance.
“The striped candy like we saw at Whitby.” She said at the sight of my blank confused face.
Of course, now I remembered the candy prominently displayed in several of the stores in the seaside town.

Candy rocks are not like what I think of as “rock candy,” these were straight thick candy sticks with patterns that run through the entire length including the middle layer. They looked really neat, but I decided to spare my teeth that particular sugary challenge.
“Yes, candy canes are like thin rocks and they're curved at the top like a shepherd's hook.” It was nice of my brain to figure out that that's why they're curved right as I was speaking. Brains are handy things like that.
I went on to explain that they often get bought in large quantities; stores will have two or three for one sales of boxes of candy canes and one will often find that they suddenly have hundreds of candy canes that end up getting hung up on the Christmas tree and any random thing throughout the house that might support the hanging of a candy cane. I have even seen them hung from somebody's nipple rings.
Su found the idea of candy canes being hung all over the place like holly very sweet. I didn't mention the nipple thing to her.
I'm enjoying tasting all the new types of treats over here and watching what are not so much signs of Christmas but great blaring events full of Santas and reindeer. Despite all the festive cheer that's going to be going on it going to feel strange to me to not have snow on Christmas. For Vermonters snow is pretty much a guarantee. Dad conducts Christmas carol singing in our small town and he always finds it necessarily to alter the words to “A White Winter” when making the song brooklets:
I'm dreaming of a white Christmas,
Just like the ones we always get.”
It may not be a white Christmas for me this year, but I'm definitely looking forward to mulled wine accompanied by mince pies, and no candy canes.

Edit: Su has been kind enough to remind me that the pudding is steamed before being stored. So, if anyone was trying to follow my vague instructions on the process, don't forget to steam it!