Obviously not everybody does Christmas. People who aren’t Christian, people who are tinsel-hesitant, people who can’t stand their families – there are many reasons to shun the Yuletide season. The Scots mark Christmas, but it’s just a warm-up for Hogmanay, which is far more important. For the Americans, Christmas falls roughly between the two most significant religious festivals of the year: Thanksgiving and the Super Bowl. Last time I looked, the Americans still have to go to work on Boxing Day, which seems barbaric. Back in my days in the rat race, Boxing Day was my favourite day of the year. Nobody got a piece of me on December 26, except possibly a bartender.
Still, Christmas is just one of those cultural things (in this culture, at any rate) that are impossible to ignore. I don’t do the Super Bowl, but I can’t help being aware of it. Christmas is a bit like the Super Bowl, except that it’s always the same teams: Bing Crosby versus Mariah Carey. Christmas, of course, is both a Christian and a pagan festival, and as far as I can tell people tend to cherry-pick the bits of each they like. Would you like a sprig of mistletoe with your baby Jesus?
If you’re lucky enough to be as old as I am, you’ve seen a lot of Christmases. Good ones and bad ones. And it’s often difficult to tell them all apart. Was that 2012 or 1981? Did we watch the Alastair Sim Christmas Carol? (That doesn’t narrow it down much.) The Evergreen Bride and I, a good long time ago, came up with the idea of going away at Christmas. You get a few holiday days from work then, so you’re not using up your allotment for the year, and you’re escaping the madness close to home in favour of the madness somewhere else, for which you’re not responsible.
Our most frequent Yuletide getaway is Britain. Not very tropical, as people have frequently observed, and not many hours of sunlight, as we’ve observed ourselves, usually in mid-afternoon darkness. (Liverpool is roughly the same latitude as Edmonton.) But you don’t notice these drawbacks when you’re inside a good pub. Christmas as we know it is a largely German invention, but the Brits embraced it with enthusiasm. Obviously there are corners of Britain where the religious meaning of Christmas is duly celebrated, but for the most part it’s a massive national piss-up.
Take Christmas Eve. Here in my part of Canada almost all the pubs shut early. When I slogged in the Canadian book trade, I noticed that local pubs closed about five minutes before whichever bookstore employed me, leaving me and other booksellers weeping into what would have been our beer if we’d been able to get any. All the more reason to be in Britain, where many pubs get an extension so they can actually stay open longer than they usually would. And on Christmas Day itself, many pubs – usually in residential areas – open at noon for two or three hours to give the locals a bit of breathing space from their loved ones.
When we’re in the UK for Christmas, these rituals become our rituals. Wherever we are, we look for a pub for Christmas Day. We’re obviously not locals, but we invariably get a warm welcome. There’s often a free pint, sometimes a mince pie, always a cheery greeting. We try to find a pub we can walk to; going for a Christmas walk is another British tradition. It can be difficult to find a Christmas Day pub in a big city centre. Ten years ago we were in Liverpool, an excellent town for pubbery, but all the pubs we knew were taking the big day off. What to do? Enter Twitter. We had already inadvertently found a social media pal who just happened to be a local brewer – what are the odds? – and we leaned on him for advice. He promptly sent out a tweet to his followers, and back came a recommendation of the Belvedere Arms.
The Belvedere Arms was just the ticket. Tucked away on a quiet residential street not far from the Philharmonic, Liverpool’s most handsome pub, it was indeed open. We sat ourselves in a corner near a fire. The ale was excellent, the only noise was the hubbub of cheerful locals, we had plenty to read, and a dog came round from time to time to see if we needed canine friendship. It was exactly what we wanted and needed, and I posted a tweet to that effect. In no time our new brewer friend tweeted back, noting that if the dog was brown his name was Jack and he was the dog of the principal trumpeter of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. This is how you meet dogs and people in pubs.
We’ve had some memorable British Christmas Eves. We spent one at the Crown and Trumpet in Broadway, a small town at the north end of the Cotswolds. We were staying next door to a pub that catered to tourists, but we drank where the locals drank, just off the main road. We had driven to Worcester for food and drink and a quick pint at the glorious Fleece Inn at Bretforton on the way back. Then we parked the car, unloaded our Christmas supplies, both edible and potable, and made for the Crown and Trumpet.
The pub was quiet but for two men who had clearly begun their drinking day earlier than we had. The drunker of the two was in a magnificent mood, a mood darkened occasionally whenever his mate reminded him that he was miles from home with no obvious way of getting there and that his wife would be greatly displeased with him. The wife in question, we were assured, was a bit of a tyrant, a fact confirmed more than once by the husband in question. As the pub filled up with the regulars, who included a postman who loved his job to the point that his home was a kind of postal museum, we heard the story numerous times. Had I been a soberer man I’d have offered to drive him home, but it was too late for that. The only taxi driver within miles was fully booked. When we left, our friend was still there. That’s the thing with holidays. You meet people, hear part of their stories, but you seldom learn how they turned out.
We passed another Christmas Eve in a pub called the Berkeley Hunt, not far from my Dursley relatives in Gloucestershire. It was a plain, very old pub on the bank of a canal and was run by a venerable woman named Ma Musselwhite. Instead of a bar, it had a serving hatch, behind which you might often find Ma herself. A member of her family told me that they kept the pub going for Ma, that when she was gone, the pub would be too. I’m sorry to tell you that the pub is now long since gone, but it was going strong that Christmas Eve in the 1980s. My cousin Janet was a district nurse, so was not only known to all but welcomed wherever she went. We wound up sitting in a large circle, singing extremely silly songs and laughing a lot. A little before midnight Ma herself came around taking orders for a drink on the house. Mindful of my drive home through the Gloucestershire lanes, I asked for a half-pint. Ma looked askance, but that’s what she brought me.
The good thing about going different places at Christmas is that you can actually remember different years. We had the Saffron Walden Christmas, the Cornwall Christmas in Falmouth, two different Edinburgh Christmases (one of which involved another bibulous Christmas Eve with a pair of gregarious friends that wound up in the Oxford Bar; it’s famous for being Ian Rankin’s pub, but if you mention his name you’ll be treated as a tourist, so we played dumb and had a grand time; there was a postman there too), the Sheffield Christmas, the Leeds Christmas, the Manchester Christmas, the Southwold Christmas, the Lewes Christmas. What we’ve generally avoided is a London Christmas, because the capital shuts down. If you’re in London on Christmas Day you’d better be with family or friends, because there’s sod all else to do. There may be pubs open in residential areas, but you’d better be able to walk there because there’s no transit.
New York City, on the other hand, is more welcoming, being culturally a more Jewish town. Some bars are open, some restaurants too. In normal times, whatever they were, Broadway theatres put on extra performances over Christmas, including Christmas Day. A few years ago we saw Dame Edna at the Booth Theater on Christmas afternoon, then went to a French restaurant for dinner. You couldn’t do that in London.
Speaking of dinner, many people like to eat at Christmas. It’s a fairly famous day on the eating timetable. In Britain you won’t find a lot open on Christmas Day. The pubs that open will almost certainly not be serving food, beyond if you’re lucky a complimentary mince pie. You might find a hotel restaurant that’s operating, otherwise your choices will be mostly Chinese or Indian cuisines.
Which is why we stay in self-catering accommodation – a cottage, a flat, something with a kitchen. The sort of place we used to call renting a cottage before Air BnB turned up. I’d advise arriving at least two days before Christmas Day to give yourself time for shopping, sussing out how well equipped your kitchen is (charity shops are excellent sources of kitchenware that might be missing), and sorting out the local pubs, looking for one that will be open on the 25th. If you’ve landed in a town or village with no good pubs, it’s your fault for not doing your research. The Internet is not just for cute cat videos.
On the big day itself, we have breakfast then walk to the pub of choice for a pint or two. After that, if even more bliss is required, my Evergreen Bride, a not-entirely-lapsed librarian, will have pored over the television listings and marked the shows we might want to watch, such as the Coronation Street Christmas Special and the Call the Midwife ditto. Dinner preparation and consumption will be organized around such events, and there will be lots of warming beverages to accompany it all. As Kurt Vonnegut’s Uncle Alex used to say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”
But of course, who travels now? I stepped out of my last plane on March 7, 2020. Also who really wants to travel to the pox-riddled UK just now? No, it’s Christmas at home again this year, wishing there were more local pubs that might open their doors, albeit briefly, for a festive drink on Christmas Day. I don’t even need the free pint (though I never say no) or the mince pie. This plague thing is bound to subside eventually. Even the Hundred Years’ War didn’t last much more than a century, after all.
In the meantime, Merry Christmas, if that’s your thing. If not, the Super Bowl is only a couple of months away.