Christmas in the UK

This was my very first Christmas staying in the UK, eclipsing my fifth anniversary of living in Oxford. I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t sure how I would cope with being so far from my family and friends (and missing a trip home to really catch up with everyone. I always love my visits home for Christmas), so I didn’t set high expectations. I also had such a great year of exploring and travelling, I used all my vacation days, so I even worked between Christmas and New Years (kind of typical in the US to do so anyway… but a dead zone in the UK). Low expectations: set.

Despite the lowered expectations, it was a great break. I had more time for reflection and resting, where my holidays are generally planned wall-to-wall with commitments coordinated under some stress and very little room for just … stopping. I did miss seeing family and friends, so will definitely plan on coming home for Christmas next year, but it was wonderful getting to spend more time with Jack’s family this year.

The holiday season generally starts with Thanksgiving, of course! This year I kept things a little smaller and closer, so rather than the picnic-style crowd finding nooks, stairs, arm rests and floor space to squeeze into, I managed to set up a table! As always, the organization starts out with figuring out who will bring what, putting in a few orders (turkey!), and closer to the time: preparation, set-up, and hosting. (I love this weekend.)

Creeping on my Thanksgiving guests!

My fifth Thanksgiving in the UK! Hard to believe. A few others I managed to document in some way are here (2013 and 2011).

Visiting the wintry hydrangeas at Madgalen College.

The Magdalen College deer park!

A rare, stunning winter sunset (in the OUP quad).

For Christmas, Jack and I worked right up to Christmas Eve, then picked up our rental car to tuck away presents, luggage, our Christmas kitten and hiking gear for a week in the Midlands. It’s unbelievable how much faster we can go door-to-door from Oxford to Derby in comparison to the strung-together forms of public transportation we generally use. Such a fan of having a car.

Christmas dinner! My brother wrote to ask me, “What’s with the hats?” Good question. The paper crowns – ubiquitous at every holiday meal – come in Christmas crackers (not the crumbly, cheese-topped kind) which are little cardboard tubes cinched at either end with a tiny strip of gunpowder in the binding. When you’ve had your first course, everyone crosses arms and holds the ends of two crackers, then simultaneously pull and the heat makes the tiny amount of gunpowder pop. Like a wishbone, the contents will fall to one person or another and then inside you’ll find jokes, a cheap toy and a paper crown. I once tried bringing a box home for my own family Christmas dinner in the US, but they were seized by customs.

I made our tiny wildthing a crown from the end of one of the crackers. I die everytime I see this picture. I love her face of simultaneous obedience and terror.

I tried to think of other differences between Christmas in the UK (besides the Christmas meals – by the way, it’s pretty common to have a Christmas lunch with 3+ courses out with your work colleagues in the lead-up to the holidays), and a few tidbits for you.

On Christmas Day, the Queen gives a speech (see also: the King’s Speech). Kind of a like a SOTU thing. I guess people watch it? Here’s this year’s.

Boxing Day doesn’t really signify any special activities (correct me if I’m wrong!). It’s like another Black Friday. A lot of people go out for long walks with their families on Boxing Day, like we did a few days later…

A few days later, we decided pretty last minute to go for a big circular walk around Staffordshire (approximately 9 miles). So, so ill-prepared, but it was a memorable day! We used handwritten instructions from this article, “Ashbourne to Dovedale circular walk: a Boxing Day Idea?” The walk starts off through this long, chilly tunnel which was once a railway station.

Then opens into pretty countryside.

And loops around through tiny villages and hamlets on the way.

It just varies so much!

Nearing the halfway point (we guessed) past Dovedail, we saw this little peak and decided to have a little wander. Visibility was already quite poor, but we thought – hey – we’re making good time, though!

Climbing up the visibility continued to worsen, still in a kind of enchanting way.

So many good pups out on this walk. This one was essentially running circles around us on our descent; we had a far more delicate time going down the slick grass and soft earth.

Nearing the Dovedale stepping stones

Continuing to darken, in Ilam.

Blurry, dusk-lit pictures of pheasants.

So, it ended up falling dark a good few hours before the end of our hike. It was so muddy we were slipping all over the place and sinking with every footfall up to our ankles, which put us way behind schedule. Up to nightfall, it was a pretty day with a little hill climbing and river walking, but when it became dark, we fully realized how underprepared we were with only one phone with battery and no flashlight. Slightly panic-inducing.

For me, that was one of the most incredible parts of the walk. The moment I was really losing touch with my own self-assurance, but then also feeling truly in the wild. Finding myself mucking through the dark, scrambling to keep myself up while startling pheasants from their perch in the dark of the riverside in a heavy flap. Eerie and wonderful.

And the absolute highlight: a starling murmuration!

I’ve never seen one in life (just on YouTube). The starlings fly together in huge, strange, synchronized formations and look almost like a big, amorphous, shape-shifting smoke cloud. If you’ve never seen one before, here’s a treat for you. (Just click the image and a video will open). This is just one of many, many. Probably nowhere near the best.

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