For a start, it was White. The snow fell lightly and prettily on the way to our Christmas Eve expedition to see White Christmas, and we thought that this was one thing Chicago definitely does better than Britain.
Then, it was our Christmas. By which I mean mine and M’s, rather than our family’s. Being something of a control freak I had been wanting to be in charge of my own Christmas for quite some time. But at the same time it did seem rather sad to be so far away from our families.
Anyway. Here is what we discovered about having an expat Christmas in America.
1) Skype becomes very important. When we heard about the Skype problems before Christmas and it looked like we might not be able to make the calls to say Happy Christmas to 11 members of our respective families and do a laptop tour of the Christmas tree and the presents they had sent, we panicked.
2) You cannot buy mince pies, crackers or decent boxes of chocolates at all easily. World Market had dodgy Walkers brand mince pies and a lone box of crackers accompanied by a large explanatory sign, and I turned my nose up at both. But after looking in vain for something along the lines of a box of Thornton’s Continental I was happily consoled by some excellent organic plain chocolate truffles courtesy of J, who spent Christmas Day with us.
3) Once given the power to have things my own way, a frenzy of over-organisation and a desire to handmake everything overtook me. Come to think of it, it was a little bit like our wedding. Except I did less delegating.
4) Nigella Lawson is all very well, but don’t go to her if you want a clear explanation of what you actually need to do to cook Christmas dinner and why. She is really more interested in blathering on about her own psyche and her absurdly overprivileged family. Trying to work out from her sodding book whether to put foil over her eccentrically prepared turkey was like doing textual criticism on a badly corrupted Anglo Saxon poem. It was all conjecture and reasoning from first principles. And just to rub it in, when we got it wrong the smoke alarm went off every five minutes for the next three hours. But Evanston Public Library does not stock Delia Smith’s Christmas.
5) There are a lot of Christmas songs that never made it across the Atlantic, weighed down as they were by the weight of their own poor melodies and witless lyrics. M, J and I made this discovery to our bewilderment at the Music Box ‘carol singing’ that preceded White Christmas. I mean: what is this?
It may be that they have the virtue of secularity. But, come on, America, Christmas is not actually a secular celebration. If it’s bothering you that much, I recommend singing ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’: you’ll be so lost in melancholy you’ll forget to notice the offensive bits.
6) Americans do not have the concept of Boxing Day, nor do they have post-Christmas sales. This means the theatres are generally closed on the 26th, and to make up for the lack of public holiday after Christmas they have, instead, an annoying habit of closing all the shops (and libraries) on New Year’s Eve. When it’s not even a public holiday! Anyway. After a lot of searching, I found some improv to take our other visitors, C and J, to at iO, and all was well.
7) Transatlantic post takes a very very long time at this time of year. So long that you have to have bought and wrapped all your Christmas presents by the 10th of December. When you don’t realise this until 7th December, it comes as a shock.
8 ) Egg nog is delicious. Americans think it is British; Brits think it is American. This, clearly, should be bringing the World Together in Perfect Harmony. (Followed by a combined hangover and sugar crash.)
9) Views on how many tree ornaments are enough are widely divergent, and I find myself at the heavy end of the spectrum. But everyone loves a twinkly string of lights.
10) NPR broadcasts Carols from King’s live, and hence, for us, at an hour of the day when you can legitimately stay in bed and properly concentrate on laughing at the poor delivery of the nine lessons.
11) Even if you do burn the skin of the turkey, your adorable husband and lovely friend will pretend they think it’s better that way, and Nigella style turkey was otherwise exceptionally nice. As was Expat Christmas in general.