American times: New York - Some cultural chestnuts roasting on an open fire...

American Times NEW YORK
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The Independent Online
TO PARAPHRASE a certain wartime prime minister, you might say that Britain and the United States are two countries divided by a common religious holiday.

That is Christmas, except that you cannot say Christmas here, of course, for fear of offending non-Christians, for whom it is not a holiday but a shopping opportunity. It can be a baffling time for expatriates and, it seems, for some Americans also.

Even the First Lady has not quite got the nuances of the season taped. My neighbour at a dinner the other night recounted how she had recently arranged a breakfast meeting for Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York City among supporters and donors. After it was over, guests were lining up to complain to her about Mrs Clinton's speech. She had mentioned Christmas no fewer than six times, but had never once made reference to the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.

This would have been clumsy from any speaker in New York in December. But from Mrs Clinton - who wants to be its senator - it was plain dumb.

The dinner, by the way, was given by a British couple whose friends are mostly Americans. They win the prize, by contrast, for cross-cultural sensitivity. We were called to together to "celebrate the festive season".

There was Christmas pudding and a vanilla mousse affair for dessert and, for the main course, turkey but also scallops. (The incineration of the pudding in a puddle of brandy evidently astonished a Japanese couple at my table. They had mousse.)

Cleverest of all was the carol-singing after dinner. Ushered into a small salon with a grand piano and professional pianist waiting, we received 19 pages of our favourite Christmas numbers with all their verses. But the favourites in America are often completely unfamiliar to Britons.

It was a little shocking to realise that I was enjoying singing the American numbers almost more than the ones I knew from my English schooldays. I think it must be the Bob Hope in me. Among those you might want to try at home (after a drink or three) are: "It's Beginning to Look Like Christmas", "Winter Wonderland", "Rockin' Round the Christmas Tree" and "Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!" There was only one that we all felt compelled to sing twice - "White Christmas (As in, "I'm dreaming of...")

For the first time, I think I have got the lights more or less right on our house. Draping your every downpipe and garden shrub with thousands of tiny white bulbs is obligatory in the suburbs. I swear they will be able to spot our road from the just-launched shuttle. It does not just glow, it pulsates.

I am pleased with myself, because I have finally twigged to the labour- saving magic of those little timers normally used to switch lamps on and off to trick burglars when you are away. Now the two sets of lights snaking around our home can look after themselves at dusk and midnight. No more traipsing out in the snow in underwear at bedtime to pull out plugs from soggy outdoor sockets, risking electrocution.

I am proud of one friend, who is resolutely keeping her house dark this year. The neighbours, she says, can lump it. But then, she is in a funk generally. Fed up with sulky, adolescent offspring, she is also refusing to dress a Christmas tree that stands ready in her sitting room, expectant but entirely naked.

Getting the right Christmas tree is a separate challenge. I am not sure if it is genetic engineering, but the trees here are simply fuller and shapelier than the sorry twigs I remember in England. Every year, the pressure is on to find the perfect specimen.

We have failed this time; the tree's skirt is a little narrow. We chose it from among hundreds piled outside our local church. In past years, we have driven to a tree farm to tramp around in forests with a saw. This is invariably miserable. Undergrowth obscures the trees and last year my wife took a slice from our son's nose. Next year, we will try a farm that chops the trees for you and hangs them from a wooden frame like so many turkeys. Then you can study their profile without hindrance.

We have tripped up in our search for an organic turkey, also. When we rang the wonderful delicatessen near the Vermont house where we will be spending Christmas, the staff told us that they were not doing turkeys this year. I suggested to them that this was a little eccentric. They replied that the local farm that supplies them simply has none left - all their birds were eaten at Thanksgiving.

Finally, here is this year's 100 per cent politically correct seasonal greeting: "Have a merry millennium".

David Usborne