The best and worst of Christmas: Obsessed by the rituals of an exotic tribe

Reggie Nadelson
Monday 21 December 1992 00:02 GMT
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'IS THERE anything you don't, uh, eat?' Mrs J asked with kindly concern.

'Uh, hard-boiled eggs,' I said, and her brows knitted. She was perplexed. I felt as if I had not studied up on the right ritual. Standing in the kitchen of her bungalow on Christmas Eve, I had no idea at all what she was talking about.

We were at the corner of incomprehension and kindliness here in this Berkshire village 25 years ago. It was my first English Christmas. I was a student in London. My best friend from New York, also a student, had deserted me to visit to her current paramour, a Swede named Per or Lars, and I was rescued by an English friend named Robert who had Paul McCartney hair.

On Christmas Eve we left London and drove to Berkshire to his family's bungalow. What ensued plays back with the quality of an old ethnographic film, this first contact with a tribe I subsequently came to live among. There were, for instance, the food rituals - the making of a ceremonial food called brandy butter, given all the attention the Sherpa devote to turning rice into ritual mounds that resemble steeples.

So there was Mrs J in the kitchen. I realised she was gazing worriedly at the supper; it was a large ham. Then I got it: she had obviously elicited from her son that I was Jewish and, like a hospitable chieftain, she was worried about what my tribe did or did not eat.

I ate the ham. I ate the mince pies. I went to the carol service with Mrs J in the church in the village and I loved it; here was every fantasy of the English Christmas as sketched out in picture books.

At home, after the parents had gone to bed, we sat up late with Robert's aunt who lived in the village. As she set off to walk home - this was a woman who considered a 10-mile walk a warm-up - she delivered the news that she had kindly deposited a hot-water bottle in my bed.

Upstairs I discovered a slightly blubbery sack that flopped and plopped around my feet. It had gone tepid. The room was very cold. At home I had known only a centrally heated Christmas; the only year my family ventured out of New York had been to Miami Beach. Central heating you do not need in the land of the white plastic Christmas tree. Because Miami Beach had such a heavily Jewish population, as a nod to the Jewish Festival of Lights, which falls around Christmas, there was also the white plastic Hanukkah bush.

So on that first night in the English countryside, wearing a hat to bed, I arranged myself in the rigid position of one of those ice men dug up after thousands of years.

In the morning, the paraffin heater ate my bathrobe. Getting dressed, I stood close to the odd-looking heat machine. Too close. Unable to move quickly, as in dreams where there is no gravity, I watched as flames leapt out and my bathrobe disintegrated from the bottom up.

On Christmas morning there was an expedition to Whitehorse Hill where, near the village of Uffington, a queer chalk carving of a horse had been inscribed by the prehistoric antecedents of this odd tribe - further proving that they were exotic. And then there was Christmas lunch. Never had I counted so many items on one plate - the turkey, the stuffing, the bread sauce, the gravy, the sprouts. But this was not entirely unfamiliar; turkey I had eaten at Thanksgiving. Then, however, came the Christmas pudding; on first taste I became addicted to it, like a junkie to crack.

Just as I was getting the hang of it, pudding unfinished, the entire family rose, rushed into the living room and crouched around the television. On it appeared the Queen. She read out a message. Weirdest of all was that, suddenly, everyone in the room stood to attention. To the uninitiated it might have looked as if this were a tribe that showed respect by standing up in the middle of meals to salute its lady ruler who lived inside a box.

What I did not know then was that, as if I were an anthropologist, this was a tribe that would eventually obsess me - that, in spite of myself, I would fall in love with it, and that a quarter century later it would still seem as deliciously odd as on that first Christmas Eve.

(Photograph omitted)

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