Sunday, December 29, 2013

A dram for Santa

We had a lovely Christmas. I hope you did, too.

Christmas season starts earlier here than in the States. You know how people complain when they start seeing Christmas decorations or hearing Christmas songs before Thanksgiving? In the U.K. there's no Thanksgiving. Christmas decorations started to appear in stores before Halloween. (And Halloween isn't a big deal in Scotland, either.) Television advertising for Christmas starts sometime in mid-November.

And long before that, there are signs and print advertisements. Indeed, the first Christmas advertising we encountered was in July. A large banner was hung along a street corner on the Great Western Road (one of Glasgow's main thoroughfares), encouraging folks to make their Christmas dinner reservations as soon as possible. Although that banner was an early outlier, we started to see more and more signs and banners in early fall, exhorting us to make dinner reservations for Christmas and/or Hogmanay (i.e., the Scottish term for New Year's Eve). It seems that going out for a fancyish family meal on those holidays is a popular activity, though my own anecdotal measurements reveal the majority of people still celebrate at home.

We started to get into the Christmas spirit in the middle of December, which is earlier than normal for us. I think that's partly because the Christmas season had started earlier than we're accustomed to, and partly because this was the first Christmas that Jackson somewhat understood and was excited about. One Friday night we headed downtown to see some Christmas lights and a holiday fair.

No need for Rudolph's nose to glow when the entire reindeer herd are piercing apparitions.
Kate and Jackson are in the red and blue "balloon." This was Jackson's first ever fair ride.
Ice skating around the Sir Walter Scott pillar and statue. Glasgow's City Chambers are in the background.
We also took Jackson to sit on Santa's lap. In the U.K., it's typically called visiting "Santa's grotto." Is Santa in a cave? No. At least, not any more. Apparently, some department stores in Britain used to make fairly elaborate caverns for kids to visit. Nowadays, it generally looks more like a house or workshop.

Not particularly grotto-like.
Jackson has a decent grasp on Santa. He understands that Santa wears red and white, has a white beard, brings presents, rides in a sleigh pulled by reindeer (especially Rudolph), and lives at the North Pole. But he doesn't completely grasp that Santa visits only once a year, and keeps asking where Santa is right now. He woke up from one nap, spread his hands in confusion and said piteously, "I can't find Santa anywhere!" As though he had somehow misplaced Santa in his crib.

During his visit to Santa's grotto, Jack got to watch a short movie about Santa, eat some candy (called "sweeties" here), sit on Santa's lap, and receive a small present on the way out. He was excited to see Santa and watch the other kids sit on his lap. When it was his turn, Jack took a minute to warm up, but eventually mustered the courage to ask for "choo choo tracks."

Jackson was not instantly at ease . . .
. . . but conquered his misgivings.
As we neared Christmas, the days were getting shorter and shorter. I've written previously about how our daylight has been fading. On December 21, sunset was at 3:45. Even during the day the sun never gets high overhead, so it always gives the impression of being early in the morning or late in the afternoon.

Facing west over our backyard on December 21 at 3:45 pm. It was completely dark within half an hour.
Sun at midday in early December.
We received several Christmas cards from our Scottish neighbors. All of the signatures came with an "x". We assume that means a "kiss," as in XOXO. But we haven't asked. None of the cards came with hugs, apparently.

The "x" is a "kiss," right?
For our Christmas meal, we decided on turkey. There were, however, some other options available in the grocery store, including goose and duck. So we picked up a duck to eat earlier in the week.

Delicious duck.
One of our friends from Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, explained that Christmas could be a little more austere in the highlands and islands than in the lowlands. Presents weren't numerous, and often they were handmade. On Christmas Eve, they traditionally would leave some carrots for the reindeer, and biscuits (i.e., cookies) and a dram of whisky for Santa. We decided to adopt the dram of whisky tradition.

Making cookies for Santa. Note the "Bicarbonate of Soda," which is what baking soda is called here.
A gift tube of whisky.
Daddy tested a couple of drams to make sure it was acceptable to offer to Santa.
We had wrapped most of our presents a little bit early this year and kept them in one of our guest bedrooms. If we had put the presents under our little tree, they would have been too tempting for wee hands to avoid. To ward off Jackson from finding the presents, we told him Mattie got the room really dirty and muddy, and thus the door had to be closed and he couldn't go in. Our story worked. After he went to bed on Christmas Eve, we loaded up the tree, took a picture, and went to bed.

Presents hiding.
We got the narrowest tree we could find, to avoid taking up precious floor space.
We don't have a chimney or mantelpiece, so we borrowed a clothes rack from Jackson's room to hang stockings. And yes, Kate insisted that the cat and dog each got a stocking, too.
Jackson was delighted with his Christmas haul of loot. We had skipped his June birthday this year because we flew to Scotland two days later and didn't want to add stuff to bring with us. (Friends and family still got him birthday presents, so he was still in good shape.) Our plan had been to celebrate his birthday late, but in the midst of getting our lives set up here and having months of visitors, we never got around to it. Moreover, since we had packed almost all of his toys in May to cross the Atlantic in a shipping container, their arrival at the end of June was an exciting explosion of old toys that were suddenly new and exciting again. I doled out his old toys over the next several months, which kept him happy and amused. Actually, I still have a box of old toys that haven't been used since May.

We've had some new presents for Jackson stashed in our closets since this summer, which were intended to be birthday presents but ended up as Christmas presents. So Jackson made out obscenely quite well this Christmas. In general, we gravitate toward simpler and classic toys -- wooden trains, Mr. Potato Head, books, Play-Doh, etc. -- though he got a LeapPad, as well.

We followed advice to get IKEA tracks (plain, good quality, much cheaper than other tracks) and dress it up with Thomas the Tank Engine trains and fancier bits and pieces from other wooden train sets. I think it was good advice.
Mr. Potato Head was a hit.
The kid got nearly 40 books from various friends and family.
Mattie got a sock monkey and an antler, among other goodies.
We spent all of Christmas day opening presents, because after every toy was opened Jack had to spend time playing with it. He actually savored the experience, rather than ripping through everything all at once. We were still opening presents when a few lonely vet students dropped by for drinks in the evening; one student stayed for dinner and played with Jack.

Christmas day also had a slew of "Christmas editions" of popular television shows. Sitcoms, game shows, Doctor Who, Downton Abbey, all had special holiday episodes. We were interested only in the Downton Abbey episode, but there were all sorts of choices available.

In the U.S., the public holidays are usually December 24 and 25, but in the U.K. the public holidays (called "bank holidays") are December 25 and 26. The 26th is Boxing Day. Although the exact origins are unclear, the day in Britain historically was when workers or servants received boxes of gifts or money from their employers as a thank you for the year of hard work. Since oftentimes the servants had to work on Christmas for their masters, they were allowed off the following day to visit with family and could take home their boxes, sometimes with leftover food.

Nowadays, Boxing Day in the U.K. is a major shopping day, somewhat akin to Black Friday in the States. Retailers offer sales, people line up early, and folks go out and spend, spend, spend. According to some estimates, one in five Scots went shopping on Boxing Day this year.

We didn't go shopping. Instead, we've had mostly relaxing days of playing with toys, walking the dog, and reading. We spent one morning in Edinburgh being tourists at the National Museum of Scotland -- a fantastic museum that deserves its own post, at some point -- and on another morning we took a gentle hike in Mugdock Park.

Looking across a tiny loch at the ruins of Mugdock Castle.
Kate had off six days for Christmas, with a bit of working at home. She'll be in to work for Monday and Tuesday this coming week, and then off for five more days, again with a little working at home. We're pondering heading up into the highlands next week for an overnight trip to see some dolphins, but the details aren't quite worked out yet and we might wait until the spring.

So, it has been a quiet Christmas for us. We mailed some late presents. {Ed.'s note: "late" is how they roll.} It's the first time in many years that we haven't spent Christmas with either my family or Kate's family. They all got extensive Skype and Facetime visits, though, and we haven't felt lonely. I'm hoping next Christmas we'll either travel back to the States or have visitors here. But this year was a fun change of pace and an easy introduction to Christmas in Scotland.

"Daddy, that's not for eating." Darn, just before I took a bite.


  1. As much as I love spending time with family over Christmas, reading your post made me think a nice quiet Christmas with just the immediate family and a little exploring would also be perfect (less running, less massive amounts of junk food...) :o) Glad you guys had a great Christmas.

    1. I hope you had fun with your old and new family members, Kim! Best wishes for a happy 2014!