Thursday, 8 December 2011

It's beginning to look a lot like...

Yes, that's right, it's Christmastime here in the UK, even though the weather patterns make it seem more like early spring. In the US, Christmas traditionally begins shortly after Halloween, with a brief break in late November for Thanksgiving. Here in the UK, however, there's roughly a month-long celebration of Guy Fawkes Day (the 5th of November) that ushers in the start of the winter holiday season. Around mid-October, you know that Guy Fawkes day is imminent because the grocery stores begin selling fireworks and other incendiary implements in preparation for bonfires and effigy burnings and other activities that threaten the integrity of both your home and those of your neighbors. Fireworks are let off with increasing frequency as the month of October draws to a close, and the week that centers on Guy Fawkes Day sees a frenzy of nighttime explosions with, of course, a spectacular display (or multiples thereof) on the 5th itself. This is followed by a roughly two-week period during which you are less and less likely to be given a heart attack as an unexpected firecracker explodes next door at 2 AM. 

The final two weeks of November are a long and painful slog. Every morning, you hear the radio announcers talk about how they can't wait until they're allowed to play Christmas music. Every evening as you walk home, you see council employees hanging unlit Christmas decorations in preparation for the day when they can all be turned on. Slowly, television advertisements begin to feature scenes with snow and songs with jingling bells; shop windows are trimmed with giant paper snowflakes and baubled trees and fake garland. And then one day, when you leave work to walk home in the dark shortly after the 4:30 PM sunset, this is what you see:

The spectacular light display of Penryn. You'll notice the traditional Christmas goat on the left (clearly not a reindeer, otherwise it would have actual antlers), and his calligraphic scribble of a companion on the right. This can only mean one thing: It is the first of December, and the Christmas season has officially begun in Britain.

One thing I love about Britain is the quirky nature of the infrastructure. I have no idea why there should be a little alcove along the main road through Penryn, but someone thought it would be a good place to put a miniature Christmas tree with a single strand of "fairy lights," as they are called here--and, voila, a little dose of Christmas cheer.

You know that you are in a coastal town when Christmas decorations involve anchors and ships' steering wheels--and when said decorations are hung by no less than the local church (which, admittedly, did also feature an angel elsewhere in its display).

This was the scene that greeted me in Falmouth on the evening of the 1st. For weeks I'd been watching the council workers laboriously make their way up Falmouth's main drag, attaching seemingly miles of colored lights to the buildings. They had an interesting mixture of styles. The photo above features the single-line, zigzag, colored-light arrangement, which was interspersed with a fan-shaped, multi-stringed, LED arrangement in a seemingly random fashion. The complete lack of symmetry makes me wonder if they either ran out of materials at some point, or were better able to attach certain styles in certain places. Regardless, the entire street is completely lit up all night, and the effect is rather magical. The weirdest decoration is hung over the center of the Moor, where a giant star is surrounded by individual strands of light arranged in a circular radiating pattern--rather like the spokes of a wheel around the central hub. In the dark, you can't see the wiring by which the lights are attached to nearby structures, and so the entire display appears to be suspended, unassisted, in midair, rather like a net about to fall on unassuming passers-by. Or, if you are feeling more charitable, kind of like a heavenly microcosm in which each light represents a star.
What I only realized at the last minute--because I happened to overhear my students discussing it--was that there was an actual lighting ceremony planned in town on the first day of December. I have no idea how long-standing of a tradition this is, but I certainly don't remember such a thing from last year. The event was over and done with before I made my way into town from work, but I could get a general sense of the festivities by drinking in the aftermath. There had obviously been some sort of procession that culminated in the lighting of the Christmas tree--or, perhaps, trees, because there is one on the Moor as well as one in Events Square outside our apartment. Almost all of the shops were open well past their normal closing hours of 5-6 PMish so that people could begin their Christmas shopping and take advantage of the holiday sales (I keep hoping that the Brits will one day learn how lovely it is to be able to buy things until 9 PM, and adopt it as a normal practice, but I'm not holding my breath on that). What's more, there were vendors pushing around carts from which they were selling Santa hats, cotton candy, and glow sticks. Given that glow sticks are normally reserved for raves, and cotton candy is--in my mind at least--found mostly at circuses and fairs, you can imagine that the overall effect was quite...festive, especially when nurtured by a few cups of the mulled wine that everyone was carrying around.

This was the scene that awaited me when I got home--here you can see the fan-shaped displays that made occasional appearances along the main street. I had known for weeks that these were coming, since I'd watched them being hung beneath our balcony one night. The decorators wised up this year and moved the Christmas tree from its usual location in the center of the square to a nice sheltered area along the wall of the Maritime Museum, to the left. There, it may just manage to withstand the seemingly incessant gale-force winds and rain that have plagued the coast since the beginning of December. I keep telling everyone that if I were back home, all this precipitation would be snow, which of course would be much better than rain. While the latter is certainly true, the former is a slight stretching of the truth--but not by much. All I can say is, we've gotten so much rain by this point that I would actually be grateful for a cold snap that would turn this perpetual storm into a blizzard. It is not easy to feel Christmas cheer with all this dark and dampness stealing its way into your soul.

But you know what? I do feel Christmas cheer, and here is one big reason why:

 That's right, Michael Buble. Don't judge--we all have our weaknesses. I have listened to this album on almost a daily basis over the last two weeks. I put it on during my long, wet, and increasingly cold walks home from work to home each evening, and I picture gingerbread men and decorated Christmas trees and wrapped presents, and I am happy. I may not yet have had time to make any of those things a part of my 2012 holiday, but next Tuesday I board an overnight train to Heathrow so that I can fly back to the States for Christmas. Within days of getting there, you can bet that I will be sitting in front of a lit tree, watching the weather reports for signs of snow, shopping for Christmas presents, and, if all goes according to plan, sipping on some wassail. I'll drive seemingly a thousand miles to see every family member possible and I'll probably take about 300 pictures that look just like the ones I took last year, and I'll celebrate the fact that even if I live in a new and different country on an entirely different continent, there are some traditions that will be upheld every year without fail no matter what other things change. And that is why it's the most wonderful time of the year.

That and all the great presents.

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