Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Christmas Week—Part II

Caput apri deferro 
Reddens laudes Domino!

With the solstice having come and gone I have been feeling an urge to celebrate. It doesn`t hurt that this week has been full of parties. The gloom and dark days (sunset at 15:48, seriously) are going and every day there is a tad more light. It`s lovely.

On Christmas Eve we were permitted to leave work at 14:30 and I was safely home by 15:00. My husband had had a busy morning picking up the last few things for Christmas dinner and I came home to be greeted with a giant goose and some treats from the butchers. Apparently there were so many people going to pick up their Christmas birds that the line-up stretched around the block and it took David half-an-hour to get into the store.

Fun with the goose

In the afternoon we had a lovely snack of port, wensleydale cheese with cranberries, and delightfully thin & crispy water crackers. It was our tribute to the Christmas eve appetizers that our families always serve. A few hours later we trekked down to The Boathouse for our Christmas Eve dinner. While waiting for our food we noticed a stack of board games and we made it through checkers and snakes & ladders before we had to leave for Mass.
Preparing the snack (using his new Gandalf's-head wine pourer)
The church seemed a little more full than last year and in the dim light it felt like we were present in the Bethlehem cave where Christ was born. I miss home most of all on Christmas Eve as I have never stopped going to the candlelight service at Arrowsmith for as long as I`ve been alive (with the exception of the past two years) and I miss the joyful celebration of jaunty music and candlelight. I also miss the sleepy quiet of midnight Mass and the aged voices of the KoC singing their carols. However, we only get to live once on this earth and there is something to be said for attending Christmas Mass in a country where Christmas masses have been present for centuries longer than Port Alberni has even existed. I know that in the summer I spoke to many about how incredible I find it to be a Christian in this country where Christianity is so old, and how beautiful it is to be a Catholic in a country that tried, and failed, to stamp the Church out. Being at the Christmas Vigil profoundly touches these feelings. Here I am one with the countless generations of Christians who have celebrated this night.

When mass was over we wandered home through snowy silent streets. Santa came and filled our stockings, and then we settled down to watch The Muppets Christmas Carol and eat roast chestnuts. I also managed to talk to my family for a bit, and I bless whoever invented the video-call because makes the distance so much shorter.

Then, Christmas day! A little voice in my ear at 7am telling me that it was Christmas and there were presents...a voice that went away and let me sleep until 9:30 at which point we got up and opened our stockings. Then a special breakfast, made unique by a shortage of supplies at the grocers (here`s to cooking with quark when you can`t get ricotta), and more present opening. We were thrilled with our gifts and touched by the generosity of our families.

The rest of the day passed slowly –snacking, a winter walk—and then it was time to begin cooking The Dinner. With just the two of us we ended up with enough leftovers for days, but David`s goose was cooked to perfection and the ten million side dishes I made went down a treat. We are both certainly promoting the Christmas Goose. It was so delicious—like a deeper tasting turkey, and it was so tender that the meat was falling off the bones. It is also delicious cold, as we learned today.


Monday, 27 December 2010

Christmas Week-Part I

The undefeated sun
Warm upon the earth
Calling to life to life
Rousing every urge

Merry Christmas from snowy England!

We have been having a wonderful time celebrating David`s birthday and Christmas. We`ve been celebrating so much lately that I`m surprised our hearts & livers haven`t failed with all the good food and drink around here. Then again, it is so cold that additional fat & alcohol are just part of the `keeping warm` process. I can say this: -30 on the prairies is a lot warmer (inside) than -1 in England, mainly due to the lack of central heating. And yes, dad, I am wearing a sweater.

We began our celebrations last Sunday, or David`s Birthday Feast Day. In my family we do birthdays (or any holiday for that matter) in a big way so this was just his home-cooked feast. He opted for ribs, pop-overs, brussels sprouts, and pineapple upside-down cake. I dutifully provided it and we ate it while watching Major Barbara (a movie adaptation of a George Bernard Shaw play).

On Wednesday (David`s birthday) I crammed my work hours into the early part of the day and we went to London in the afternoon. London was crazy due to all the travel chaos. Kings Cross was packed with people and everywhere we went we could hear announcements telling people that they would not be admitted into Heathrow Airport unless their flight was confirmed. We were both grateful that we did not have to feel stress & anxiety about trying to get home for Christmas.


Our first stop in London was Slightly Foxed Bookstore. Slightly Foxed is an independent quarterly review/press which David subscribes to, and the bookstore is a mix of used titles and their own publications. He managed to find a copy of CS Lewis' Literature of the 16th Century, which he`d wanted for awhile, so there was much celebrating. He also wants me to note that he got a copy of Sir Thomas Elyot`s The Governor. After book-buying we wandered, slightly lost, around South Kensington trying to find a certain pub for dinner. We were already running late, due to delays on the train & tube, and when we arrived at the pub it was too crowded to sit and we didn`t have time to wait. So we wandered back the way we`d come, towards Gloucester Station, and tried to find a place for dinner.

Right before we gave up in despair and opted for Burger King we noticed a small place called Byron. It promised amazing burgers and it was nearly empty. We decided to risk it and, I can say with no exaggeration, we had the best burger feast we`ve had since coming to the UK (our own creations excluded). It was almost like having North American food, and I later found out that they even serve A&W Rootbeer (rootbeer is not a beverage one can find outside of London, and even there it is scarce. English root beer is more of a ginger ale, and has an alcohol content). We munched delicious Byron Burgers (crispy bacon, aged cheddar, byron sauce, fixins, and medium rare beef), crunched shoe-string fries & massive onion rings, and slurped back proper milkshakes (not like the runny mess one normally gets). It was bliss...expensive, but delicious, bliss.

With little time to spare we caught the tube to Sloane Square and the main reason for our trip to London—to see Maddy Prior & the Carnival Band perform their Christmas concert at Cadogan Hall. For those of you not familiar with Maddy Prior I`ll include a sample song below. David & I are both huge fans and this was our second time seeing her in concert (last year we saw her perform with Steeleye Span). The concert was amazing. First off, Maddy Prior has the most incredibly voice and hearing her in person always sends shivers down my spine. Second, the band is wonderfully talented and they brought much humour and festive cheer to the concert. It was great. Third, not many people (or as many as we`d like) seem to enjoy folk music, so it is always a treat to be at a concert full of people who are there because they love the music. Also a treat is that I am usually one of the youngest people there! So we settled in and enjoyed ourselves immensely, and after the concert I managed to say a few words to Maddy Prior myself, for once overcoming my shyness in the face of celebrity.


Thursday, 16 December 2010

A Joyous Advent

Wake, o wake! with tidings thrilling
    The watchmen all the air are filling,
        Arise, Jerusalem, arise!
Midnight strikes! no more delaying,
"The hour has come!" we hear them saying.

Life has been full of the joy of advent lately. For all people may grumble about Christmas being celebrated early, really we are all celebrating in anticipation of the day. And, at least in my household, we won't stop celebrating until Ukrainian Christmas has come and gone.

Our tree, complete with homemade tinfoil star.

As much as I would love to be home for Christmas (and I really would), it is lovely to be in another country at Christmastime in order to experience new Christmas traditions. Most of the English people I've met love any excuse to drink & eat and December has ample opportunity for that with Christmas Jollies and dinners. My weeks have been full of mince pie, mulled wine, Christmas pudding, roast chestnuts.... Oh yes, all these things are available in Canada, but they actually taste good in England! Our especial treat of the season is the Clare MCR Christmas Formal. It is so popular that it runs on two days and some of the alumni return for it. It begins with champagne in the MCR room, where everyone squeezes into a too-small-space and endeavours not to spill their champagne. Then we move to the dining hall for dinner. This year—broccoli & stilton soup; sea bass on a bed of brown lentils (with white wine); turkey with prune & apple stuffing, roast potatoes, and brussels sprouts (with red wine); Christmas pudding with brandy cream, minced pies & coffee & port. At the end of the meal there was carol singing. It was delightful.

Cambridge is beautiful at this time of year. The old buildings are strung with lights and the downtown looks like a scene from a Victorian Christmas card. Frost has come thick with the cold snap, highlighting all of nature in white relief, and occasionally one can glimpse a solitary moorhen cautiously treading the ice-covered ditch by its nest. The streets are full of music as charity fundraising carollers sing traditional English carols and Salvation Army bands bring a cheery brass note to the air.

Lights in the sitting room
Lights in the hallway
Cold nights provide a good excuse to stay indoors and keep warm. With fog hanging thick over the fens and darkness descending by 4:30 in the afternoon the time is right for ghost stories. David and I have been reading through a collection of Edwardian ghost stories, and one evening we went to a dramatic reading of two of M.R. James' tales. The setting was perfect—a medieval leper chapel. We sat in the chilly stone church, the bodies of dead spiders on the whitewashed stone walls, the darkness complete, the ghosts of dead lepers enviously pressing in on our healthy bodies, and were whisked away with tales strange & perilous.

Dave, hanger of lights.
This is also the time of year when I find myself increasing the number of dinner parties we throw. Normally we average one a month, but I can already count three (and then add to that the people who will pop by in an evening now and then for tea & cakes). Saturday past we had our non-Christmas-Christmastime-Dinner with two friends who will be with their families for the holidays. In honour of all things comfort I made a hearty, comfort-foody meal. Christmas Day will see a couple of the boys from our church joining us for dinner, and we have procured a fat goose in honour of the festivities. Then, for a couple of friends I couldn't catch before Christmas, we'll be opening our Ukrainian Christmas celebrations to a wider audience than usual (if I can convince David to share his cabbage rolls). On top of that there is David's birthday meal at home (a feast of epic proportions, but just for the two of us) and David's birthday spectacular (an afternoon & evening in London, consisting of bookstores, good food, and a Christmas concert).

Can you spot the bagpiper? Back left!
The house is near bursting with presents and we couldn't even get around to putting our tree up until last night because I've been so busy being out with friends. Our tree looks a little more full than last year (perhaps the plastic branches are growing?) and David strung a string of brightly coloured lights through the hallway and sitting room to increase the festive air. The stores were sold out of chocolate advent calendars (the good brands, anyway) so we have a pop-up nativity scene advent calendar instead. Each night we add a new figure to it. It seems like the makers of it were perhaps lacking in characters to fill 24 days as, along with the expected animals/shepherds/wisemen we have also uncovered a surly looking inn-keeper and a character which appears, from costume and accessories, to be a Northumbian bagpiper! 100% Authentic. Thank you, Heffers.

Perhaps many of the details of this year are similar to last year (we are still in Cambridge, after all), but things feel even better this year. I don't have the same financial strain as last year, for one thing, and although I am sad I won't be home for Christmas it is not the first year away... as well, my mum is booking the tickets for the Wiebe English Tour this week and we will have a lovely Easter together this year. So instead I can focus on how nice it is to have my husband all to myself on Christmas day. As my wise husband always says, why focus on what you're missing and miss all the fun you could be having! 

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

A Jaunt to Ely

It was a pleasant summer's morn
The day all to enjoy
When I awoke and I looked out
My full time to employ

One bright Saturday in September we journeyed to the nearby city of Ely, best known for its Cathedral (and shrine of St Etheldreda). We had tickets for an acoustic concert by the Mediæval Bæbes in the Lady Chapel at the cathedral and thought it a good excuse to spend the day exploring a new town.

Ely Cathedral
I am continuously surprised by how easy it is to get to places in England. Our train fare was only £4 return and the ride took a mere 15 minutes! Ely is nicer than Cambridge for having its train station in a convenient location, so it did not take us long to walk to town and we spent some time browsing in antique shops on the way. Our first planned stop was the local market. Although it was not nearly as large as the Cambridge market we enjoyed browsing the stalls and I picked up a lovely embroidered cloth for our coffee table.

Next stop was a bookstore for David. We love living in a land where bookstores have not been run out by Chapters-Indigo because it means we can actually browse in different stores and not be met with the same books every time. This store, Topping, was particularly incredible—three floors of books with a good selection of everything. They had an astounding number of signed first edition hardcovers, all being sold for cover price. Needless to say my bibliophile husband bought two bags worth of books by some of Britain's most acclaimed authors.

David's plunder
 It was then time for lunch and as the day was fine we were able to have a picnic in the parkland adjacent to the cathedral. We perched under a horse chestnut tree and munched on cold chicken, bread, and tomatoes with Ely Cathedral and a spotty black & white horse allowing us to pretend we were medieval peasants on an illicit holiday picnic on Cathedral grounds.

After lunch we made our way to Oliver Cromwell's house, where we went on a tour of Cromwellian things and listened to a rather biased program which urged us to determine if he was a hero or villain. I am rather pre-disposed for hating Cromwells (both Oliver & Thomas) and although I enjoyed the tour (and came away with puritan recipes) I could not bend on my views and thus cast my vote for "villain" as we left. My husband followed my lead, although he claims this is only because I would have hit him if he'd voted his own way. The tour did serve its purpose, I suppose, in that I no longer hold Cromwell personally responsible for cancelling Christmas, but it could not quite redeem him.

Following Cromwell's house we went to see Ely Cathedral. We had hoped to go up one of the towers but they were closed. The cathedral contains a mix of the ages, from Anglo Saxon to Modern, all styles living in amongst the others. Thus, from examining the carving on a 12th Century door one may move to see an Anglo Saxon stone marker, next to which is a memorial for those who died in WWII. There is beautiful stained glass throughout the cathedral and paintings up as high as the eye can see. Tombs cover the floor and line the aisles. Standing at the high altar, looking back towards the nave, the ceiling erupts with the beauty of painted panels and the muted light of stained glass. In that spot one sees the glory of the cathedral unfolding as it was meant to, a suitable dwelling for the transubstantiated body of Christ and his bishop.

A visit to a religious site always gets me thinking about sacred space, etc, and in a cathedral where tramping tourists disturb the gloomy hush, modern chairs seem out of place, and the vending machines are just plain wrong, it was beautiful to see these little chapels, place for quiet adoration and worship, tucked away and waiting for the pilgrim. Behind the high altar is the chapel of St Etheldreda and it gave me a certain thrill to pray and light a candle at her shrine, when scarcely more than a year before I had first encountered her in a mediaeval vita.

One of my favourite chapels in the cathedral was the lady chapel, a room which bears the scars and disfigurement of the Reformation. In this room full of destroyed imagery a powerful statue of the Virgin rises in a modern sculpture. This is no Mary meek and mild, but a woman full of joy and power. Once you adjust to the change from the restored Cathedral to this ravaged chapel you can begin to understand the power and beauty of the Virgin's cult and the old ways. Even with the attempts made to destroy the chapel it still remains, and this way of knowing God has not been erased. Perhaps foolish, I nonetheless see faith and hope in the remains of this chapel, and take renewed strength from the knowledge that although men strive to destroy they cannot get at the spirit, which remains and returns long after the destroyers have turned to dust.

After a quick tour of the Cathedral Shop (procuring some certified Ely Cathedral jam) we went for a pint and then tried to find a place for dinner. We ended up in the dining room of Lambs Hotel and were treated to one of the best tasting meals we've had in England. My chicken wellington on creamed leeks was particularly superb, and David really enjoyed his introduction to balsamic-glazed garlic bread. It also felt lovely and very touristy to be dining in a hotel dining room (Coast Hospitality Inn aside!).

Full of our excellent meal, we returned to Ely Cathedral and the Lady Chapel for the Mediæval Bæbes concert. Although we enjoy their music we have never heard them in person before and were not disappointed. First off, it is incredible to be able to hear a concert of medieval music in a space that was designed for proper acoustics. Second, the bit of life & drama they brought to the performance was incredibly engaging, so much so that I found myself gaining an appreciation of songs that I did not really like on their albums. After the concert they gave autographs, so I bought a copy of their latest cd and got it signed by the group. Then it was time for a lovely walk through the hushed streets to the train station, and a quick ride back to Cambridge.

To sum—Ely, strongly recommended.