Sometime in early 1966 we would learn that we were recipients of a Fulbright to the West of England; Bristol, to be precise. We would meet the other eighty-plus American recipients in New York City in late August for a week of indoctrination to all things British; setting sail in early September on Holland America's Statendam. The journey took about seven days, docking at Southampton in the early morning hours. We checked into a convent for a few hours sleep before taking a train to Bristol the next day.
Immersing ourselves into English culture was more of a challenge than we'd expected. All of our personal belongings, in two trunks painted fire-engine red to facilitate our finding them on the dock, were lost by British Rail for ten days. And a simple shopping trip entailed entering five or six shops to complete the list. The plague of the Yankee supermarket had yet to be inflicteded upon the English. And the common language we spoke? Not so common at times. Also, without an automobile we needed to master the mass transit system, paying thruppence or occasionally sixpence for a ride.
Come November we were a bit nostalgic about the upcoming holiday season, so far from family, but we had been taken under wing by Maurice and Vera Chapman, who were active in Bristol Grammar School's Parents' Association. Also, in the spirit of the Season, the English Speaking Union had hied the Yanks up to Dartmouth House, London, to be fed turkey on the traditional American Thanksgiving weekend. 'Twas a mighty feast appreciated by all. In spite of the ESU's best efforts, the turkey was like shoe leather and cranberry sauce nowhere to be found. No memory of marshmallows on top of sweet potato either....
But with the Chapmans' invitation for the 25th in hand, we would soon experience Christmas in a culture far from home. I think the plan for the day might have largely been in Vera's hands. In order to keep us from moping about in our two-room rental of Mrs. Jones' semi-detached house at 57 Birchall Road, Maurice, and son Stephen, were dispatched to take us out sight-seeing while Vera worked feverishly to get all things ready for the Christmas feast. Several of their extended family members had also been invited.
The four of us, with young Stephen commenting upon landmarks great and small along the way, motored over the "new" Severn Bridge (1966), which shortened the travel time from England to Wales considerably.
By the time the road trip was finished and we returned to Bristol, Vera had the heavy lifting finished, the meal prep under control, and guests had begun to arrive. Following the feast, topped off with a traditional English pudding, we engaged in playing games. One I remember well was a series of small packets that Vera hung on a string. Guests were invited to sniff the packet and guess its contents, no touching allowed. Much harder than one might imagine...do you trust your nose? It was also the occasion of a sherry or two, probably Bristol Cream, or the slightly lighter Bristol Milk, homegrown as they were, with a mix of "delicate, dry Finos, nutty old Amontillados, fragrant Olorosos and rare, sweet Pedro Ximenez," sayeth the folks at Harvey's Cellars.
On this particular feast at Maurice and Vera's, or another as the case may have been, I committed what I considered to be my faux pas par excellence of the Fulbright year, although there were several vying for first place. Positioned on the table in front of me, quite proximate to my dinner plate, was a bowl of stuffing. Quite simply, I et it. Turns out that it was the table serving-bowl. That was good for more than a few laughs as we reminisced with M and V at reunions over the years.
"But wait..." as the lame TV ad barker cries...the Christmas celebration was yet to conclude. Even as we were saying "good-byes" following dinner and games, plans were being discussed as to who was going where for Boxing Day, an ages-old English tradition where the gentry presented gifts, or "boxes," to the underclass, my very own ancestors. Stopping in at a neighbor's for tea or a spot of sherry on the 26th seemed a very civilized way of winding down the Christmas celebration... it proved to be exactly thus.
This year, as we anticipate the coming Holidays of 2019, and with Maurice and Vera on the other side of the veil but still in our hearts, we shall toast them this Christmas Day, with a nod to our Very English Christmas.
And to our friends and family, may we wish for you the best of Christmases; may it find you celebrating with those you love. God bless....
~Mother Superior and the Christmas Goat
Tells the Lads About the Digs
(Enough, already! cried the masses....)
(Blowing on reeds develops wind capacity.)