I’m told that I might offend some of my readers by using Christmas to describe this fabulous festive time. I simply don’t believe it. Here in Britain we couldn’t be more multi-cultural or diverse if we tried, yet with remarkable tolerance and good sense not one of our many diverse communities makes a fuss. Everyone understands that Father Christmas is not about religion, he’s about tradition. In fact, Christmas puddings mince pies (not meat, but sweet fruit in gooey sauce) holly, ivy, robins, mistletoe and all the rest of it is Britain at its most traditional. Isn’t that why millions of visitors pour into these islands every year? Because no one does tradition quite like us?
The picture at the top of this column says it all. Holkham Hall is a stately home, an 18th century mansion in Norfolk, just a couple of hours up the motorway from our house. It’s still lived in and enjoyed by the Coke family, heirs of the Earl of Leicester and each year the whole house celebrates a proper traditional Christmas with every trimming you could imagine. Over 3000 tree decorations, a real fairy, reading stories, in a room full of fairies, crystal chandeliers dripping with glass baubles, a unicorn, a mad tea-party with tea cups suspended from the ceiling, hundreds of gingerbread men, Christmas trees in every room and ‘genuine’ Victorians in full costume, many from the nearby town of Wells-Next-The-Sea, drifting about adding atmosphere.
Just wandering around Holkham Hall, experiencing exactly how much the British cherish Christmas convinced me, with travel in my DNA, that it was time to keep the home fires burning this year. It’s all just too seductive to go anywhere else.
What’s more, other London home exchangers agree with me.
Take Mark and Louise who are practically neighbours, just up the hill and around the corner in Highgate. They’ve got a gorgeous, Victorian house that home exchangers love to discover. But this year, Mark and Louise, along with their three sons, Daniel, Gabriel and Rufus have turned down villas in Spain and beach houses in Florida. Highgate High Street, lined with Georgian houses and Dickensian shop fronts is the place for them. The village is not much more than that. A High street, plus a traditional square and a whole lot of lanes and alleyways winding their way behind. But just scatter a little snow around, add a few coloured lights, place a clutch of carol singers on a corner and it’s everyone’s dream of the perfect Christmas. Mark, who’s a songwriter, has even written a song about it, starring friends and family. He’s called it ‘Christmas cake’ and it’s set in a cake shop window with everyone looking as if they’re made of marzipan. I enquire if he always gets caught up like this is the spirit of Christmas. “Of course,” says Mark. “It’s tradition.”
Tradition brings the pantomime, a form of theatre that exists nowhere else in the world, with the leading figure, the Dame played by a man in drag, preferably a known straight man, while the principal boy, in fishnet tights and high heels is a woman. And they wonder why the English are a trifle confused about their sex lives!
Tradition has us making our Christmas puddings weeks in advance and only revealing our recipes, in urgent whispers to true and trusted friends.
Tradition has also always dictated that the Christmas cake has to be dark brown and stuffed with dried fruits and brandy. Hmmmm. I’ve never actually liked it, and nor has my family. Why not, we all thought, try something else? My favourite chef, Australian Chris Honor, who has opened ‘Chriskitch’, the best local café/restaurant in the area came up with an idea for me. “Christmas colours”, he said, “are red, white and green, so why not a red, white and green Christmas cake?”
We cooked a Red Velvet cake, which was mesmerisingly delicious. As you might guess I can be pretty guarded about special recipes, but in the spirit of Christmas and good will towards all men (and women) I shall include Chris’s Red Velvet Christmas Cake recipe for all my readers to try. I have never made a more exotic cake in my life. Deep red with creamy white cheese frosting with a scattering of icing sugar and a great red and green poinsettia flower in the middle.
As I sit here now, in front of my fire, sipping a mulled wine I am overcome with Christmas spirit and will include the pudding recipe as well. It’s been in the family for 50 years. How’s that for tradition?
Happy, happy Christmas and festive season. May your God go with you all.
YOUR LONDON HOME FROM HOME
If not for this Christmas, for another great holiday:
ID 41978, Sandra’s 5 bedroom, 2 bathroom Edwardian style home in Muswell Hill, London.
ID 218095, Mark and Louise’s Victorian 4 bedroom, 2-bathroom home in Highgate, London.
CHRISTMAS RECIPES – THE SECRET IS OUT!
Sandra’s Sister’s Christmas Pudding
Red Velvet Christmas Cake
Note: some ingredients are listed in “g” for “grams.” We have provided approximate conversions, in parentheses.
Sandra has been a freelance broadcaster, journalist and writer all her working life. She has reported on TV for Thames Television, London, presented on radio for the British Broadcasting Corporation and has written for The Sunday Times, You Magazine, Punch, Times 2, She Magazine and High Life where she became commissioning editor. Later she became editor of Business Life and created the highly successful sister magazine to High Life for British Airways Club World and Frequent Flyers. She became an enthusiastic home exchanger after writing an article about it for the British national daily newspaper, The Guardian when she interviewed Ed Kushins, the founder of Homeexchange.com. Since then she has traveled to Rome, Sicily, California, Melbourne, Perth, Morocco and Venice, writing about her adventures not only for various glossy magazines, but for HomeExchange.com. Sandra has been married to Jafar Ramini for 40 years and has three adult children and four grandchildren.