Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmas Adventures in Glasgow

Entry for 24-27 December 2011

This year we have been exploring unknown territory: Christmas in Glasgow.  Each year at this time, for the past five years, we have gone back to the USA for three weeks beginning around the winter solstice and only returning around the 10th of January, in time for Celtic Connections.  Thanks to the UK Border Agency, this did not happen this year; and so we are here, for a change.  In the meantime, we are savoring the unfamiliar bits, which are many:

1. Last week we discovered cinnamon and fresh parsley in the supermarket, after we had given up on them.  As is so often the case, you just have to know Where To Look.  In this case, these things are kept not in a place but in a time: Christmas.  I'm not sure about the fresh parsley, but a bit a research told us that cinnamon was once a very expensive luxury, so it came to be associated for the extravagance of the holidays and so is excluded from ordinary life the rest of the year.  If one of the three wise men had left behind his gold, frankincense, and myrrh, he might have replaced it with cinnamon! (Probably not parsley, though…)

2. You'd think that Christmas carols here would with minor exceptions be pretty much the same as in the US, given that so many came from the UK and Europe in the first place.  However, this turns out to not be the case.  At St. Mary’s, last Thursday's service of 9 Lessons and Carols turned out to be filled with familiar carols with unfamiliar music, familiar music with unfamiliar words, or just plain unfamiliar words and music.  Very nice... I liked the UK melody for It Came Upon a Midnight Clear better, actually.  But different…

3. It turns out that BBC Radio 3, the main classical music channel in the UK, plays hardly any Christmas music.  On Christmas morning when I turned it on, they were playing a Rachmaninoff orchestral piece.  After the opera on Christmas Eve, this was the last straw, so I tuned into my longtime favorite radio station from San Francisco, using my handy KDFC iPad app.  After that, I listened to a Norwegian Christmas/Solstice program on Music from Hearts of Space, a long-running American public radio new age music program, also produced in San Francisco.  My Dad would have approved!  Actually, I've been mining his extensive library of Christmas music this season, almost a 1000 tracks' worth.  I've particularly enjoyed his country and western, new age, and jazz selections, and have been playing them a lot.

4. Diane and I miss our kids and have been Skyping with them a fair amount, but we've also really been enjoying each other's company in this season. Usually we are distracted by our families of origin and spend much of the holiday season in different elliptical orbits, touching base from time to time.  We miss our families and spent several hours Skyping with various more or less chaotic bunches of them, but we are also enjoying our quiet time together.

5. Over the past few years, as we travelled here and there during the holidays, I've missed the big Christmas services that we had at Trinity in Toledo: O Antiphons, Christmas Eve.  I haven't been to a 4th Sunday of Advent service for years, since we're always travelling then.  This year at St Mary's we got to experience the whole thing: The 4th Sunday in Advent service was devoted almost entirely to Mary, which I loved.  Winter Solstice Goddess Festival!  Then we had a big Nine Lessons & Carols service, as I mentioned, with the Bishop and all, the church packed out.  After that, the Christmas eve service focused on Angels, with Kelvin (the Provost or main priest of the cathedral) asking us to imagine angels hovering over Glasgow.  In most languages, the word for “angel” originally meant “messenger”.  What messages do they have for us?
6. After snow and bitter cold here last year, this year has been very mild, although wet and windy.  We did have some snow and ice a week ago, but it's all gone now, and it's mostly been excellent weather for running.  The wind finished eating my umbrella on Christmas Eve on a short trip to the local market.  But as we walked home at 1am, after the Midnight Christmas Eve service at St. Mary's, the rain had passed and the wind had died down.  The streets were unusually quiet for a Saturday night in Glasgow, most of the traffic consisted of taxis, and a few stars shone through between the clouds.

7. On Christmas day, we had dinner with our Australian friends, Juli & Tony, as well as Beth’s son James, from Brazil.  This turned out to be a brilliant idea, given that all of us were feeling somewhat abandoned by our faraway families.  So we enjoyed a multicultural Christmas dinner, with Australian/British roast turkey/pork/vegetables, American apple pie/cranberry-orange relish, and a Brazilian confections known as brançinos.  But the piece de resistance was Julie’s authentic Christmas pudding, many weeks in the making, and finally wrapped tightly in a cloth, heated in a big pot of boiling water, doused with brandy, and set afire, before being served with custard.

8.  The Roman midwinter festival of Saturnalia went on for many days.  Similarly, in the UK and Scotland, there are the two days of Christmas Eve and Christmas itself, plus New Year’s Even and New Year’s Day,  the latter known as Hogmanay in Scotland.  However, there is also Boxing Day, the 26th of December, and in Scotland Hogmanay extends to the 2nd of January.  Beyond this, lots of things simply close down altogether for the entire week between Christmas and New Years, and this year the University doesn’t even reopen until 5 January, the day before Epiphany.  Most of our local shops are closed.  There is hardly any email.  The result is a large cultural pause, a kind of still point at the turning of the year. This is the time we are living through, this year’s Christmas Adventures.

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