A second year in Scotland

At home in Upstate New York for Christmas, Kirsten Beattie muses on holiday customs old and new.

By Kirsten Beattie (English, Studies in Women and Gender ’03)

Photo by Jack Mellott.

Kirsten Beattie (English, Studies in Women and Gender ’03) is in her second year of teaching and mentoring students at Fettes College in Edinburgh, Scotland, as a UK fellow. The UK fellows program is sponsored by the U.Va. Center for Undergraduate Excellence. She has agreed to give the readers of A&S Online a glimpse into her life in Scotland through monthly updates. To read her previous reports, click on “Related Links” at the bottom of this page.

Thanksgiving has always signaled the start to the holiday season for me: once that gluttonous day has passed, I am allowed to dig out my Christmas albums and start making shopping lists for gifts. With no proper Thanksgiving to celebrate (and I must confess that the day nearly passed me by this year without me taking note of it), I had to rely on December 1st as my starting point for celebrating the holidays. As I lit candles scented with mulled wine, reminisced about my family’s Christmas traditions and coaxed the volume control higher on my CD player, Bing Crosby crooned dreamily about the joys of a white Christmas.

Somehow Bing must have said it better than I could, for when I tried to share stories of my white Christmases in Upstate New York, my Australian friend, Cate Charles-Edwards, stared in horror. “Christmas Day is laying on the beach while Mom cooks dinner,” she exclaimed, going on to explain how the day has potential to cause more stress than joy: the “traditional” roast her British parents are accustomed to does not translate well to a southern hemisphere soaked in the rays of a sweltering summer.

Listening to Cate describing traditions vastly different to my own made me take a closer look at some of those that I have experienced in Edinburgh; for while Edinburgh and Upstate New York may share cold, dark, wintry weather, not all experiences translate. For example, eggnog and Christmas cookies can be as non-traditional to the Brits as mulled wine and mince pies are to us.

Our school’s end-of-term Christmas dinner highlighted a few more of the obvious differences. The meal began with a beautiful rendition by our Chapel Choir of “Once in Royal David’s City,” a carol that quickly has become a favorite of mine. As they finished their final chords and the lights rose again, the hall filled with loud pops and cracks from our Christmas crackers, cardboard tubes wrapped prettily in paper that loudly twist apart to reveal paper crowns and tiny trinkets. Once upon a time, I used to think that the cardboard tubes contained, well, crackers.

After we had gorged on turkey and vegetables, the hall quieted, and one of our bagpipers roused our spirits with his introduction of the Christmas pudding. The round, cake-like dessert featuring dried fruits was brought to each of our tables along with a snifter of brandy and a packet of matches. Needless to say, the staff at each table took control at this point in the meal, dousing the pudding in brandy, then lighting it on fire, shooting blue flames inches into the air above the dessert before serving it. Christmas pudding, while disputable as a delicacy, is a tradition that brings rousing cheers and a warm glow for all.

Another “rousing” British tradition that I experienced for the first time this year was the “panto.” Pantos, or pantomimes, are theatre productions performed in the weeks leading up to and following Christmas. While Americans might interpret pantomime as implying that these shows are silent enactments, they are anything BUT that.

Often loosely based on children’s stories or fairy tales, pantos typically include men dressed in drag, popular songs adapted for the show, comedic references to pop culture or current news and boisterous audience interaction. “Aladdin” was to be my first exposure to the genre. The show started with an iridescently silver-clad female genie rising to the stage to establish the premise: an evil Scottish laird seeks to rule the world but learns that he must pursue the Widow McTwankey and her Chinese son, Aladdin, to Peking. Aladdin is the Chosen One and the only one who can enter into a cave to retrieve the lamp that the evil laird seeks.

In attending something such as a pantomime, one appreciates the process that must go into forming any tradition, for the audience has such a firmly scripted role in a show such as the panto that I had to look to my neighbors to learn mine. I quickly learned to boo and hiss each time the villain came onstage. I was grateful to be seated toward the rear of the theatre, as well, for the cast frequently addressed the audience, singling them out during the performance for entering late or getting up to use the bathroom, or to ask advice. Of course, they never listened to what we told them.

By the end of the night, I understood the appeal of the panto. The Widow McTwankey was a hilarious male actor who played the role with panache, perfectly hitting high notes in his songs and pulling off some outrageous costumes. In one moment that surely must have been unscripted, his wig fell off, and the audience hooted at the contagious laughter that he and his fellow actor in drag were unable to contain. It was an evening of fantastically low-brow humor and an experience I will long remember.

Now, as I spend some time at home enjoying more familiar Christmas traditions (and yes, a white Christmas), I look forward to two events awaiting my return to Scotland that also hold much tradition: Hogmanay, New Year’s Eve celebrations in Edinburgh that include fireworks, street performances and a massive street party that will culminate in a rousing rendition of Auld Lang Syne; and Burns Supper, an evening meal of Haggis, ’Neeps and Tatties (haggis, mashed turnips and mashed potatoes) celebrating the birth of the immortal (to the Scots) poet “Rabbie” Burns.

Burns Supper, in particular, is a traditional event in which I will be playing a large role. In an evening filled with recitations of Burns’s poetry and speeches, I will be responsible for standing up on behalf of all the Lassies (and mocking all of the Lads) at our school supper, responding to the Lads’ attempt to prove themselves superior over the fairer sex. While I hate to attack an aspect of Scottish culture that I particularly love, I suspect that I will have to aim for the easy target: the “skirts” the Lads will be wearing as part of their formal attire of jackets and kilts. That which we call a skirt would by any other name …?