The Founding Fathers versus Henry VIII

393413_10150521073198659_1104260466_nEvery year my daughter’s North Yorkshire primary school performs a Nativity Play. Shepherds with towels on their heads herding cotton-wool-costumed sheep; Wise Kings bearing gold tissue paper gifts; flocks of tinsel-draped angels; Mary picking her nose because she has been sat too long by a painted cardboard manger: proper old-school Nativity Play.  This happens annually at schools all over Britain.  I never questioned it nor gave it a second thought—save the disappointment that my child, a drama teacher’s daughter, couldn’t cope with a bit of donkey choreography.

My mother questioned it.

‘What if there’s a Jewish child?’

‘Err…’  I struggled.

Do we have Jews in England?  I haven’t met any.  This struck me as odd considering how many I know in America.  But Rabbi Lionel Blue has a regular spot on Thought for the Day and there’s a good bagel deli in North Leeds which never opens on Saturday.  Britain must have at least a few Jews.

‘Hindus, Muslims, Atheists?’ persisted my mother.

‘Oh, we have plenty of those,’ I replied brightly, pleased I could show some cultural awareness of my adopted nation.

‘Don’t they complain?’

‘About what?’ I asked.

‘The Nativity Play!’ exclaimed Mom.


‘Because,’ my mother sighed in frustration, ‘the play is Christian.  It’s religious.’

‘It is?’  I gave my mother a puzzled look.  ‘But no one here seems to think a Nativity Play is religious,’ I protested.

I didn’t need my mother’s raised eyebrow to realise how ridiculous this sounded.  Of course—of course a Nativity Play is religious. Nativity Plays date back to the ninth century, a time-honoured religious tradition.   Of course the birth of Jesus lies at the heart of Christian faith.  And of course any self-respecting, First Amendment loving American should recoil in horror from the very idea of a public school hosting such an obviously Christian event.

Oh my God!  My daughter’s school has been breaking the law every year.  And no one has ever turned them in.  Was the whole community in on the secret?  Have there been underground meetings?  Have pacts been made?  Signed in blood?  Where does the conspiracy end?

My mind raced.  What about Songs of Praise and Thought for the Day?  The BBC is state funded.  Good Friday and Easter Monday are recognised Bank Holidays.  Religious Education is part of the National Curriculum.  My students have been led in prayer by our Assistant Head teacher.  He hands out Bibles.  In school!

Holy Mary!  Why has no one sued Britain for Religious Persecution or Human Rights violations?  Someone call the ACLU!

Of course they don’t have the ACLU in England.  More importantly, England has no separation of church and state.  Thanks to Henry VIII, the Church of England and the English Nation are one—inextricably linked.   This was the whole point of America—to escape the persecution of a national church unwilling to embrace diverse faiths.

The impact of a State Church does not end with school Nativity Plays.  Aside from the reigning sovereign being head of The Church of England, Parliament includes church leaders.  The House of Lords, vaguely equitable to America’s Senate, is made up of two unelected branches.  The Lords Temporal consists of the aristocracy, those with inherited or sometimes earned titles.  The Lords Spiritual is a body of religious leaders: the Bishops of Durham, Winchester, London and the Archbishops of York and Canterbury.  Church leadership plays a direct role in the government.  Astounding!  Like all true American souls mine is certain—absolutely certain—that church and state should be separate.  In England they are joined at the highest legal, judicial and executive levels.

Yet American currency declares “In God We Trust”.  The Pledge of Allegiance: “One Nation Under God.”  Presidents end every sentence with “God Bless America.”  Clearly we’re kidding ourselves with this whole separation thing.

But that’s not the punchline.  England, with her state religion, head of the church monarch and primary school Nativities, is a far more secular nation than America could ever hope to be.  While America clings to God, England keeps God at a respectful and perhaps mistrustful arm’s length.

In 2011 the UK census reported 25% as “Having No Religion”.  In the same year only 16% of Americans claimed no religious affiliation.  72% of Americans identified as Christian while in the UK the number was only 59%.  Church attendance numbers are far lower than that.  It’s a bizarre reversal—though perhaps not that bizarre considering our histories.

America was founded by Puritans (religious zealots England cheerfully transported in their version of events).  Our churches have been centre stage of many great accomplishments: the Anti-Slavery movement, Labour Reform, Women’s Suffrage, Civil Rights.  England has been battered by its history with religion: Crusades, Catholic versus Protestant, The Hundred Years’ War, Irish Troubles, more Witch hunts than Salem could shake a stake at.  This is, naturally, a sweeping generalisation.  Of course it is.  It’s a thousand year trend.  But my point is valid.

970814_10151670015783659_876120044_nEngland has assimilated religion to the point where Nativity plays, Christening ceremonies, church holidays and even the buildings themselves—so many beautiful and ancient hymns of architecture— have been all but drained of spiritual meaning.  59% of the British identify Christian, but almost every parent I know Christens their child.  They might need Sat Nav to find the church, but they get there.  At the same time, a part of England’s racial memory recoils from religious fervour.  Like an alcoholic whose past traumas prevent her from drinking too deeply.

On the opposite shore, America tries to keep religion out of politics.  But we can’t help ourselves.  We fight to embrace it, we fight to reject it.

I wonder if America will grow ambivalent over time as Britain has?  If the differences between faiths continually rip apart the fabric of our country, we will someday look back at our Bible-bashing past and cringe?  Will Britain swing back the other direction?  Perhaps the current recession, the need for meaning and community support will draw her people back to the pulpits?  God knows.


I love Panto! Oh, yes I do!

pantoFor a lover of theatre, Christmas means one thing in Britain: Panto Season.  As a teacher of Drama, it is often the only common language my young students and I can speak because Pantomime is nearly every child’s introduction to live theatre (my youngest daughter attended her first at the age of three months).  There must be some childhood magic in the Panto mix because even a board-hardened theatre veteran like myself felt like a born again audience virgin after my first Panto performance.  I have laughed at the theatre before, I have cried, been stirred to anger, re-considered my place in the world and felt such terror I could not go near my basement for months (Woman in Black) but I have seldom had so much fun in the stalls as I have at a Christmas Panto.

But what is Panto—or Pantomime?  First of all, let me clear up one obvious misconception.  I am not talking about the white-faced, voice-free performance artists invisi-boxing their way through our urban landscapes.  Panto is theatre; Panto is Christmas; Panto is chaos!  Panto is just about the only thing which can entice my father to brave trans-Atlantic holiday travel and the UK’s December weather.  Panto is also impossible to describe for someone who has never seen one.

The closest I came to adequately explaining Panto to a fellow Yankee: “It’s a bit like Rocky Horror Picture Show…for toddlers.”  This might prepare someone for the raucous atmosphere, irreverent humour and insane song and dance numbers but it doesn’t really begin to address the beloved place Panto occupies in the hearts of the British.

Pantomimes are based in fairy tales: Aladdin, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Dick Whittington and Snow White are the most common titles.  Traditional Pantomime will feature an elderly female character called a “Dame” played by a male actor.  If the Panto is truly traditional then its hero, known as the “Principal Boy”, will be played by a female—preferably a rather sexy one wearing tights and slapping her thighs frequently.  (Sadly, the practise of Principal Boy is dying out—except in Harrogate!)  It will also include a “Harlequin” character: a comically useless servant who provides slapstick comedy and plot complications.  Naturally, there is also a villain who lives in a tight green spotlight throughout the performance.

Pantomimes thrive on audience participation.  In this respect it is a bit like the Olde Timey Melodramas which are a summertime feature in some parts of the US (Nebraska, for some reason, loves a good Mellerdrammer).  But Panto is far more involved than just cheering for the hero and booing the villain.  There are specific catch phrases which must be used, which is where the similarity to Rocky Horror comes in.  If a character on stage says “Oh yes it is,” you must shout back “Oh no it isn’t!” and vice versa.  This banter can be initiated by the audience and may go on for several minutes.   You also might be required to sing and/or dance.

Pantomimes are a feast of spectacle.  Thousands of technical cues, hundreds of costumes (and that’s just for the Dame), dozens of sets, music, dance, colour, pyrotechnics, glitter balls, live animals, fake animals, black light sequences, audience chase scenes…  Anything spectacular that can happen in the theatre happens in Pantomime.

Above all, a visit to the Panto is fun!  Take your babies, take your grannies, your teen hoodlums, drunken colleagues, crazy neighbour—all are welcome at the Panto party.  You can laugh loudly, sing badly, dance in the aisles, shout at the actors and wear spangled fairy wings.  There is a good reason why the Holiday Season is Panto Season. Because that is what Pantomime truly is: a festive theatrical celebration!

In Yorkshire we are particularly blessed to host two Pantomimes nationally recognised for their artistic merit and faithfulness to the traditions of Panto: York Theatre Royal and Harrogate Theatre.  While I accept the technical and artistic superiority of the York productions, my loyalty is to our own Harrogate Panto.  In a Berwick Kaler v Tim Stedman slapstick showdown, I’d put a fiver on Steddy every time.

Of course, not everyone adores Panto Season as I do.  There are the haters and the Scrooges out there who despise the low brow humour, the antique jokes purchased whole sale from a dodgy street vendor in a long coat and the OTTness of it all.  Recently, Panto has attracted attention from international celebrities.  This has both challenged and confirmed the hater’s views.  The Royal Shakespeare Company’s beloved son Ian McKellen famously mentioned in an interview that he regretted never doing Pantomime.  As Artistic Director of The Old Vic, Kevin Spacey heard Sir Ian’s plaintive cry and cast him as the Dame Widow Twankey in Aladdin.  Several years ago, Henry Winkler of all people discovered the joys of Pantomime and has spent his holidays in the UK ever since.  Patrick Duffy, David Hasslehoff and Pamela Anderson have similarly been tempted across the pond for Panto.  I do wonder if Miss Anderson knew she was a mid-season replacement for drag queen Lily Savage when she took the job.

Whether it’s York or Harrogate or the London Palladium, no American visiting Britain at this festive time of year should be allowed back on the plane without producing their Pantomime ticket stub. But you musn’t go into the theatre blindly.  You must enter it with an open heart, a childish exuberance and a magic wand.


Fruitcake Revolution

It begins with the aroma of oranges and clove. It begins with selection and remembrance. It begins and ends with gurgles of brandy. Shrivelled fruits who thought they’d never feel plump again swell with drunkenness surrounded by burly chunks of nuts in the darkest of sugars. All come together under a blanket of marzipan and icing. And cheese. With fruitcake there must always be cheese.

Oh, I can see the look on your face. Fruitcake? You grimace, back away in disgust and horror with a faint trace of “I thought she was alright, but fruitcake…she can’t be serious!”  Oh, I am serious people. When it comes to fruitcake I am very serious. Fruitcake is serious.

“Seriously gross!”

Shut up, you in the back! You know nothing of fruitcake truth. Now listen and learn; open up your mind to the possibility of fruit plus cake.

To be fair, in America Christmas fruitcake is an object of ridicule: a gelatinous brick of barely recognisable jellied fruit, candy and nuts. It can be useful for propping up one leg of that wobbly card table you dust off from the garage to house extra relatives or for lobbing at the loved one who dared gift with you a tie, but I cannot recommend it as an actual comestible.

I’m sorry Yankees, but we need to face facts: our burgers rock, our delis are a religious experience, our diner breakfasts kick the asses of all other breakfasts, what we can’t do with a chicken wing isn’t worth being done and we understand the necessity of freshly popped popcorn at the movie theatre. But our fruitcakes suck. Really, really suck.
The British, on the other hand, do not have delis, diners or chicken wing themed restaurants (do not get me started about their idea of popcorn) but they know how to do fruitcake. Fruitcakes are serious here. They are enjoyed at Christmas, Easter and are the traditional choice for weddings. The Brits know how to rock dried vine fruits.

I began making traditional English fruitcake my first Christmas in Yorkshire. I researched recipes then created my own version. I fed it brandy as it matured; I lovingly glazed it with apricot jam then smothered it in marzipan and royal icing. Twelve years later, Christmas fruitcakes are a family tradition steeped in ritual. And comedy.

Mister’s favourite “My Wife Did This” anecdote involves my virgin attempt to make homemade marzipan. I might have used the wrong sugar or said the wrong spells over it because the damn stuff would not roll out properly. After assuming minimum safe distance for an hour or two, Mister returned to find little icing sugar footprints throughout the house and most of the attempted marzipan in the bin. The rest stuck to the kitchen ceiling. I swear I have no idea how that happened. I buy marzipan now.

My father was my first fruitcake fan. Thrilled by his adoration, I made him his very own the following Christmas. I soaked the fruit for weeks; I fed the resulting cake for months and decorated it meticulously. When we came home from Christmas Eve Carol Service, we found my aunt’s dog thoroughly enjoying my homemade fruitcake. While my frantic aunt consulted her veterinarian to see what effects brandy might have on her darling Australian Shepherd, I huddled foetally beneath the Christmas tree, clutching the last crumbs of my masterpiece.

Several Christmases later, I made several small fruitcakes to give as gifts to my growing fan base. Worried our cat (memories of my aunt’s dog still stung) might leave footprints in the drying marzipan (again with the marzipan) I stored the cakes in the oven overnight (you can see where this is going). I of course forgot all about them the following evening when I heated the oven to bake lasagne. My resulting screams of horror alerted our neighbours to a domestic trauma. The police officer was politely sympathetic as she watched me dispose of four cake corpses still leaking almond paste pus.

Comedy traumas aside, British fruitcake is a revelation worthy of a revolution: dark, rich and boozy with nary a neon candied lime in sight. This Christmas the time is ripe for a British invasion of fruity/nutty proportions. Cast aside your preconceived notions of fruitcake and embrace the true nature of this glorious Christmas tradition!

Rich Fruitcake

 for a 7-inch round cake

 Combine 2 cups of mixed dried vine fruits (raisins, sultanas, currants), ½ cup candied cherries, 2 tablespoons candied ginger, juice and zest of ½ a lemon, juice and zest of ½ an orange, 1 heap spoonful of whole cloves (be sure to count them out), and 3 generous tablespoons of brandy.  Seal in an airtight container and leave to sit anywhere from overnight to a year.  Shake the container every once in a while.  When you are ready to make the cake, remove the cloves, leaving one for luck.  I tend to use 25 cloves for December 25th.

Prepare a 7-inch spring form cake tin by first greasing the bottom and sides.  Then line with baking paper, allowing it to stick up over the top by a good few inches. Cream ¾ cup softened butter and 1 cup very dark brown sugar.  Add 3 eggs one at a time and beat thoroughly.  Add the boozy fruit, making sure you get all that lovely syrup at the bottom.  Sift together 1 cup flour, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 3 heaping tablespoons of ground almond into a separate bowl.  Add to the fruit mixture a little at a time, combining completely.  Add 1 cup roughly chopped mixed nuts and stir well.  Spoon into the prepared tin and level out the top.  The mixture will be very stiff.  Bake at 300F for one hour without opening the oven door to peek.  After one hour, reduce heat to 250F and bake for another hour or so.  The cake will be done when it has stopped “singing”—this is a high whistle sort of sound which it makes during baking.  You can also do the old fashioned clean knife in the middle test.  Let it cool in the tin, then remove it from its wrappings.

To store, wrap the cake in clean baking paper, then again in foil.  Fruitcake should mature for at least a month this way. You will need to “feed” your cake weekly.  Poke small holes in the top and dribble 2 tablespoons of brandy into the holes.  Let the cake soak it up before you re-wrap it.  If you do not want quite such a boozy cake, you can feed it with orange juice.  Fruitcake is quite nice as it is, but if you want to go very traditional with your decoration, this youtube clip shows you how to do it.  To serve in the Yorkshire way, top a small slice of fruit cake with a generous slab of Wenslydale Cheese.

Make it your own:  Instead of brandy, make your cake Irish by using whisky or Caribbean by using rum.  You can also leave out the booze altogether and just use orange juice, but where is the fun in that?   Try making your own cocktail.  One year, I fed the cake alternately with Cherry Brandy, Brandy and Orange Liqueur.  Also, instead of decorating it with marzipan and icing you can glue nuts or glacier fruits onto the cake with warmed apricot jam or golden syrup.