As we near the end of what has been a year of momentous change for the Pict family, we wish you and yours the very best of wishes for 2014.
Christmas was always going to be very different for us this year as we have always spent that time with the boys’ grandparents. This year it was going to be just the six of us. While clearly missing out on some of our family traditions as a result, my husband and I decided to spin that into a positive opportunity to establish some Pict family traditions of our own, tailor Christmas to the six of us, and determined to fuse established rituals and habits and fuse them with new experiences which – if successful – could become traditions to carry forward into future festive seasons.
By coincidence, as we were discussing this plan, I was invited by my six year old’s teacher to talk to her First Grade class about Christmas in Scotland as part of their “tradition trade”, and that gave me an opportunity to synthesise what the key customs were from our own family and cultural background, focusing on the ones that were most important to carry forward. Of course, most things are just the same as in the US – letters to Santa, stockings hung on Christmas Eve and snacks left out for Santa and the reindeer. Traditionally in Scotland a turkey or a goose would be the centrepiece of the meal but we decided that, so soon after Thanksgiving and with the price of them, we would have a plump chicken instead. We definitely wanted to have roast potatoes and roasted parsnips which led Mr Pict on a quest all over town trying to find some. I am assuming those are not such a popular root vegetable in America. The kids in the class had just about heard of them though only my own child could recognise them in the photo. Shame because parsnips are actually my favourite vegetable. Mr Pict and our 8 year old also wanted brussel sprouts. To me they smell like sweaty bum crack (the word for which is a shuck in Scots as in “If ye didnae hae a shuck ye’d droon”) and taste acrid and bitter. But they are traditional and so they too were purchased. Normally there would be Christmas pudding (round and steamed and served ablaze) and Christmas cake (hard, dry fruit cake covered in a layer of marzipan and icing) but none of us really appreciate those so we continued our own tradition by opting out of those and having different desserts instead. As you will gather, reader, most of our festive rituals revolve around our mouths and stomachs. One thing I thought I would have a hard time finding in the US was Christmas crackers, as I know they are not part of the festive culture here. For the uninitated, these are tubes of thin card covered in cheery paper and closed at each end and, when pulled, they make a bang and the contents are revealed, said contents being a paper crown (which it is compulsory to wear), some wee toy or item, and some corny jokes. I was so thrilled to find some in a local discount store that I literally jumped up and down with glee as I snatched them off the shelf.
Here’s my 6 year old pulling a cracker with me over Christmas dinner:
And this is my husband and me wearing our cracker crowns:
So those were the old traditions; now for the new.
The first was not of my own design. It was part of the Elementary School’s programme and something I understand is done in schools up and down the land – but it was new to us, of course, and that was Polar Express Day at school. I have a love-hate relationship with the movie ‘Polar Express’ (I’ve never read the book) in that I like the concept of taking a journey to rediscover the magic, wonder and joy of belief but to my mind that is rather undermined by the dead-eyed mo-cap animation of the human characters, some of the misery being just too cold and gloomy and the fact the central character is difficult to like. Not my thing it’s fair to say. My triumvarate of Christmas movies are ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’, ‘Muppets Christmas Carol’ and ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’. The last day of school before Winter break was designated as Polar Express Day so the boys went to school in their jammies, had hot chocolate and other treats and made crafts and generally had festive fun. It was a charming way to end the term. I am glad they could be part of that tradition.
The weekend before Christmas, we took the boys to a nearby Holiday Light Show. It was at the same farm where we had experienced Halloween fun and purchased pumpkins so it covered a vast area. We drove through the Light Show which was fun and cosy. We each oohed and aahed over each design. Some of the designs were really elaborate, with lots of mobile elements or animations, but the simple ones were also very effective. There were themes as we drove through, starting with designs indicating corporate sponsors, the Twelve Days of Christmas, fairy tales, the nativity, world landmarks and animals. My favourite part was driving through a tunnel of twinkling lights. It made for a lovely evening and next year we might even stay longer in order to toast marshmallows over the fire pits but we had not had our dinner so we went for a nosh up at Cracker Barrel instead.
We’ve always done the tradition of new jammies as a Christmas Eve gift because, frankly, I want the kids to look decent in the photos of Christmas morning as well as giving them some new pyjamas just because they could do with them. This year, however, we upscaled the Christmas Eve gift a little. I bought each of the boys a Christmas tree ornament that was perfect for them in order to serve as an annual reminder of their first Christmas in America, the idea being they would then have it to start their own individual collections of tree ornaments when they eventually grow up and leave home. Mr Pict’s contribution was to forage for some European sweet treats for us to munch along with some luscious hot chocolate.
In the end, all of our forging of traditions old and new worked a treat and we had a superb Christmas. We were relaxed and content throughout the day and most of all the boys were blissfully happy and that ultimately was the critical thing. We were striving to make their first Christmas in America a memorable one and that mission was accomplished.
On Saturday, I took three of my boys to have breakfast with Santa – the 8 year old opted out. This was a first experience for all of us. Perhaps they do this in Britain too but I was not aware of it until we moved here.
The event was being held just around the corner from us so we toddled off in the chill wind but were soon indoors in the cosy eating mess which was filled with the aromas of scrummy breakfast treats. When we paid our money, we were each given a chit of paper that we had to fill out stating which particular elements of cooked breakfast we wanted. We then handed those in and, while it was all being cooked, we were able to spend some time with Santa.
My kids have not had much in the way of Santa encounters. In the town we moved from, a Santa would travel around on a motorised sleigh just ahead of Christmas, pulling into each street and handing out chocolates to children. He usually pulled up our shared driveway and my boys would scamper out in their jammies (because somehow I always forgot Santa was expected), exchange a quick few words through chattering teeth and then scurry back indoors again. However, they have never visited a store-based Santa or a grotto. My children are aware, incidentally, that these Santas are all just the real Santa’s helpers because obviously Santa himself is way too busy at this time of year to be patronising various events across the globe. For that reason, therefore, I was not entirely sure how happy they would be with meeting and greeting Santa.
My four year old was perfectly content. He launched himself onto Santa’s knee and had a good chinwag with him, explaining to Santa that he had asked him for Disney Infinity for the PS3 just to drive the point home. I actually didn’t think he would ever get back down from Santa’s knee. My six year old was a bit more trepidatious. He was not prepared to sit on Santa’s lap so he stood beside him instead and spoke in a voice only hummingbirds could hear. My ten year old was, of course, far too mature and cool for any such things so he just high-fived Santa.
We then ate a delicious breakfast. The boys had pancakes, eggs and sausages with hot chocolate and fruit juice and I had a veggie omelette with a cup of tea. There were also baked goods available so the boys each had a massive muffin before deciding they were starting to get bellies like Santa’s.
I definitely think we should build breakfasting with Santa into our festive traditions from now on.
Post-Halloween, I stated that my kids would like to use my blog to review all of the American candy they had never tried before. This, therefore, is that review.
The boys had had Reese’s pieces before but not the cups. That was something new. Essentially they are little chocolate cups filled with a peanut butter flavoured unction. They liked that they were very “peanut-buttery” and that the mixture of chocolate and peanut butter was delicious. They scored 17/20.
3 Musketeers is a bit like a UK Milky Way, with a whipped gooey centre coated in chocolate. Two of the boys thought they were “awesome” and two thought they were “fine” so they scored 15/20.
Nerds can be purchased in the UK but my kids had never had them before Halloween. They are essentially packets of tiny, brightly-coloured, strongly-flavoured crispy candy fragments. The 10 year old liked them because they last a long time apparently. This is a child who has to be compelled to eat his chocolate Easter eggs before they go off because he likes to hoard sweets. Clearly the longevity of this product alone was going to score highly with him. The 8 year old liked that they were hard but then had a sugary burst of flavour and the 6 year old liked the texture of them. They scored 16/20.
Dum Dums are just standard lollipops, boilings on a stick, but the flavours of the ones the boys tried at least were very American. The 10 year old was disappointed that they were just a standard lollipop, nothing new or exciting. The other three liked the strong flavours and the 6 year old appreciated the fact that they were really hard so were difficult to crunch and consequently meant he had to “sook” on them for a long time. Dum Dums scored 15.5 / 20.
York Peppermint Patties are dark chocolate rounds filled with a dense mint cream. My 8 year old was enthralled with them! He loved the flavour and also the fact they were “squishy and not stable at all” on the inside. I don’t really understand that analysis but if he could have given them triple full score then he would have done so. They were a hit with his 6 year old brother too who reported that they were “like a mini chocolate pie with mint icing inside”. York Peppermint Patties received full marks at 20/20.
Butterfingers are a bar of crisp peanut butter centre, perhaps approaching peanut brittle but I’m not sure since I’ve never had one, all coated in chocolate. The boys reported that it tasted like “caramel toffee” and “tastes kind of buttery inside”. They scored 15/20.
Tootsie Rolls are like chewy toffee but with a chocolatey flavour to them. The older three boys declared that they were “delicious” and the 4 year old decided they were “yummy”. They scored 16/20.
Twizzlers are like strawberry liquorice straws, a bit like when Bertie Bassett does the red thing, and are in a sort of twisted yarn shape. My 4 year old did not like them at all. Amusingly the 6 year old determined they were “awesome but really unhealthy”. They scored just 11/20.
Whoppers are somewhat like British malteesers in that they are balls of chocolate containing a crisp centre but somehow they are just not the same. The centre is more brittle and less light and the chocolate is not as thick on the surface. The 4 year old loved them and the others thought they were pretty good but nothing to rave about. Only the 6 year old felt they were as good as maltesers. They scored 15/20.
Unlike me, my children believe that Hershey’s is just as good if not better than British chocolate. They, therefore, scored Hershey chocolate as 18/20.
Almond Joy is like a UK Bounty but with almonds running along the top of the chocolate. The boys liked the mixture of almonds, coconut and chocolate so it scored highly at 18/20.
Smarties are not like UK Smarties, which are chocolate dots covered in a crisp coating a bit like m ‘n’ ms. Instead US Smarties are like UK Refreshers, little pellets of hard sherbet-type stuff. My 8 year old thought they were “kind of weird” and everyone else thought they were mediocre so those scored just 13/20.
Life Savers are a bit like fruit polos in the UK but bigger and chunkier, round halos of brightly coloured boilings in essence. My 8 year old felt they were “sort of sour” despite being sweet. The 6 year old felt they were “awesome because they are really sooky”. The oldest and youngest felt they were “good but not special”. They scored 15/20.
York Peppermint Patties are, therefore, the winner of Pictish Candy Wars.
Today marks three weeks since my three biggest boys started school. They had been very anxious about starting a new school, as one might imagine. They had come from a very small tight-knit community where everyone pretty much knew of everyone else even if they did not know each other directly, so the very idea of a larger school filled with nothing but strangers filled them with trepidation.
Their Dad had organised for us to go on a tour of the school less then 24 hours after we stepped off the aeroplane so they were jet-lagged and dazed as we wandered around the corridors and met various members of staff. However, I think even this brief orientation took the edge off their worries. Everyone was very welcoming and friendly and all the kids we met were smiley and cheerful. There was a really nice atmosphere and buzz to the school generally. The other advantage of the school tour, of course, was that it meant I had a modicum of a clue myself of how things worked and where to go.
So having emigrated on the Thursday, the boys started school on the Monday. They had already missed enough formal schooling (several weeks of homeschooling had filled the gap between schools) and we also wanted to establish a solid routine for them. And, let’s face it, we needed a break from each other. So launched into their new school they were. I have a First, Second and Fifth Grader so there were a lot of school supplies to buy in advance of them starting. Thankfully Mr Pict had sorted all of that out before we arrived. That was a whole new experience for us, however, as we have never been required to provide equipment before and here we were not just buying pencils and sharpeners but also boxes of tissues, whiteboard markers and headphones.
Everyone, staff and children, have made the boys feel welcome. They had a few days of being hounded as if they were celebrities, intrigued kids asking them a whole series of questions about Scotland and their first impressions of America. No one has really made a big deal out of their accents apparently, commenting at times on vocabulary (it’s an eraser, not a rubber) and my oldest son’s teacher had him answering lots of questions just so he could listen to his accent, but it has all been in good humour and the kids have not been upset or embarrassed by it. Each of the boys has made at least one friend so they have someone to play with during recess which is great. My oldest has even joined a math club. I think the scale of the school was overwhelming at first as the elementary school they are in is the same size, in terms of population, as the entire campus for students aged 3-18 that they came from but they seem to be navigating their way around it fine now.
It is such a relief to my husband and me that the children have been so positive about school. It is one of those keystone elements in the success of our relocation so for them to be so positive and stimulated and as settled as they are already, just three weeks in, is a massive deal because it makes us feel more settled as a family.