Elsa Court is a French woman who has lived in the UK for more than a decade. In this monthly column she reflects on her experiences and considers topics such as origin, identity and belonging.
One of the questions on my Life in the UK Test, which I took last year when I applied for British citizenship, asked me what traditional meal a British family would have on Christmas Day.
One of the multiple-choice answers was “fish and chips”. I wonder whether the Home Office assumes the average immigrant might easily confuse a traditional British meal with a traditional Christmas one.
Coming from a secular French background, I find it amusing that questions reflecting traditions based on Christian holidays should be chosen to reflect UK life and culture. The test had another question that asked about cakes traditionally eaten at Easter. Top tip: they are not called crumpets.
Though the study guide I read prior to taking the test listed a more comprehensive selection of calendar highlights based on other religions represented in the UK, such as the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr and the Hindu festival Diwali, it gave the impression the test itself would focus on Christian celebrations.
The link between national identity and Christmas, family traditions and food is evident. This festive season I see adverts everywhere for the same traditional goods. Some, such as that from department store chain John Lewis, have themselves become a tradition anticipated by millions of Britons, regardless of religious affiliation.
France celebrates the same core Christian holidays every year but does not necessarily observe the same traditions over Christmas. British friends have often asked me what the French eat at Christmas. The answer varies from one household to the next, but generally it is not turkey. On Christmas Eve, a French family might have a six-course dinner: smoked salmon and foie gras are hors d’oeuvre highlights.
One thing for sure is that Christmas is an opportunity to reflect on my consumption habits and wonder to what extent they have been modulated by my years living in the UK.
I remember my first visit to a British supermarket. I had just moved to London at the start of the academic year and Christmas was still a few months away. My roommate dragged me away from the long-life milk section. Fresh milk is not a big thing in France, but I discovered that in the UK it was: it was affordable and could be bought skimmed, semi-skimmed or unskimmed in a variety of containers large and small.
The quantity of milk I consumed was also about to change. When I moved to the UK, I was already a committed tea drinker, but I found the idea of putting milk in it very peculiar.
Perhaps this is the mark, for me, of being a good immigrant: I was too polite (or too curious) to refuse milky tea when it was made for me by British friends. Eventually I found myself drinking and enjoying it this way. On this, I will never look back.
I have not, however, adopted the Brits’ love of turkey. My family has fish at Christmas — without chips though — cooked in a white wine and butter sauce. But my brother has just announced to my parents he is contemplating becoming vegan, so this year we may have to improvise.
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