»It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas« is not only a wonderful English Christmas carol but also very true at this time of the year. Cities, villages and shops started displaying their Christmas decorations many weeks ago, not to forget private homes. It’s the time of the year when everybody seems to remember what it was like when they were children and all excited about the presents they would receive at Christmas. Many complain that the original sense of Christmas has been completely forgotten, but hardly anyone manages not to be infected by Christmas magic.
Lucy and Jack have settled their little dispute and Jack has generously permitted Lucy to decorate the house Christmassy even though he’s not very enthusiastic about such kitsch. So, one day when Jack is gone to see some of his customers, Lucy takes the chance, drives to a DIY store and spends a considerable amount of money on a large variety of Christmas decoration. She’s very proud of herself and the festive atmosphere she has created in and around the house. So, when Jack is coming home, why does he have this look on his face?
Jack: What on earth have you done here, Lucy?
Lucy: Oh, hi, Uncle Jack, isn’t this amazing? I’ve found such wonderful things at the DIY store. Doesn’t this create a magical atmosphere inside and outside the house?
Jack: It definitely does, but wouldn’t it have been possible to use fewer lights?
Lucy: They’re not all new, Uncle Jack. I’ve also used some that I found in your basement.
Jack: What about proper Christmas light safety practices? When I look at the many sockets you have used, I’m really getting worried that this is something that might ruin our Christmas spirit.
Lucy: You don’t have to worry about this. I’ve tried to observe all the proper electrical safety procedures that you taught me some time ago.
Jack: Well, trying to decorate an entire house can already present a series of risks. Many people are injured every year while decorating their trees and hanging their decorations because they don’t use proper step ladders for example but stand on tables or balance on chairs. There should always be someone to hold the bottom of the ladder and of course, you should wear sensible footwear when climbing the ladder. When I look at the heels you’re wearing today…. .
Lucy: Don’t be a spoilsport, Uncle Jack. I’ve done my very best and look at this beautiful tree. It’s just a small one, after all.
Jack: I think I would have preferred an artificial one instead of a real one with you being around.
Lucy: Do you know how much energy is wasted during the production of an artificial tree? You can’t be serious about this. That’s not a sustainable solution at all.
Jack: Natural Christmas trees, however, can be extremely flammable. You therefore need a tree stand filled with water to prevent the tree from drying out. It also must be adequately separated from any heat source. An artificial one would be a flame-retardant alternative which you also wouldn’t have to water. Nevertheless, whether real or artificial, it must be stable and secure. By the way, have you inspected the condition of the wiring and the bulbs for damage when installing my old Christmas lights? They can deteriorate over time.
Lucy: Oh sorry, I haven’t done that because I thought you would have done this before storing them in the basement.
Jack: Well, Lucy, better safe than sorry. You never know what happened to them over the summer. There could be some frayed or bare wires or broken sockets, all of this bringing the risk of shocks, burns or even a fire. You should also check the fuse protection rating at the plug top. Damaged lights must be disposed of safely but never insert or remove them when they’re switched on.
Lucy: I see what you mean. But how do you like the places where I’ve put the tree and all the other decoration?
Jack: Apart from the fact that I think that there’s a bit too much of everything, let me have a look. Some sockets are definitely overloaded, so we must do something about this right away. Moreover, some of the decorations are too close to light fitting and heaters or even covering the fire detection sensors. Well, at least you haven’t created any tripping hazards with the cables across doorways or trailed them under carpets or where they could be damaged.
Lucy: I’ve even read and tried to follow some manufacturer’s instructions, Uncle Jack. I’ve only used the lights outdoors which are specifically made for such use.
Jack: Well done. Reading the instructions is always very useful. You should never trail cables and wires in a rush to connect new gadgets and appliances. I also see that you’ve bought products with the BSI Kitemark.
Lucy: Oh really? I only did that by chance, to be honest. What does this mean?
Jack: The Kitemark is a quality trade mark for products and services here in the UK. BSI is the British Standards Institution which thoroughly tests and checks these and stands for safety, reliability and quality. So, it seems you’ve bought all this with a reputable store, which is very important.
Lucy: Look, what else I’ve got – artificial snow, just in case we won’t have a white Christmas.
Jack: Wonderful, but be careful with these aerosol cans. They use flammable propellants and mustn’t be used near heat sources. However, I think we should move the Christmas tree a little bit. It’s placed too close to the door. In case of a fire, it could block the fire escape route or the exit.
Lucy: Come on, Uncle Jack, this is not a public building and besides we don’t have candles on the tree.
Jack: It’s always good to use your common sense and also consider worst cases. Even though we don’t have any candles on the Christmas tree, there are too many wax candles here in my opinion.
Lucy: But candles create such a wonderful and festive atmosphere, we absolutely need them.
Jack: I can see your point, but I suggest that we replace them by flameless candles. They have many advantages. You can leave them unattended when you go outside, for example or when you doze off. There are even flickering, rechargeable, coloured or waterproof ones nowadays. So, let’s swap the wax candles for the flameless ones.
Lucy: But couldn’t we have at least a few wax candles. They smell so good, especially the scented ones.
Jack: Then let’s see whether you know how to use them safely. What are the rules? Let’s have a little pre-Christmas quiz. One wax candle for each correct rule that you give me.
Lucy: You must be kidding, Uncle Jack. You’re not talking to a four-year-old.
Jack: I know, but he who pays the piper calls the tune.
Lucy: Okay, you should keep candles away from materials that might catch fire, such as curtains, clothes, furniture and hair, books, magazines and paper. Put out the candles when you leave the room or go to bed. Make sure you place them on a stable surface where they can’t be knocked over. Tea lights can also get very hot, so also use proper holders for them because otherwise they might melt the surface underneath.
Jack: Very good! Holders for any type of candle should always be heat-resistant. That makes a total of four points and thus four wax candles you’re allowed to use, but only in one room, of course. I recommend the bathroom because it has the least flammable material. And don’t you dare to leave without putting the candles out.
Lucy: You can be a real pain in the neck, Uncle Jack. I like your sense of humour, though.
Jack: Safety first, my dear. Wait what we’ll hear in the news when Christmas is over. You sometimes wouldn’t believe it what people do. Do you know, by the way, what to do if your clothes catch fire because you came too close to a candle?
Lucy: I’m sure you will tell me right away.
Jack: We have the so-called stop-drop-and roll technique, which consists of three simple steps. First, stop, do not run, if your clothes catch fire. Running will make the flames worse. Second, drop to the floor in a prone position and cover your face with your hands to protect it from the flames. Third, roll over and over to smother the fire and don’t stop until the flames have been extinguished. Using any type of heavy fabric or a fire blanket will make this technique even more effective, of course. You should also have a 2kg powder fire extinguisher at hand to prevent a small fire from escalating.
Lucy: Have you ever been a fire fighter, Uncle Jack? Your knowledge is really impressing.
Jack: I used to be one when I was young and there are certain things you’ll simply never forget. New Year’s Eve and fireworks combined with lots of drunken people is also something I remember very vividly. It’s a dangerous mix. Just like with Christmas decoration, you have to be aware of certain things. When buying your fireworks, you should always go to a reputable shop. Never try to save money at the expense of your safety by buying from places you’re not sure about. All fireworks must conform to British Standards and have BS 7114 written on the packaging.
Moreover, there are four different categories of fireworks. It depends on their hazard and noise level, advised standing distance, maximum debris distance and fuse delay, whether consumers are allowed to use them or just professionals.
Lucy: I suggest that we first of all celebrate Christmas and then you can go ahead with your lecture about rockets and sparklers etc. before New Year’s Eve. Otherwise I might have forgotten about all the details by then.
Christmas traditions in the UK
There are many different Christmas traditions all over the world. There are some in the UK which originated in Germany. The reason is that Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert came from Germany. The Christmas tree is one such example.
Most villages, towns and cities in the UK are decorated with Christmas lights over Christmas and money for charity is collected by people or organizations singing Christmas carols in the towns. The most famous Christmas story in the UK is »A Christmas Carol« written by Charles Dickens. It is the tale of a miserly owner of an accountant’s office, called Ebenezer Scrooge. He is visited by his former dead business partner and the three spirits of Christmas. In the end they manage that Scrooge changes his greedy and cold-hearted behaviour. Children in primary schools in Britain perform Nativity Plays for their parents in which Jesus’ birth with Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and wise men is recreated.
Children hang up stockings by the fire or by their beds on Christmas Eve and believe that Father Christmas or Santa Claus fills them with presents. Before this, letters are written to Father Christmas including the children’s wishes and are sent by post or tossed into the fireplace. The draught carries the letters up the chimney and Santa reads the smoke. The children sometimes leave mince pies and brandy or sherry for Santa and carrots for the reindeer when they bring the presents. Nowadays also non-alcoholic beverages are important because Santa has to drive his sleigh. Some say that Santa lives at the North Pole, others think he lives in Lapland. From there he travels through the sky on a sledge that is pulled by reindeer. Santa comes into the houses down the chimney at night and places presents for the children in their stockings.
The most popular of the reindeer is Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer who leads the way. The others are called Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. But they also might all be girls because only female reindeer keep their antlers in the winter. Most male reindeer have discarded their antlers by Christmas and start growing a new pair in spring.
In the UK Christmas Day and Boxing Day are much more important than Christmas Eve in other countries. The main Christmas meal is eaten at lunchtime or early afternoon on Christmas Day. It’s normally roast turkey, roast vegetables and trimmings such as carrots, peas, stuffing, bacon and sausages. Christmas pudding is eaten as a desert together with mince pies and chocolates. Christmas pudding or plum pudding is a very rich dark pudding made with all kinds of dried fruits, nuts, spices, black treacle served with brandy sauce or brandy butter or sherry. Christmas cake is also very popular. It’s a rich fruit cake covered with marzipan and icing as well as some decorations on top.
The tables are decorated with Christmas crackers for each person next to their plate at dinner. The crackers are short cardboard tubes wrapped in colourful paper and are pulled by two people from the two ends. The friction creates a small explosive ‘bang’ caused by a narrow strip of chemically impregnated paper inside. Inside, there is mostly a tissue paper hat, a balloon and a slip of paper with a corny joke, e.g. ‘What lies in a pram and wobbles? A jelly baby’. ‘What do you get if you cross a sheep with a kangaroo? A wooly jumper’. ‘What does Santa call his blind reindeer? No-eye-deer’. In addition, there is a small plastic gift included which is kept by the person who gets the ‘big end’ of the cracker.
The Queen’s Message is a speech made by the Queen every year on Christmas Day which is broadcast and watched or listened to by millions of people mostly while digesting their Christmas dinner.
Boxing Day is celebrated on 26th December. It comes from medieval times when priests in church opened their alms boxes and distributed gifts to the poor. Rich people packed up the remains of their Christmas parties in boxes and gave them to their servants who had a day off then and would also go home to give boxes to their families. Today sports are played very often on Boxing Day, especially football matches and horse racing. Boxing Day has become a public holiday also in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Nevertheless, many stores are open and start their after-Christmas sales on this day. You can save a lot of money.
Kissing under the mistletoe
In ancient times, mistletoes were supposed to possess mystical powers that bring good luck to the household and ward off evil spirits. In Norse mythology they were signs of love and friendship. That’s where the custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from. There is, however, a limit to how much you can kiss under one sprig of mistletoe. One berry must be removed for each kiss and once all the berries are gone – no more kissing.
So much for today. What a lot of information! I thought this might be more of a Christmas topic than talking about English tenses. We will continue with the grammar as well as with our little story in the New Year. But first of all, let me wish you all a very Merry Christmas with your friends or family where ever you are going to celebrate. I hope 2019 was a good year for you, so that 2020 might be even better with lots of health and happiness. Stay tuned!