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How to make Christmas 2020 really different

alternative Christmas
Many of us won’t be having the Christmas we might have originally planned this year, so why not take the bull by the horns, or the reindeer by the antlers, and make Christmas 2020 an alternative Christmas for all the right reasons? From watching a little-known festive film, to trying a Victorian parlour game or even spotting a once in a lifetime astronomic occurrence, academics at the University of Warwick have compiled a few ideas to help you enjoy something different – deliberately – this Christmas.
1. Try a Victorian parlour game
Professor Sarah Richardson from Warwick’s history department suggests a few Victorian games to while away the hours.

Many of our current Christmas traditions (the tree, crackers, pantomimes, cards and turkey) date from the Victorian era. However, there are some customs and traditions that have not survived the test of time.

Most Christmas entertainment in middle-class households centred round the home and elaborate parlour games were designed to while away the hours. Some dated from earlier periods, for example Snap-Dragon which was a dangerous game which involved dousing a bowl of raisins and plums in brandy, setting it on fire, and trying to eat as much as possible without getting burned.

Others, like charades are still in use today. Along with the games was a complex system of forfeits which losing players had to undertake.

If you’re staying in with your immediate family this Christmas here’s some Victorian Round Games for Christmas (which for some reason are no longer played). They were described in The Lady’s Magazine as ‘enlivening the social atmosphere of the season.’

Change seats, the King’s come!

Place seats around the room for everyone bar one. That person stands in the middle of the room, whilst the others are seated and repeats, ‘Change seats, change seats, change seats, etc’ and everyone needs to move round. If they hear the words ‘the king’s come!’ then there is a scramble for seats including the speaker. Sometimes, the speaker may say ‘the king’s NOT come!’ to confuse matters. The person who loses their seat must undertake a forfeit.

Forfeits included:

The Cham of Tartary

The person undertaking the forfeit takes a candle and places anther in the hands of the opposite sex. They parade round the room and advance towards each other. When they meet they say a few words in ‘the most sepulchral tone’. For example:

The Gentleman – Know you the news?

The Lady – Alas!

The Gentleman – The Cham of Tartary is dead.

The Lady – Alas! Alas!

The Gentleman – Buried.

The Lady – Alas! Alas!

The Gentleman – Alas! Alas! A thousand times alas! He cut of his head with a sword of brass.

Both promenade round the room quite overcome by their feelings and return to their seats as gaily as they please.

The Statue

The person undertaking the forfeit is placed by each person in succession in an uncomfortable or ridiculous position which they are not allowed to quit, except to assume another.

2. Enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime Christmas present from space
Professor Tom Marsh from Warwick’s astrophysics research group recommends braving the December nights and looking up for a once-in-a-lifetime planetary alignment.

As each year passes, a regular set of astronomical events take place, but also there are sometimes “once-in-a-lifetime” special events that can form treasured memories for years to come. The solar eclipse that crossed the UK in 1999 was one of these; the transits of Venus crossing the Sun in 2004 and 2012, which won’t be repeated until 2117, are another.

This December, another such event will take place: a close conjunction of the two biggest planets in the Solar System, Jupiter and Saturn. On December 21, at 13.30 GMT to be precise, Jupiter and Saturn will appear to be just 0.1 degrees apart in the sky. They will still appear very close by the time of sunset when they will be visible a few degrees above the horizon in a south-southwest direction.

Jupiter and Saturn move at a leisurely pace and will start December only 2 degrees apart on the sky (about four times the diameter of the Moon), so it will be well worth tracking the gradual narrowing of the angle between them as Jupiter catches Saturn up. Just look to the south-southwest just after sunset on any clear day.

Jupiter and Saturn have not appeared as close as they will be on Dec 21 2020 since 1623, and won’t do so again until 2080, so don’t miss them! Have a pair of binoculars at the ready in case you can’t separate the two planets by eye.

Other things to look out for in the sky this Christmas are:

The Geminids meteor shower, one of the best, which peaks on the night of December 13/14. If you are lucky you could see a meteor or two every minute. As long as the skies are clear, the Geminids are well-timed this year with no Moon to interfere with viewing.

The Moon, Jupiter & Saturn will be together in the same part of the sky on December 17. Only three days after the new Moon, the Moon will form only a thin crescent which can be very beautiful.

December 23: the Moon passes close to the red planet, Mars.

January 24: Into the new year, and the planet Mercury may be visible. Look for it in the western sky just after sunset.

3. Embrace the alternative vibe and enjoy an unconventional Christmas film
Sure, Love Actually, It’s a Wonderful Life and Die Hard, are your classic Christmas film picks. But why not try a lesser-known festive flick this year? Emma Morton from Warwick’s Department of Film and Television gives her recommendations for something a little different.

For the family:

Terry Pratchett's Hogfather (2006)

Terry Pratchett's Hogfather is TV film adaptation shown in two parts which closely follows the plot of Pratchett’s novel Hogfather, part of the Discworld book series. In the film, as in the novel, the Hogfather (the Discworld equivalent of Santa Claus) has gone missing, and Death is forced to take this place. The beauty of this film is that you become fully immersed in Pratchett’s world, both through the wonderfully realised CGI and in the killer jokes. As a PG, this is will definitely become a festive family favourite.

One for the grown-ups:

The Ref (1994)

A black comedy starring Denis Leary in which a Christmas kidnap goes horribly wrong. The Ref invokes the feelings and mayhem of a family Christmas: the claustrophobia of being with the same relatives trapped inside a house for days, the arguments that never end, and the consternation of hosting ungrateful people. The Ref was hindered in its release with an unfathomable title and a terrible trailer that belies its sharp dialogue and complex characters. As a Christmas film, this is definitely for adults only, the unpicking of Christmas clichés makes it the most honest Christmas film on this list.

Emma’s full list is available here on The Knowledge Centre

4. Carry out an easy Christmas science experiment
You may have received a crystal garden as present when you were a kid. Why not recreate childhood memories of Christmases past by growing your own crystals this year – using just sugar and salt? Here’s some simple instructions from Dr Monica Ciomaga Hatnean, a researcher in the department of physics who uses crystals for experiments.
  1. Transfer approximately 18 g salt or 106 g sugar to a small jar or glass (preferably tall, but not too wide), add 50 ml of water and stir very well. If not all the powder is dissolved, heat up the solution by a few degrees until all the salt/sugar is dissolved.
  2. You can experiment further by adding a few drops of food colouring to the mix, or using brown sugar instead of white to get coloured crystals. You could also add a thread or cocktail stick into the jar – the crystals will attach and grow around the thread or stick.
  3. Place the jar in a room with constant temperature and not in direct sunlight. Allow all the water to evaporate slowly. After three or four weeks, you will get beautiful salt and sugar crystals.

If you want to grow large salt/sugar crystals you can use a small “seed” crystal from the first growth.

  1. Choose a good crystal and tie a cotton thread around the crystal and then tie the end of the thread round a stick or skewer wide enough to sit over the mouth of the glass.
  2. Make a second solution using 18 g salt or 106 g sugar and 50 ml of water. Warm the solution just a bit, to remove some of the water.
  3. Transfer the solution into a clean jar.
  4. Suspend the “seed” crystal inside the second solution by resting the skewer over the mouth of the glass.
  5. Place in a room with a constant temperature out of direct sunlight and wait again for a few weeks. The crystal should grow larger over time. Remember to check every few days to see how the growth is progressing. Do not allow all the water to evaporate!
  6. Once your crystal is large enough, remove it from the solution and dry it. You can preserve and protect your crystal by covering it with clear nail polish on all sides.
5. Enjoy a spot of burnt wine or even burnt sherry
Many people enjoy a festive tipple – why not do it in the style of Samuel Pepys and have a glass of burnt wine, suggests Professor Rebecca Earle a food historian from the University of Warwick.

On Christmas eve 1667 Samuel Pepys, diarist, naval administrator and womaniser, crowded into the Queen’s Chapel, in St James’ Palace, to hear mass. He stayed from nine pm until two am, and regretted not having brought a pillow to kneel on. In fact, he regretted that he’d gone at all, since there wasn’t much to see other than the king’s mistress Lady Castlemaine, ‘who looked prettily in her night clothes’. Afterwards he consoled himself at the Rose Tavern with a glass of ‘burnt wine’.

Mulled, or burnt, wine, is a familiar Christmas drink. It has a long history; a recipe for hippocras, or hot, spiced wine, appears in the oldest English cookbook, the wonderfully-named Forme of Cury, from around 1390. (‘Cury’ comes from an old French word for cooking, and sadly does not demonstrate the presence of curries in Medieval England.) By the nineteenth century sweetened, warm blends of spices and wine were an expected component of the Christmas season. Scrooge and Bob Cratchit share a bowl of smoking bishop—one version of this flexible punch—in the happy conclusion of Charles Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’. Mrs Beeton’s encyclopaedic recipe collection offers a recipe, while noting that it is ‘very difficult to give the exact proportions’ of the wine, sugar and spices, since what might suit one person ‘would be to another quite distasteful’. If you’re undeterred by her warnings, you could do a lot worse than Felicity Cloake’s recipe for perfect mulled wine.

But wine isn’t the only tipple you can burn. For a warming and seasonal alternative you might consider burnt sherry. Warmed sherry has been drunk in these isles for centuries. The Mermaid Tavern served it in Oxford in the 1630s, and it was enjoyed by everyone from gentlemen to the women of Newgate Market, who drank it in the morning. In Dickens’ 1865 Our Mutual Friend two bored young barristers wile away some hours at the Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters over a jug of burnt sherry. To prepare it à la Dickens, you’ll need to heat some sherry over a fire until it begins to steam. Warm your glass over the steam, pour in your burnt sherry with a flourish, and then savour its rich, syrupy depth. You can fancy it up with some sugar if you wish, but a simple glass of warm Bristol cream sherry is a consoling and comforting drink to enjoy with a mince pie—and heaven knows we all need a bit of consolation these days.


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