Q: What do you get if you cross a sheepdog with a jelly?
A: The collie-wobbles.
~my favorite British Christmas cracker joke
Our story is set in Jolly Old England, December 1992, the year I was studying with a small gaggle of students from Centre College. If I had learned anything about England in my time there, it was that the Britons have a truly complicated relationship to their monarchy. Andrew Morton’s bestseller Diana: Her True Story was released that year. Seemingly everyone was reading and discussing the blistering tell-all of her marriage to Prince Charles, Charles’s relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles, and Diana’s own mental health struggles, including depression and anorexia. Earlier that year, Princess Anne had gotten a much-publicized and criticized divorce. Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, had recently separated from Prince Andrew. A few weeks earlier, a fire had devastated Windsor Castle, one of Queen Elizabeth’s official residences. Everywhere we went, the talk would eventually wound around to the monarchy and if the country would be better served by demolishing it. The battlecry Citizens, Not Subjects! was spray painted on endless tube station walls. And yet, based on the popularity of the tabloids, even those screaming for a democracy were equally obsessed with the scandalous lives of the royals.
Our college was quite close to Buckingham Palace and we saw Princess Diana on the street several times, walking with her boys and bodyguards. We frequently battled the never-ending crowds to watch the Changing of the Guard and once even glimpsed “The Big E” herself waving as her car left the gates.
On December 9, I went to Harrods to buy Christmas crackers for the Centre holiday party, a farewell before we all headed back to the states the following week. A Christmas cracker is a cardboard paper tube, wrapped in brightly colored paper and twisted at both ends. There is a banger inside the cracker, two strips of chemically impregnated paper that react with friction so that when the cracker is pulled apart, the cracker makes a bang. Inside are paper hats to wear, small gifts, and a joke (traditional cracker jokes are uber British and we never understood any of them).
I was waiting in line to pay when the holiday music was abruptly shut off, replaced by an alarming siren blare. What the hell? I noticed the crowds lurching toward the wall of televisions for sale in the electronics department, and followed the lemmings. It grew cotton quiet and the security guard turned the volume all the way up on one screen after another.
The breaking news was the official announcement by then Prime Minister John Major to the House of Commons that the Prince and Princess of Wales were separating. I was startled to see people start quietly crying as they absorbed the news. Everyone seemed oddly stunned, despite months of intense speculation by the tabloids that Charles was living a separate life with Camilla. Eventually, the holiday music resumed and people wandered back to shop, sniffling and sad. There was a cultural disconnect. I too felt sad for the dissolution of any marriage, yet these people – definitely subjects and not citizens, at least at that moment – were acting as if their closest friends had died.
That night, our group celebrated with Chinese takeaway and cheap wine. We stole a rubber plant from the lobby and decorated it with a sad string of lights and the gifts from our crackers. Someone turned on the radio and Judy Garland’s version of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas from the movie Meet Me in St. Louis came through the tinny speakers.
I looked around at us in our stupid paper crowns and started bawling. I was tired of it. All of it. I was tired of takeaway and Paddington Bear and the tube and Piccadilly Circus and Cliff Richard and people wishing us a Happy Christmas instead of a merry one (Queen Elizabeth decided years ago that the word “merry” was used by the lower class and officially adopted the term Happy Christmas instead).
I wanted to go home.
To this day, I grow misty anytime I hear any version of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. So I decided I would learn to play and sing it for this holiday season, bringing my family and friends to nostalgic tears as I strummed my guitar and channeled my inner Judy.
And this is how I came to learn Up On The Housetop. Which turned out to be a far better song, though it took me a while to get there. Check back next week to learn why.