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At Christmastime, this Brit misses holiday crackers, but not the kind you eat

Jan Francis, owner ofThe British Pantry and Tea Room in Centerville, fosters British traditions and is a big supporter of Queen Elizabeth II.
Jan Francis, owner ofThe British Pantry and Tea Room in Centerville, fosters British traditions and is a big supporter of Queen Elizabeth II. Special to The Telegraph

Q&A with Jan Francis

Residence: Warner Robins

Occupation: Owner-operator, The British Pantry

Q: Where are you from originally?

A: England. Eastbourne in East Sussex.

Q: That makes you a southern girl twice over, right?

A: I guess that’s true. I was born in the South of England and I came to Warner Robins in the southern U.S.A. in 1972. When I was younger my parents retired from the Royal Airforce and settled in Eastbourne in the south of England. It’s a resort town on the southern coast where there’s a famous shoreline site called Beachy Head used a lot in television and films. There’s a famous red and white striped lighthouse there. Oh, I love Beachy Head and the lighthouse.

Q: With the holidays just past, what Christmas traditions did you miss from the U.K. that aren’t here?

A: Well, of course, my family getting together, but a big part I looked forward to was Christmas crackers and getting our paper Christmas crowns.

Q: Crackers? What sort?

A: Not ones you eat, but brightly wrapped cardboard tubes with treats inside. One person holds the wrapper on one end and another person the other and you pull. It comes apart with a bang and surprises fall out, little toys and silly sayings, jokes.

Q: That’s a long-time tradition?

A: They are from the 1800s when a sweet shop owner named Tom Smith invented them.

Q: What sort of toys and jokes?

A: It depends on the price of the cracker, but they’re little toys, little cars, little figures, little games. I particularly remember little puzzles with tiny balls that you try to get into their holes.

Q: And the sayings?

A: Oh, silly things, I don’t know. Like a horse walks into a bar and the barkeep says, “Why the long face?” Always more silly than funny.

Q: Other differences?

A: Everyone has Christmas pudding and Christmas cake. Americans might say figgy pudding. It’s a plum pudding or we might just say pud. It’s wonderful after the meal, hot out of the oven. It has brandy over it and you light it. You have custard brandy butter or brandy sauce. Another tradition is the queen’s speech at 3 o’clock Christmas Day. She wishes everyone well and a Merry Christmas and talks about the year.

Q: How was the speech this year? Any highlights?

A: I missed it! I was with my truck in a garage where a friend was doing some work. I did ask a friend, though.

Q: What did Queen Elizabeth II say?

A: The main thing they talked about was a picture by the queen of Prince Harry and his fiancée, Meghan Markle. That’s unprecedented to have a picture of them before they’re even married.... The queen didn’t mention names but talked about welcoming new family members in the New Year. She doesn’t get into politics in the speech.

Q: How about England’s Boxing Day? That’s definitely not a U.S. custom. What is it? How is it celebrated? Do you observe Boxing Day?

A: I do. Now, in England Boxing Day is a big sports day. But it doesn’t have anything to do with the sport of boxing. Initially, it was the day you gave trades people their gifts for serving throughout the year. The butcher, the milkman, the mailman, others who came to the door. It was when the gentry, the upstairs people, gave the people who served them, the downstairs people, the day off and little gifts. It’s a national holiday.

Q: You mentioned your shop, The British Pantry and Tea Room in Centerville. It must be a gathering place for local British expatriates. Are you keeping traditions alive there?

A: Very much. We import British products like biscuits — you’d say cookies — teas, sweets, chocolates, canned and other drinks. We have British pork pies, sausages and other foods. Of course, those freezer products are U.S. pigs, not English pigs. They’re just prepared the British way. We have Christmas crackers.

Q: Biggest seller?

A: This time of year, the chocolates. It’s a tradition to have Quality Street candies out on the table.

Q: How does the tea room work?

A: We’re open 11 a.m. to 2.30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturdays and have a winter and summer menu. Winters we serve things like Shepard’s Pie, steak and kidney pie, bangers and mash, quiches and different sides every week. The summer menu is more salads, sandwiches and quiches since it’s so hot. We even learned how to make southern iced tea.

Q: Are there many Brits in Middle Georgia?

A: A fairly large community. But also a lot of Americans who love British things and those stationed here at Robins Air Force Base who love coming in to get items or have a meal. People who were stationed in England or Europe. A lot of people just come in to talk and ask questions.

Q: What kind?

A: All kinds of things, but mostly about the queen and royal family.

Q: Are you a fan? What questions do you get?

A: Yes I’m very much a fan and proud of the queen. She’s reigned beautifully through thick and thin and will not abdicate but serve England until the day she dies. I get that question the most. She will serve faithfully until the day she dies and the crown will pass through proper succession.

Q: New Year’s? Any major differences?

A: It’s a lot the same. We’d go dancing or something and sing “Auld Lang Syne.”

Note: The British Pantry is at 100 N. Houston Lake Blvd., Centerville, 478-953-4009, www.britishpantryga.com.

Answers may have been edited for length and clarity. Compiled by Michael W. Pannell. Contact him at mwpannell@gmail.com.

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