In the United Kingdom, Christmas is a time to come together to celebrate and have intense disputes with your siblings over board games you would never play at any other time of year. It’s also a time for food comas, hangovers, Love Actually and Michael Buble’s Christmas album. The Christmas season kicks off pretty early in the UK – officially marked by the release of the John Lewis advert at the beginning of December – and it’s bursting with centuries-old traditions, rituals and superstitions. From Victorian puddings to Christmas belters, here are seven Christmas traditions in the United Kingdom to help get you in the Christmas spirit.
Christmas Traditions in the United Kingdom
1. Christmas Dinner
A traditional Christmas Dinner in the UK is really just a traditional Sunday Roast, on speed. Brits can get quite particular about what is and isn’t allowed on the dinner plate though, with serious regional variations. For the most part, there will usually be a roasted bird (normally turkey) or game if you’re a bit posh, an assortment of roasted potatoes and vegetables, pigs in blankets and the much-maligned brussel sprout – all topped off with cranberry sauce. Sometimes you’ll find a Yorkshire pudding, but this is the source of fierce debate. There will more than likely be a few desserts on the table, including a Christmas fruit cake, mince pies and Christmas Pudding (see below), as well as a cheeseboard.
2. Christmas crackers and paper hats
No self-respecting Christmas tablescape would be complete without Christmas crackers. They’re great for the aesthetics, yes, but they also serve a higher purpose – nothing diffuses a family argument as effectively as someone barking, “shall we pull the Christmas crackers”. Each cardboard tube contains a paper ‘crown’ that you must wear for the rest of your Christmas dinner, a joke and a small toy – usually some sort of strange puzzle or a plastic keyring that you’ll step on almost immediately.
Christmas crackers first made an appearance in the mid-19th century, invented by a London-based sweetmaker called Tom Smith. Apparently, he stumbled across the idea on a French holiday, when he observed locals wrapping sugared almonds in twists of tissue paper. He trialled the same, with the addition of a small motivational message, in the United Kingdom but they didn’t take off. His next shot of inspiration while watching a cackling log fire. He added the ‘snap’ to the treats and the rest is history!
3. Christmas Pudding
Christmas pudding is a dark, sticky and dense sponge made with dried fruits, wine, pieces and brandy. A popular Christmas tradition in the United Kingdom sees the cook put a silver coin inside the cake. The person who gets that slice is in for some luck next year.
Christmas pudding started as a porridge called ‘frumenty’ in the 14th century, made with beef or mutton and dried fruits, wine and spices. Thankfully, at some point, the meat dropped off the ingredients list. By the time the Victorians got round to eating eat, the puddling looked almost the same as the one we eat today. People tend to cover the cake with a sprig of ivy, a good glug of brandy and set fire to it just before serving, which provides a hazardous but thrilling edge to Christmas meals across the country.
4. Boxing Day
Boxing Day is a national bank holiday that always takes place the day after Christmas Day, on December 26th. Traditionally, this was the day that servants finally got a day off. They’d receive a Christmas box from the master and open this with their families at home. The day also has religious roots and is celebrated as Saint Stephen’s Day in Ireland.
These days Boxing Day means two things – big shopping sales and leftovers. December 26th marks the beginning of ‘Boxing Week’, where retailers attempt to shift the old stock and lure in shoppers for one final bargain of the year. In the UK, you’ll also usually end up eating everything you ate the day before, but in a different form – turkey curry, turkey sandwiches, turkey soup… and so on.
5. Christmas panto
The words, ‘he’s behind you’ are now synonymous with Christmas, but it hasn’t always been the case. The origins of the Christmas pantomime can be found in Italian improvised theatre, known as the ‘Commedia dell Arte. This made its way to Britain in the 18th century and became an important part of the Christmas season.
There’s a regular rotation of Christmas panto stories – Dick Wittington, Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – sometimes spiced up with the addition of a 90s pop star or someone from Eastenders. You’ll find the same set of characters in every pantomime too, with a different name.
6. The Queen’s Speech
Every Christmas the Queen makes a televised speech to the nation. During those 30 minutes or so, she reflects on current issues and wishes everyone a happy Christmas. The tradition harks back to George V, who delivered the first-ever Christmas Broadcast in 1932. Since then, it’s evolved to become one of the most enduring Christmas traditions in the United Kingdom.
7. The Christmas Number One
Singing has always been a big part of Christmas in the United Kingdom. In Victorian times, it might have been a Christmas Carol at the old piano, but today it’s all about the Christmas Number One, which is basically the one time of year where everyone is allowed to listen to really bad music, without shame or ridicule. Christmas classics have included everything from Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ and Mr Blobby’s ‘Mr Blobby’.