Thought merry olde England had lost hold of most of its traditions? Not quite. From Bonfire Night to Maypole Dancing, here are a few unique (ish) traditions in England to remind you.
Unique English Traditions
1. The Sunday Roast
The traditional English Sunday roast dates back a long time, possibly as early as King Henry VIII’s reign. Traditionally, Roman Catholics and Anglicans abstained from eating meat on certain days of the week, but then they could tuck into their hearts content come Sunday. Today, a traditional Sunday Roast includes roasted lamb, beef, chicken or pork served with roasted potatoes, an assortment of vegetables and, if you’re lucky, some cauliflower cheese. The Yorkshire pudding is probably the most beloved element of the Sunday Roast, though some people stick to strict rules (unnecessarily, in our fair opinion) about which meats you can serve it with. In ye olden times, Yorkshire puddings were actually served as an appetiser before the meal to fill you up.
2. Bonfire Night
Bonfire Night is a loud and colourful celebration that takes place on the 5th of November every year. It celebrates the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot, in which 13 men (including Guy Fawkes) tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament with 36 barrels of dynamite in 1605. They failed and met a particularly grizzly end. To mark the occasion, most towns and cities will put on fireworks displays, with fair rides, street food stalls and sparklers. It all culminates with the effigy of Guy Fawkes on a huge bonfire.
3. The Pantomime
The pantomime is one of England’s proudest traditions. These days they’re synonymous with Christmas, but it hasn’t always been the case. The history of pantomimes can be traced back to a form of improvised theatre in Italy called Commedia dell’Arte. This likely made its way to England in the 18th century, and it’s been an integral part of Christmas ever since.
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, using a different name.
4. Festive fun
Speaking of Christmas, most of England’s most popular traditions take place during the festivities. On Christmas Day, the English tend to tuck into a huge Christmas Dinner, which is really just an elevated roast dinner. 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. This culminates in the much-maligned Christmas pudding, a dark, sticky and dense sponge made with dried fruits, wine, pieces and brandy.
It’s also when the Queen’s Speech takes place, a 20 minute-or-so speech in which she reflects on current issues and everyone remarks on how well she is looking. 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.
Then there’s Boxing Day, a national bank holiday that always takes place on December 26th. Traditionally, this was the one day that servants could take off during the holidays. They might receive a Christmas box from their employers and take this home to open with their families. These days it means big shopping sales and lots of leftovers. Turkey curry anyone?
5. Going ‘down the pub’
This is really a pastime, but it’s so ingrained in English culture that it’s become a tradition for many. Most people have their “local”, either near the office or close to home. People tend to go there so regularly that they get to know the staff and other customers. Thursday is a popular evening for pub excursions, as is the weekend. As soon as the sun comes out, people hotfoot to any pub with outdoor space (check out some of the best here), even if it is only November.
It’s not just about drinking either — you’ll often find pubs playing the biggest sports matches, people playing darts and groups testing their trivia knowledge with an organized pub quiz.
6. Cheese Rolling in the Cotswolds
This isn’t strictly an English tradition, since it only takes place in the Cotswolds, but it is one of the most peculiar. During the late spring, thousands of people descend on Gloucestershire for their famous Cheese Rolling tradition. Essentially, competitors must need to roll a round of Double Gloucester cheese all the way down Cooper’s Hill to the finishing line. Sounds easy, but those cheeses can race up to speeds of 70 mph. The winner then needs to perform a shirtless spring while holding their trophy, back up the hill. Broken bones are not unheard of either.
7. Morris Dancing
Some speculate that Morris Dancing actually originated in Spain when the Catholics celebrated the removal of the Moors in the 15th century, but that’s really just hearsay. While we might never know how it got here, we do know that it’s been practised for around five centuries (bar a short period where Oliver Cromwell banned it). There are six different styles of morris dancing, but usually, it involves men and some women dressed in white trousers and red braces wielding sticks, handkerchiefs and swords as they dance. It’s most popular along the Welsh borders and more rural England.
This should not be confused with Maypole dancing, which is a totally different tradition. Maypole Dancing takes place on May Day and historically heralded the arrival of spring. Practised since the medieval ages, traditionally a village crowns its prettiest girl as the May Queen and the rest of the village dance around with sackcloths, hornpipes and fiddles while jigging.