Everyone has heard of Christmas, and even if you don’t celebrate it, it has no doubt been a huge part of your life for a long time. Today, we’ll be looking at Christmas in the UK; the old and new customs, and how it differs from other countries. Christmas has been celebrated for just over 2,000 years now, so needless to say it’s been a long ride, not just for the UK of course. This article will show you our traditions, what makes the day so special and how we make it such an important celebration.
So what does a typical Christmas in the UK look like?
Christmas is usually spent spending time with family, and often extended family as well, meaning parents and children will usually spend Christmas together, and often aunts and uncles or grandmas and grandpas will also join in the fun. People will often talk of the elusive “White Christmas”, but actually the UK only gets a single snowflake falling roughly once every 4 or 5 years, and real snow is even rarer, and it usually happens in Scotland.
The lead up to Christmas
You can always tell when it’s Christmas in the UK. Walking down the street, or walking into a supermarket, or listening to the radio, it couldn’t be more apparent what time of the year it is. Around the start of November, major cities will put lights up and turn them on, at an activation ceremony, where many people attend, and usually, a celebrity turns the lights on. Some of the most famous of these are London Oxford Street and Blackpool Illuminations. The radio will play Christmas songs from about halfway through November, and every shop and supermarket will have Christmas sales on, as well as a huge Christmas display in most major retailers. They’ll sell extra toys and clothes with people buying Christmas gifts in mind.
Once December kicks in, children will usually get advent calendars, and the many secular schools, and also churches, around the country will begin their advent countdown. The advent calendars don’t, however, celebrate the religious side of advent. Instead, the calendar will usually have 24 openable slots which usually contain chocolates, but sometimes they will contain other presents as well, such as fruit, sweets, or even toys. Advent calendars come in all shapes and sizes, but the most common type will just contain simple small chocolates, and children will eat one a day on the build-up to Christmas.
Christmas markets are also hugely popular, and will often be found in larger cities such as Manchester, London and Edinburgh. They’ll sell all sorts of things, from food to toys to decorations and will often be crowded from morning until night, so if you go to one you can expect massive queues. There may be fairground rides, outdoor ice rinks and stalls selling hot chocolate, waffles and mulled wine. The surrounding shops will often open later in the evening to give shoppers an opportunity to shop while they are there.
People will put up Christmas trees around this time, and some people are very opinionated as to when is too early to put them up, with some people putting them up as early as 1st November (or even earlier). Some people won’t put the tree up until mid-December, or even Christmas Eve, but most people nowadays will put their trees up from mid-November to early December. Christmas trees are usually decorated with tinsel and lights, as well as baubles. Some people also put up tinsel around the house and will decorate the outside of their house with lights and inflatables (such as Santa and/or reindeer). It is also common to see people decorating their doors with holly wreaths, or putting up mistletoe and holly around the house as decorations. Christmas scented candles will be lit, and decorations which have been handed down through the generations will be gently unpacked and given pride of place for the family to enjoy.
Of course, you can’t mention Christmas without bringing up Black Friday. A new phenomenon, Black Friday occurs on the Friday closest to November 26th each year and offers a plethora of sales with Christmas in mind. Almost every shop in the country offers Black Friday deals. Since Black Friday does happen around the world, it probably won’t be too different from what people experience in any other country, but the UK does have just as much of a mad scramble on the day as anywhere else.
Christmas Eve is usually spent with the immediate family, and they’ll usually spend it together and watch a classic Christmas film (such as, for example, Home Alone or Miracle on 34th Street). Children will often receive “Tree Presents”, that is a present that they open on Christmas Eve, which is usually a new set of cosy pyjamas to wear while they watch the movie. a newer craze, which has only really taken off in the past five years, is the Christmas eve box/bag. These may contain pyjamas, thick wooly socks, a small treat, a book, with the aim of making the evening as cosy and comfortable as possible. The children will leave out milk and cookies for Santa (or sometimes mince pie and brandy, although this isn’t as popular anymore, drunk driving and all) to energise him on his long journey, and carrots for the reindeers, then the children will go to bed and get to sleep as early as possible (after all, Santa won’t come if they’re awake). The children will wake up the next morning to presents under their Christmas tree.
The day itself
Now, usually, the children will be the first ones to wake up; as in many other countries, children know that Father Christmas (also known as Santa or St. Nick) has come in the night while they were asleep and brought them presents. Some families open their presents right away, but many families will have breakfast first. Usually, Christmas breakfast is nothing special; the special food is coming later in the day. Most families will treat Christmas as a pyjama day, and stay in the new pyjamas they got on Christmas Eve. They will stay at home and watch more Christmas movies, eat the chocolates that they got as Christmas presents, and spend time together as a family.
Most families will cook at home. The table would be decorated with Christmas Crackers, which people pop in pairs, and the winner keeps the loot. If you’ve ever seen people wearing paper crowns and been confused, these are the spoils of victory from a cracker battle, and the winner must wear their crown proudly. Families will eat a roast dinner, a meal that Britain is famous for, which involves roast potatoes, roasted meat of some kind, or maybe even 2 (this is usually turkey on Christmas, but can be anything from lamb to chicken to beef), vegetables, and often cauliflower cheese, as well as stuffing (which might be used to stuff the meat or might just be eaten separately), Yorkshire puddings, sometimes cranberry sauce, and of course, gravy to top it off. Some families will go out to eat Christmas dinner, usually to a pub restaurant. They’ll usually still eat the typical Christmas Roast Dinner. “Pigs in Blankets” is also a classic that might go with a Christmas dinner. Pigs in Blankets are just small sausages wrapped in bacon. Brussel Sprouts are also a classic that no Christmas meal is complete without.
The UK is also famous for following the Christmas dinner up with a Christmas pudding or a Christmas cake, but since Christmas pudding/cake is a very fruity dessert, and often contains alcohol, children will eat something different. Trifle is popular, but it could also just be a typical cake dessert such as a sponge cake or a cheesecake.
Christmas dinner is usually eaten from lunchtime to mid-afternoon, and since it’s such a big meal, and usually everyone is eating mince pies and chocolates all throughout the day, a third meal isn’t needed, and everyone is already full anyway. Often the family will watch the Queen's speech at 3pm.
Boxing day was actually started in the UK, though it quickly became popular in other countries, and is more or less regarded as a worldwide holiday today. As for why it’s called Boxing Day, that one is up for debate, but some possible reasons are listed below.
Christmas History in the UK and typical traditions
Christmas was very big in the times of the Tudors (approx. 1500-1600) and people would often celebrate it extravagantly - typically the upper classes, but the poorer people would celebrate as much as they could, fasting and eating less in the build-up to the 12 days of Christmas (starting on Dec 25 and ending on Jan 5) so that they could eat more and celebrate more generously. It was also encouraged for people not to work at this time, although there were many situations where people had to. Servants in rich/royal households would have to work to indulge their master’s festivities, but it would also be typical to see servants and workers were invited to eat the food that was leftover from the meal, they wouldn’t, however, be eating with the master.
Farmers were also forbidden to work on the farms over the 12 days of Christmas, but since the animals still need caring for, farmers would leave extra food and water for the animals over this period.
When Christmas was banned
Christmas was banned in the UK from the mid-1640s until 1660. This was because the puritans thought it was wasteful and people were eating and drinking too much. People were against this and celebrated it quietly, but the law was very much enforced and those found celebrating would be punished in line with the law. Soldiers would be posted on the streets and they would punish shops for being closed, and people who would go to church on December 25th, as well as confiscating food found in feasts. It is a common misconception that Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas, as one of his acts as Lord Protector, but this is untrue, as he became lord protector in 1653, and although he supported the laws Christmas was already banned at that time.
The Victorian Era
Christmas, as it is known today, was probably mostly shaped by the Victorian era in the UK. The new ideas of what Christmas should be were popularised around this time, by works such as Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” which was released in the same year as the invention of the Christmas Card, in 1943. The Christmas tree also became popular around this time. Although Christmas carols had been sung in the past, they had gone a little bit out of fashion before this point in history. Now they were coming back hot with a resurgence of people singing Christmas carols, both door to door and in Churches. A lot of new carols were coined at this time, with Silent Night coming to the UK in 1863 when it was officially translated into English. Christmas became more mainstream again, and although people had known about it before this, since a large portion of families lived in poverty after the country was industrialised, they would struggle to celebrate it, often celebrating more in spirit than with actual festivities. Now Christmas was once again popularised as a time to not work, spend with your family, and indulge yourself. After this, Christmas was much more of what we see today.
Christmas in Scotland
Christmas isn’t really celebrated any differently today than it is in the rest of the UK, but Scotland has had a much rougher of time throughout history with Christmas than they have elsewhere. Although Christmas had technically been unbanned as early as 1686, it wasn’t made a public holiday until 1958! This meant people were celebrating Christmas quietly for about 300 years! Boxing Day had it worse, though, having only been made a public holiday in 1974. Because of this, New Year’s Eve, (also traditionally known as Hogmanay) was much more important in Scotland for a very long time and is still very important today. The second most popular New Years fireworks display in the country is Edinburgh’s Hogmanay display.