Celebrating Christmas in England
There are many famous and ancient traditions associated with Christmas, here we highlight some of the key traditions that make Christmas special in England.
It is the season to be merry and after a hard gruelling year slogging away everyone is ready for this festive season. As some families polish their silver tableware ready for the Christmas day feast, villages and cities hang up their festive decorations and open the doors to a season of Christmas shopping and anticipation for Christmas day.
What makes a classically English Christmas? Classic poems would probably do a better job of capturing the festive spirit. With so many cultures sharing the Christian tradition of Christmas it is a little tricky pointing out what is truly an original English Christmas. Indeed it would be fair to say that even regions throughout England have their own quirky festivities – as do Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. So it is worth visiting local tourism or government websites to check what’s on in your area – see also our Christmas Market’s feature.
Also England has become increasingly multi-cultural with families of many different religious faiths, we would advise readers to be sensitive to other’s beliefs during this season. That said, Christmas has perhaps become more of a Western cultural festival in recent years as it has become more commercial. However it is worth noting that its roots derive not only from Christianity, but also Paganism -- in northern Europe pagans celebrated the winter solstice, known as Yule. Yule was symbolic of the pagan sun god, Mithras, being born.
Let’s look then at some of the top things that make Christmas special in England.
For England, Christmas is a time when all the family tend to come together from wherever they might be. Each family has its own tradition’s but in cases where families are far apart, it is an important decision to decide who will host Christmas this year. Panic in the kitchen with Christmas dinner preparations are fairly normal. Family members tend to buy each other presents and put them under the Christmas tree, to open on Christmas day.
Advent is a word derived from the Latin word ‘adventus’ which means ‘coming’. Western Christian churches celebrate the ‘nativity of Jesus’ at Christmas which also marks the beginning of the ‘church’s religious year’. Some families put stylish Christmas wreathes on their front door during advent. It is worth dropping into a Cathedral during this season as they tend to be specially decorated – the colours of the altar cloth are white and gold – and the music will be equally festive.
With origins in Germany since at least the nineteenth century it has been the tradition that at the beginning of Advent children celebrate the story of Christmas. They do this through opening 24 little ‘doors’ each day on an illustrated cardboard calendar showing the dates leading up to Christmas Eve (the day before Christmas day). Each window traditionally shows a different illustration portraying a scene from the nativity story. You can also get advent calendars which feature chocolates and Disney characters.
Christmas trees and decorations
Suddenly everyone is selling Christmas tree’s – or at least that is how it seems – god knows where they are all grown or who grows them? Purchasing the right size is always a moment of concern, how high is your ceiling? Make sure that the pine needles aren’t already falling off when you get it otherwise your vacuum cleaner won’t have much a of a holiday either. You can purchase plastic Christmas tree ‘holders’ which help keep the tree upright, alternatively you can use a bucket and wedge the tree trunk between some bricks, then decorate the base with some cloth. You can always opt for a plastic tree with fake snow.
In days gone by making your own tree decorations was quite common, these days there is so much variety of decorations from baubles, tinsel to fairy lights and numerous others to choose from. Don’t forget a giant start at the top of the tree! (Decorations should be taken down on the twelfth day).
Towns across the land usually have a ‘giant Christmas tree’ placed somewhere in the town centre – the Christmas tree is a Western tradition that originates from sixteenth century Germany and which was first introduced to England in the early 1800’s and became popular during the reign of Queen Victoria.
Thanks to contemporary thinking on events, cities across Britain and indeed Europe have been taken over by Christmas markets making local economies and tourism boom over the Christmas season. The markets are sometimes called ‘fayres’ which is an old English spelling of ‘fair’. Many cities host arts and crafts fairs and even food markets featuring ‘continental’ (European) food. Other events are usually common throughout this season as well.
So every child is told – that Santa Claus (Father Christmas) visits every child across the world in one night, climbs down their chimney (or other such miraculous means) and leaves a stocking full of gifts at the end of the child’s bed or hanging beside the fireplace. Before Christmas children are typically instructed to write a letter to Santa with a ‘wish list’, which depending on the family can involve sending the letter up the chimney. Famously Santa is partial to a glass of something alcoholic and mince pies – which can be left near the stockings.
Without wanting to dispel any Christmas myth about Father Christmas, for any further questions, please ask a friendly British neighbour or failing that – ask the landlord at your local pub who will be sure to put you straight.
Stockings are available from shops including specially decorated ones, you can opt for large hiking socks or some people prefer pillow cases.
Eve – which famously means the day before something. On this day children watch carefully for gifts placed under the tree with their name on. In the evening it is very important that children put out their stockings ready for Santa Claus before they go to bed – plus any refreshments they might like to offer Santa. Some churches and cathedrals do ‘Midnight Mass’ or a ‘Carol Service’ which can usher in the festive season very well as everyone gets to sing songs and feel thoroughly good afterwards. Families sometimes invite friends over for drinks of mulled wine and mince pies in the evening
Suddenly all the TV channels in Britain broadcast the nation’s best -loved sentimental movies and blockbusters that makes some create schedules. After eating copious amounts of Christmas dinner and as adults drowsily fall in and out of sleep in armchairs, a Christmas movie can be the perfect companion – especially for kids – if they aren’t playing with their new presents.
In the run up to Christmas shopping malls, theme parks and certain large shops have a Santa’s grotto where parent’s can take their child to visit Santa Claus – and they get a ‘pre-Christmas’ gift. Famously each year there is a Santa’s grotto in Covent Garden, London. This is also popular in the United States and has been immortalised in movies numerous times.
Everyone knows Christmas carols. Consider numerous students of English in a distant country being taught a carol by their friendly English teacher. Traditionally carol singers go around villages singing carols – this still happens depending on the village or town. The most obvious place to sing them is in church during advent or on Christmas day itself. Carols are not to be mistaken for Christmas pop songs – which will most likely be playing in every shop you enter during December.
Mulled wine and mince pies
Mulled wine is a heated concoction of red wine and herbs – like cinnamon. The very smell is evocative of Christmas in England and if you attend a party or even a concert expect to be offered this tasty seasonal drink – accompanied with a mince pie.
This is possibly the ‘peak’ of Christmas day, a time when all the family sit around a table and eat together. Christmas crackers – featuring a silly joke, party hat and game - are usually on the table and pulled between two people during the meal. The dinner usually features a roast turkey with vegetables, followed by Christmas pudding, then followed by Christmas cake!
There dozens of different variations to Christmas dinner, but usually it is very filling and for some it means an appointment with the local gym a week later.
According to Scandinavian tradition, any two people meeting under Mistletoe should kiss. Hence it has become tradition to hang Mistletoe somewhere in the house and couples kiss under it.
Every family opens them at different times, but usually there is ‘one moment’ when everyone ‘attacks’ the horde of presents under the Christmas tree. A sea of Christmas paper ensues.
Also known as St. Stephen’s Day and the first of the ‘twelve days of Christmas’. Harking back to Anglo-Saxon times (which is a very long time ago) this was a day of giving seasonal gifts – in a Christmas box. It is known as a ‘shopping holiday’, a time when shops suddenly make dramatic price decreases. The shops will literally be heaving with people.
Between Christmas and the early New Year, many theatres put on Pantomimes which often feature celebrities dressed up to entertain. The stories follow the line of traditional tales such as Jack and the Beanstalk or Cinderella. It is normal for there to be a ‘dame’ (a man dressed up as a woman) who is the ‘clown’ of the show and who usually has a sidekick being the ‘protagonist’, both up against some terrible villain – the audience is always encouraged to participate with lots of ‘boo’s and hisses’. It is usually great fun and a very silly performance tailored to families with children. It can become a regular annual family tradition to go along.
The Queen’s Speech
It is tradition in Britain that on Christmas day the Queen (or King) broadcasts a five to ten minute message to the people of the Kingdom –on various channels usually the BBC. The speech is usually broadcast in the afternoon and many families stop what they are doing to listen.
Twelve days of Christmas
Traditionally the 12 days begin on the 26 December – St Stephens Day and continue until the ‘Feast of the Epiphany’ on 6 January. This period is sometimes known as Christmastide. A song known for celebrating this period is ‘The twelve days of Christmas’ that begins:
my true love sent to me
A partridge in a pear tree.”
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