Christmas Traditions in Britain and the UK

I was thinking of writing about Christmas traditions around the world, but instead have decided to write about Christmas traditions in my native Britain.

Christmas starts in the shops months before December, but December is when it starts in earnest, first with Advent and then Christmas itself. Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day (or the following weekday if on a weekend) are all bank holidays, but schools have two weeks off, and many other people take between Christmas and New Year as holiday to have a proper break.

Advent

In the Christian church in Britain, advent starts on the 4th Sunday before Christmas. Four, usually red, advent candles in a circle are placed at the front of the church, with a white candle in the middle. One candle is lit on the first Sunday of advent, two on the second, three on the third and four on the fourth Sunday. On Christmas Day, the white candle in the centre is lit to signify Christ’s arrival in the world.

Non-churchgoers observance of advent is usually limited to Advent Calendars, where a door in the calendar is opened each day of December from 1st to 24th, with either a Christmas picture or a chocolate behind each door. Advent candles are sometimes burned – from top to bottom them have the numbers 1 to 24 (or 25), and one segment of the candle is burned each day as you progress through December.

Christmas Music

Christmas Carols are sung in churches throughout Advent and Christmas, and are often sung by choirs in towns, shopping centres etc during December. Popular carols include ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’, ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’, ‘Silent Night’ and ‘The Holly and the Ivy’. Some of these carols date back hundreds of years.

In secular society, popular Christmas songs are sung on the radio, on TV and are available on special Christmas Compilations. Some of these are famous singers singing traditional carols, but many are modern songs like ‘White Christmas’, ‘Frosty the Snowman’ and ‘Rockin Around the Christmas Tree’. Many children’s songs are sung at Christmas too and have entered popular culture – songs like ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’, ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’.

Christmas Cards & Gift Giving

Christmas is now very commercial in Britain, with Christmas presents, cards and decorations appearing in the shops from September. Most people will send and receive Christmas cards, exchanging them with friends, family and work colleagues. For some, it is a way of keeping in touch with old friends and acquaintances who they have otherwise lost contact with. A large proportion of Christmas cards are charity cards, with a small proportion of the sale price going to charity.

Christmas presents are exchanged with family and sometimes friends. The extent of this varies greatly, with some people spending many hundreds of pounds.

Christmas Decorations

From early December, homes are adorned with Christmas decorations. The centrepiece of festive decorations is the Christmas Tree, traditionally a small pine tree brought into the home and decorated with coloured lights (fairy lights), tinsel and a variety of Christmas decorations that hang off the branches. Christmas presents are placed at the foot of the tree, usually on Christmas night, although sometimes presents from relatives are put under the tree before Christmas. 

Although traditionally a Christmas tree is a real pine tree, increasingly many people have artificial trees which they re-use each year.

Other Christmas decorations include tinsel, paper chains, beads and Christmas pictures, cushions etc. Christmas cards that have been received are hung upon around the house. Some people like to decorate the outside of their houses with light up decorations, and in any town you will see some streets where every house is so decorated as neighbours compete with each other to put on the best display.

Christmas Food

The main event is Christmas Dinner. Traditionally this is Turkey with Roast potatoes, parsnips, sprouts, cranberry sauce, stuffing and gravy. This is followed by Christmas Pudding, a steamed rich fruit pudding with alcohol. Goose is also a very traditional meat served at Christmas.

Other festive food and drink include mince pies, Christmas cake (a fruit cake with icing and marzipan). Traditional Christmas drinks include mulled wine and sherry.

Christmas Eve

In many countries, Christmas Eve is just as important as Christmas Day, but this is not generally the case in Britain. Often businesses will stay open until lunchtime on Christmas Eve, then workers are allowed to go home early in the afternoon. Some people will go to Midnight Mass at a local church in the evening, others will stay at home with the family, and some might have an evening out in the local pub.

Before going to bed on Christmas Eve, it is traditional to leave out a glass of sherry and a mince pie for Father Christmas (also known as Santa), and perhaps a carrot for the reindeer. Inevitably when children get up in the morning, they will find the empty glass and last crumbs of the mince pie, evidence that Father Christmas has visited. Often the mince pie and sherry are replaced with whatever mum or dad likes to drink however, and the carrot probably gets eaten with Christmas dinner! Children will hang stockings either over the fireplace or on the end of their bed.

Father Christmas traditionally enters the house by coming down the chimney, to deliver the presents to the family. When children wake up on Christmas morning, their stocking will be full and there will be presents under the tree – many appearing to be from Father Christmas.

Christmas Day

The time people get up on Christmas morning will probably depend on if they have young children – if they do it will likely be very early, as the children will be excited and wanting to get up at the earliest opportunity. After all the family is up, opening presents will begin. Many people will go to church for the Christmas service mid-morning, even if it is the only time they go to church all year. Christmas dinner is in theory served midday, but will often be mid to late afternoon, giving time for the dinner to be prepared and the turkey cooked (see Christmas food above).

One Christmas tradition particularly for older people is the Queen’s Christmas Message, broadcast on TV at 3pm on Christmas Day afternoon. It lasts 5-10 minutes where the Queen reflects on the year just gone and talks to the nation. The tradition has been going since 1932 when King George V broadcast a radio message to Britain and the colonies (it was estimated that the broadcast was listened to by 20 million people  in Britain, Australia, Canada, India, Kenya and South Africa). The monarch’s Christmas message has been broadcast every year since (except 1969 for some reason).

Christmas evening is either a time to relax with the family over a game or the TV, or descend into drunken arguments – depending on the family! Christmas Day television is dominated by Christmas specials of all the most popular programmes including soaps like Coronation Street and Eastenders, and shows like Doctor Who.

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