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Planning a Traditional British Christmas in the US

Updated on December 4, 2016

Christmas Celebrations

Many Christmas traditions performed in the US are shared by British people. However there are several that are unique to the UK. With a little thought and research there are ways you can celebrate these traditions while living in the US.

There are many similarities between a traditional British Christmas and one celebrated by Americans. Traditionally it is a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus. In both countries many people are on vacation from work and the holiday is often marked by spending time with family. The highlight of the holiday is Christmas Day on December 25th where people attend Church Services, eat a Christmas meal with family and open presents. In both countries lots of planning and preparation happens prior to the day itself. Gift buying, decorating homes, planning meals, parities and baking cookies are all part of the preparations for the big day.

The Adoration of the Shepherds 25 December 1622

Gerard van Honthorst- The Adoration of the Shepherds.
Gerard van Honthorst- The Adoration of the Shepherds. | Source

Advent Calendar - Children open a door each day in the count down to Christmas. Usually a gift or chocolate treat is inside.



In recent years preparations for the holiday have begun earlier. In the US it is not uncommon to see people begin to decorate their homes as soon as Thanksgiving is over and stores sell decorations and gifts even earlier. The day following Thanksgiving is usually marked by a shopping day in many states named Black Friday. For many this marks the start of their holiday shopping.

Traditionally in the UK, main preparations would begin with the start of Advent. Advent occurs during the 4 Sundays before December 25th. It begins on the Sunday closest to Nov 30th and ends at midnight on the 24th December. Some families have an advent candle or wreath with 4 candles, one being lit each Sunday in advent. Children open a door each day on an Advent Calendar each day to count down to Christmas. It is a time to plan menus, purchase gifts, sing carols and decorate homes, In most homes in the UK a tree is put inside and decorated. This is also common in the US and there is a wide range to choose from. Artificial, cut yourself farms and trees that come with their roots (so they can be re planted after) are all options readily available.

Tree decorations are also common place and can purchased in many locations. In the UK families also decorate their tree with small chocolates on strings. These are challenging to find in the US, some mail order companies or online stores like Amazon do stock them and there are several online store that ship from the UK. This would also be a good source for chocolates traditionally eaten at this time of year. Many families will buy tins of popular chocolates such as Cadbury Roses, Quality Street, Celebrations to enjoy with guests or while watching Christmas movies. Alternatively it would be simple to make your own decorations using chocolate molds, foil and ribbon.


Tree decorations - children hang these on the tree to eat during the Christmas season.

Baking Preparation -Cake

Part of the preparation in the run up to Christmas in the UK is baking. There are several cake type foods traditionally eaten at Christmas that take several weeks to prepare. A traditional Christmas cake is often started over a month before Christmas. A rich fruit cake is baked and then fed brandy or whiskey every few days for several weeks. Recipes are often passed down through generations and can vary from region to region. There are also variations in the preparation and storabe of the cake. In South Wales it is traditional to wrap the baking tin in newspaper and tie string around it while baking.

Just before Christmas the cake is covered in marzipan and on top of that a thick layer of white icing. A final layer of decoration is added, a Christmas scene or family ornaments. Christmas cake should last a long time.

It is possible to find all the ingredients needed to make a traditional cake in the US. Grocery stores such as Wegmans often have international isles. recipes can be easily adapted by converting measures and heating temperatures. This would be eaten with friends and family as they visit during the holiday, often with a cup of tea or as an alternative to desert.

White icing and cherries for the cake

Icing for the top layer found at the grocery store
Icing for the top layer found at the grocery store | Source
Cherries found at grocery store
Cherries found at grocery store | Source
Well used family recipe for Christmas Cake
Well used family recipe for Christmas Cake | Source
Cake ready to marzipan and Ice
Cake ready to marzipan and Ice | Source

Christmas Pudding

Christmas pudding would be prepared in advance and eaten as desert after Christmas dinner. It is a rich fruity pudding that is drenched in brandy and set alight when it is served. The main ingredients are dried fruit,nuts, flour, eggs, suet or butter and spices, and is usually a ball shape.It is customary to hide a silver coin in the pudding mix and the person who finds it in their slice of pudding has luck for the following year.Like the Christmas cake it is prepared at least a month before Christmas and occasionally fed alcohol to keep the fruit moist. Pre made Christmas pudding can be bought in grocery stores in the US such as Wegmans that sell international food. It is served with custard, brandy butter or ice cream.

Shop bought Christmas Pudding


Mince Pies

The third sweet food usually cooked during Advent is mince pies or mince tarts as they are called in Scotland. Mince pies are different in that they are eaten throughout the Advent period. In some areas of the UK it is considered lucky to eat a mince pie everyday. They would be served with tea or coffee as an after dinner desert or with guests during a visit. Today most people buy ready made sweet mince meat and make their own pies, and most grocery stores sell ready made pies. In the US it is possible to buy both minced meat and ready made pies in stores such as Wegmans.

Store bought Mince Pies

US store bought mince pies
US store bought mince pies | Source

Christmas Day

How Christmas Day is celebrated is unique to each family. Attending church services, visiting with family or opening gifts are all activities enjoyed by many. Christmas dinner is usually served close to noon. Traditionally this was so that the meal and the clean up were completed before the Queens speech at 3pm. Today the Queens speech is recorded so it can be viewed at a convenient time wherever you are in the world.

The meal usually consists of a whole turkey, roast potatoes, brussel sprouts, bread pudding, stuffing, a selection of vegetables and hot gravy. In some parts of the country people also have sausages wrapped in bacon and yorkshire pudding. This is a batter pudding, a dish made of eggs, flour, and milk.

There is one part of the meal that children particularly enjoy. At the beginning of the meal people pull Christmas crackers. A Christmas cracker is a colored tube with twists at each end. Two people each hold an end of the cracker and pull. A snap noise is heard and the person who holds the larder piece of the cracker 'wins' the contents. Inside will be a prize, a hat, and a joke. Jokes are told, hats are worth and jokes compared. Stores in the US such as TJ Maxx and are increasingly stocking crackers and can be picked up easily if you shop early in the season. It is also easy to make homemade crackers minus the snap with kitchen roll tubes.

Christmas Cracker

Cracker | Source
Each person holds one end of the cracker and pulls.
Each person holds one end of the cracker and pulls. | Source
Contents of a cracker
Contents of a cracker | Source

So with a little forward planning and shopping around, a British Christmas can be achieved while living in the US. Many traditional food items can be purchased either online or in select supermarkets and some customs are practiced in both counties, making them easily accessible to everyone.

© 2013 Ruthbro


Submit a Comment
  • Ruthbro profile imageAUTHOR


    5 years ago from USA

    Yes, we actually use them to decorate the tree too!

  • Kathleen Cochran profile image

    Kathleen Cochran 

    5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

    My daughter made "crackers" part of her new year's celebration this year. Didn't know they were British. Do you use them at new year's as well?


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