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British Customs and Traditions

Updated on April 4, 2018
Al Greenbaum profile image

Al was born and raised in northern England. He spent the first 22 years of his life there.

Introduction

Traditions and customs make a country's heart. Without them, there is no unique feel to a nation. Moreover, visitors to a nation are always fascinated to experience something different or new.

England has been attracting attention from all over the world because of its way of life. In addition, people who live in the sovereign state feel proud of the things that make them British.

The Royal Family

Perhaps the most recognizable tradition in England is the monarchy, which has been in evidence for close to a thousand years. Although the current Queen, Elizabeth the second, has no great say in the rule of the country, she is much loved and respected, as is her family.

During the second world war, the royal family did their part for victory over the German Army. The Queen trained as a mechanic and driver for the territorial army and messages of hope from the royal household inspired the population.

For many years, the house of Windsor remained attainable to the general public but at the same time, at arm's length. All this changed in 1969 when the Queen agreed to the BBC making the documentary, “Royal Family”. Some of the Queen's children have since expressed their regret at permission being granted to make the film as it ushered in a new relationship with the British public in which the royal household had become “too” accessible.

Nevertheless, the popularity of the Windsors grew and grew until the eighties and nineties when a series of divorces, (unheard of before) plus rumours of infidelity seemed to fill the popular press on a daily basis.

The house of Windsor maintained its strong relationship with the British public but there was shock and concern that a family that was at one time was a role model to the whole country, were in essence, just like any other family, with fallings-out, separations, divorces and “co-respondents”.

Things became very dark when soon after Prince Charles married Diana Spencer, allegations began to surface about a marriage that had three people in it from the beginning, and how Diana had never really been accepted by the Queen because she did things differently and was out of step with royal protocol. There was even more complication as, from the start, the British public had taken Diana to their hearts. So they sided with her when leaked information to the press showed Prince Charles and the residents of Buckingham Palace to be rather cruel and uncaring.

Prince Charles and Diana separated and eventually divorced. The Princess of Wales, as Diana was then known, kept up a very high public profile after the end of her marriage. She campaigned vigorously on the behalf of Aids charities and supported the move to have landmines banned. But, just as she was adjusting to her new life without being at the centre of the royal family, she died in car crash in France after being chased by paparazzi.

Diana had a love hate relationship with the media. On the one hand, they were useful to get her message across for the many good causes she championed, on the other, the intrusion into her private life that the media demanded was impossible to bear.

Nowadays, after all the tumult and chaos of the eighties and nineties, things seem to have settled down and the royals are back on an even keel. Diana's children,William and Harry, have continued her work for good causes. Among the many issues they have brought to the public eye are, mental health as an illness, not an affliction, and the treatment of war veterans. Prince Harry founded the Invictus Games in 2014.

The royal family serve many roles for the English public. Apart from their work in the community, they are good at creating trade links between England and abroad and they attract millions of adoring tourists. But more than that, there is a deep affection for them. They stand for a part of traditions that at one time seemed under threat but has been strengthened by the re-adjustment necessary after the fall out from the end of Charles' marriage to Diana.

The British Royal Family

Christmas

Although not a country of churchgoers, only 5% of people attend church regularly, Christmas is a religious festival that is celebrated with enthusiasm.

The festivities begin in the weeks running up to the big day with the exchange of Christmas cards. Even in the digital age, most people prefer the common touch of a traditional Christmas card sent by post.

About a week before Christmas, houses are decorated to herald the coming of the special day and a Christmas Tree is placed in a prominent position in the front room of the house, adorned with festive colours and baubles.

The day before December 25th is usually the day to put presents under the tree ready for collection the next day. Much thought is put into the wrapping of the gifts so they blend with the overall feel of the front room.

Christmas Day usually begins with the children of the family getting up extra early so they can open up their presents. In the morning a huge feast is prepared with, roast potatoes, carrots, peas, Brussels sprouts and, the crowning glory, a huge turkey.

At around 3pm it is usual to turn the television on to watch the Queen's speech which many people feel very moved by.

The rest of the day may continue with TV viewing of a Christmas classic like “It's A Wonderful Life” or “The Sound of Music”. Some family members may escape to the local public house to meet friends.

Although not as important as Christmas Day, December 26th, Boxing Day, is a time for fitting in things that there was not time for the previous day. Relations who live out of town may call to exchange presents and share a festive drink. Traditionally, the leftover turkey is the source of sandwiches for lunch.

If their team is playing nearby, some family members may drive off to their local stadium where a premier league football match is being played.

Make Your Own Christmas Dinner

Sporting Traditions

The FA Cup Final

From late summer to late spring the following year, the Football Association Cup is played for between teams at the top and very bottom of the professional, semi-professional spectrum. The competition has a number of qualifying rounds until teams from the top divisions join the tournament in early January. Much is made of “the romance” of the cup in which it may be possible for a team from one of the lower leagues to knock out the well-paid professionals of those in the higher leagues.

The competition culminates in the FA Cup Final which is played at Wembley stadium in front of a capacity crowd and a huge international TV audience.

There have been some classic Cup Finals over the years.

1953

Blackpool 4 Bolton 3

Inspired by their best player, Stanley Matthews, Blackpool turned a 1-3 deficit into a winning 4-3 thanks to the silky skills of their England winger.

1973

Leeds United 0 Sunderland 1

One of the biggest shocks in FA Cup history, second division Sunderland overcame the mighty Leeds thanks to the heroics of their inspired goalkeeper, Jim Montgomery.


Wimbledon Fortnight

From the last week in June to the first week in July there is only one topic of conversation, “Who is going to win Wimbledon?” With comprehensive TV coverage, the nation is glued to their sets to see who is going to triumph in the various competitions. British success has been limited overall, with the exception of Andy Murray, but that doesn't stop the public from taking overseas sports stars to their hearts during the intense fortnight of tennis.


The Lord's Ashes Test

England play a variety of teams at cricket from all over the world. But nothing is as important as an Ashes test at Lords against the old enemy, Australia. The two sides play a series of five tests for a small urn containing “The Ashes”. The name comes from one of the earliest encounters between the two nations when England played so badly that a newspaper reported the death of English cricket and the symbolic burning of the wickets used in the match producing, “The Ashes”.

All matches are usually sold out and there is a fierce, competitive spirit that characterises the games.

The Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race

Dating back to 1829, the two university boat teams race each other every year on the four mile course from Putney to Mortlake in London. At the time of writing, the score is, 83 – 80, in Cambridge's favour.


Memorable FA Cup Final

The Weather

Being an island nation, the UK is affected by a lot of meteorological influences. Hence the changeable weather that is the source of much discussion between residents. It is seen as bad form to complain too much about a wet, miserable day, for example. It is better to say something like, “Might clear up later”. Or, “Great weather for the farmers”. Better still, make a small joke, “Great weather for the ducks”.

For a population who are reserved by nature, it is surprising to note that when the topic of weather is brought up with a stranger, it invariably evokes a response.


“Lovely day!”


“Yes, but will it last?”

Dunkirk Spirit

British people love the underdog who triumphs over adversity. Going back to the second world war when British and allied troops were overwhelmed by German troops at Dunkirk, but still managed to get a fair number of soldiers back to safety, there is still great pride in managing to come away with some success when facing seemingly insurmountable problems. Examples of “The Dunkirk Spirit” over the years include,

Rationing After World War Two

Food rationing did not end until 1954 in the UK. Consequently, you had to make to do with what you had – there was nothing else forthcoming. The Government urged people to “Dig For Victory”, in other words, grow your own food.

The 1970's Oil Embargo

When the price of oil went from $3 in 1973 to $12 in 1974, there had to be a huge adjustment in the living standards of British people. Large, oil-guzzling cars were turned in for smaller, more economic models. Oil central heating was taken out and replaced with gas.

The Three Day week

In 1974, when the government was at loggerheads with the National Union of Miners, concerns about coal production levels, and a work to rule by the NUM meant the politicians, rather than risk coal stocks being depleted, ordered a three day working week, restrictions on street lighting, and daily power cuts. It was a surprise to some that many UK residents felt that the prohibitions had actually brought them closer together rather than cause hardship.

Recent Terrorist Attacks

Terrorist attacks in the UK, mainly in London, in 2017, again made “The Dunkirk Spirit” resurface. The population were determined that they would not change their routines in the light of the attacks. Concerts were organised to show solidarity and respect to victims. The internet was flooded with messages of defiance and the need to not be affected by the actions of extremists.

When The Lights Went Out

Food

The most distinctive of British meals is the full English Breakfast, consisting of, mushrooms, baked beans, two fried eggs, bacon, black pudding, toast and a pot of tea. (For the uninitiated, black pudding is made of pork fat or beef suet, pork blood and a relatively high proportion of oatmeal. Yes, pork blood!) As, obviously, it takes a long time to prepare, most people will cook such a huge meal only at weekends, or more likely, wait to go on holiday in the UK and go to hotels who advertise the morning feast as part of their tariff.


Fish and Chips

For many years Fish and Chips was the most popular dish in the UK. Many communities had one, two or even three “Chippies” or Chip Shops where you could go and buy fresh supplies of the nation's favourite meal. But, in recent times, Indian Curry Houses have challenged the monopoly of the “Chippies”. By and large it seems that Curry Restaurants are in the ascendancy and Chip Shops in decline.


Tea

Since colonial times, tea has been a huge part of the British way of life. If there is an emergency or a difficult conversation to take place, a strong cup of tea will smooth the way.

But if there is time for a more measured approach, tea can be drunk with biscuits, (digestive are preferred) or small cakes, or a mixture of both. This is often turned into something ceremonial and called “High Tea”.

Connoisseurs of tea argue about whether the milk should be put in before the tea is poured, or after. As far back as 1946, Dr. Stapley of Loughborough University, UK, established, scientifically, that tea tastes better if the milk is put in first.

The type of tea used is also something that gets brew-makers talking. These days teabags predominate. Not many supermarkets stock “loose” tea. But high-level-tea-lovers insist that teabags are just the remnants of the tea sorting process in a factory. It is only when you have full–leaf tea, that the full flavour comes out.

Recommendations for brewing, or letting the drink stand hover at between three and five minutes. If you are using loose tea, one level teaspoon of tea for each person to take refreshment.

Tea drinking on the less formal of occasions can be drunk from a mug. But when entertaining important visitors the china tea set comes out of storage.

For many years, there used to be the art of telling fortunes from the tea left in a cup. With teabags so much in evidence,the art of tasseography seems to have died off.


Up to the mid-1960's, Lyons Tea Houses were a popular place to drink the nation's favourite beverage.
Up to the mid-1960's, Lyons Tea Houses were a popular place to drink the nation's favourite beverage. | Source

Queueing

Probably because people had to queue for their rations both during and after the second world war, the British have been a nation of queuers. The rules are fairly simple, establish where the queue begins and ends, wait your turn, don't try and steal somebody's place and move forward as those in front of you move forward. Under no circumstances try to bluff your way to the head of the queue. When you are being served, don't take too long to order what you want. If you are entering a cinema, plane or similar, take your seat as quickly as possible.

It is seen as very bad form to engage in a mobile phone conversation once you reach the head of a supermarket queue or in a shop of a comparable nature.

Queueing can become quite an occasion to some. It is seen as a badge of honour to queue all night for Wimbledon tickets or to be one of the first to buy the latest iPhone.

The tradition of queueing was probably at its height during the second world war.
The tradition of queueing was probably at its height during the second world war. | Source

Being Polite

British people are always saying “Sorry”. It is like an involuntary action. Even if someone bumps into someone from the UK, it will be the UK person who will say “Sorry”.

Someone from the British Isles would never say, “Do you have the right time?” Rather,

“I'm terribly sorry to bother you but do you possibly have the right time?”

There are a few reasons for this.


1/ “...Sorry to bother you..” Accepts responsibility for a disturbance in somebody's routine.


2/“Do you have the right time?” Is a little bit abrupt.


3/ “...possibly have...”, takes in the possibility you might not have a watch and saves embarrassment.


4/ British people do not like to give offence, either deliberate or accidental, so they try to make their dealings with people they don't know as gentle as possible.


It may seem a very convoluted way to communicate with others but it does show respect and starts interactions on an even keel.


Punctuality

If you have an appointment with someone, formal or informal, it is seen as disrespectful if you turn up late. If you know you are not going to be able to meet someone, let them know but with plenty of advance notice. Similarly, if you think you might be a little bit late for your meeting, phone to let your friend, or associate, know.

Pubs

At the center of British culture is the pub (public house). It is a place to meet in a usually warm and pleasant surroundings. There will be a selection of alcoholic beverages on sale from cask conditioned ale to liquor of many descriptions.

Some people may play traditional pub games in a special room. Darts and pool are very popular with many pub-goers involved in competitive leagues. For those looking for intellectual stimulation, pub quizzes are well patronised.

But for many patrons, the relaxation of meeting friends and enjoying each other's company is the main attraction of a pub.

The bar at a typical British pub
The bar at a typical British pub | Source

The Last Word

British people are fairly liberal in their views and the way they act. They love helping strangers, especially from other countries. But they do like their traditions. They are not obsessional about them but, as with nations worldwide, they like their customs respected. The Queen, in most corners of popular debate, is not an easy target for criticism. Moaning and making a fuss about things is not seen as good form. But most of all, politeness and regard for others goes a long way.

Of course, there are people who travel far to experience British culture first hand. The royal family, in particular, evokes much attention and affection. Visitors are surprised at how approachable British police are. But, although a little bit conservative, it is the people of the UK, with their positive nature and friendly outlook who tourists regularly remark on.

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    • Al Greenbaum profile imageAUTHOR

      Al Greenbaum 

      8 months ago from Europe

      Yes, you are right about the other things. During the three day week I remember the electricity going off on the dot at 6.45 pm. Just enough time to have your tea. Then, rather than peer at each other through the dark, we put on the candles and played cards or some other game. It was actually quite nice. Then, when it all ended, back to "Coronation Street".

    • Glenis Rix profile image

      GlenR 

      8 months ago from UK

      Well done. We also abide by the rule of law, encourage fair play, are generally tolerant, and have a sense of humour (often ironic). However, there are always exceptions to the stereotype and it can be problematic when incomers do not understand the indigenous culture.

      I remember well when the lights went out - I worked in a small accountancy firm and was required to continue working by candlelight - the Dunkirk spirit!

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