If you’re about to have your first Christmas in the UK, it is well worth being aware of the various traditions surrounding celebrations in this country. Below is a summary of those you are likely to experience throughout the Christmas season:
- The first-ever Christmas card was posted in England in the 1840’s, and the practice soon became an established part of the build-up to Christmas. Over a billion are now sent every year in the United Kingdom, many of them sold in aid of charities.
- With escalating postage costs, an excellent option for sending Christmas cards locally is by way of local Scouting Christmas Post services. Post boxes are set up in convenient locations (such as churches, newsagents and schools) and for a nominal fee the local Beaver Scouts, Cub Scouts and Scouts will deliver your cards for you.
- Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe are sometimes used to decorate homes or other buildings. They are associated with rituals going back beyond the Dark Ages.
- Shop-bought decorations are becoming increasingly popular, both inside and outside properties. Indeed, some families cover their entire houses with Christmas decorations to raise money for charity.
- The custom of kissing beneath a sprig of mistletoe is derived from an ancient pagan tradition.
- Most families have at least one Christmas tree in their house during the Christmas period (either an evergreen conifer such as pine or fir, or an artificial version).
- Traditionally people do not put up the Christmas tree and begin to decorate their homes until about 12 days before Christmas (though many do now decorate in the first and second weeks of December). It is also traditionally unlucky to have any sign of Christmas, by way of trees, Christmas cards or decorations, showing after the 6th January, which is 12 days after Christmas.
- The decorating of the tree is usually a family occasion, with everyone helping. The tree was traditionally decorated with edibles such as apples, nuts or dates. In the 18th century, it began to be illuminated by candles, which with electrification could be replaced by Christmas lights. Today, there are a wide variety of traditional ornaments, such as garland, tinsel, and candy canes. An angel or star is usually placed at the top of the tree, to represent the host of angels or the Star of Bethlehem from the Nativity.
- Presents for the family are placed beneath the Christmas tree.
- Every year since 1947, the City of Oslo in Norway has presented the City of Westminster with a large Christmas tree which stands in London’s Trafalgar Square in commemoration of Anglo-Norwegian cooperation during the Second World War.
- Another Christmas tree, presented by the British Christmas Tree Growers Association, stands outside the Prime Minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street.
Traditional Christmas entertainment
- Like a lot of countries, Nativity Plays and Carol Services are very popular at Christmas time. Many churches have Carols by Candlelight and Christingle services. Carols are often sung on Christmas Eve by groups of singers to their neighbours. There is also a program of Christmas carols in Trafalgar Square each year.
- Pantomimes are popular among British children at Christmas time. These are song and dance dramatizations of well-known fairy tales that encourage audience participation.
- Children write letters to Father Christmas listing their requests, but sometimes instead of putting them in the post, the letters are tossed into the fireplace. The draught carries the letters up the chimney and Father Christmas reads the smoke. If they would like to post their letters, they can be sent to Santa/Father Christmas, Santa’s Grotto, Reindeerland, SAN TA1 (if they put their name and address on the letter, they may even get a reply).
- To keep the magic alive, video messages from Father Christmas are becoming more popular – these can be arranged by parents at http://www.portablenorthpole.com/home.
- On Christmas Eve, many children in the UK now track Father Christmas online via http://www.noradsanta.org/en/.
- Children believe that Father Christmas leaves presents in stockings or pillow-cases. These are normally hung up by the fire or by the children’s beds on Christmas Eve. Children sometimes leave out mince pies and brandy for Father Christmas to eat and drink when he visits them. Now, some people say that a non-alcoholic drink should be left for Father Christmas as he has to drive!
- In the UK, families often celebrate Christmas Day together, so they can watch each other open their presents and enjoy a hearty meal together.
- The morning sees the opening of presents and many families attend Christmas services at church.
- The main Christmas Meal is usually eaten at lunchtime or early afternoon on Christmas Day. It was traditionally roast beef or goose, although it’s common to have turkey now, with ‘all the trimmings’ (which means roast potatoes, stuffing, a range of vegetables, and bacon wrapped around sausages).
- Usually the best tablecloth, cutlery and glasses are used on the dinner table, and it is further decorated with a Christmas cracker for each person and sometimes flowers and candles.
- This is followed by mince pies and Christmas pudding flaming with brandy (which might contain coins or lucky charms for children, though this is becoming less common). The pudding is usually prepared weeks beforehand and is customarily stirred by each member of the family as a wish is made.
- Later in the day, a Christmas cake may be served – a rich baked fruit cake with marzipan, icing and sugar frosting.
- Another traditional feature of Christmas afternoon is the Queen’s Christmas Message to the nation, broadcast on radio, television and the internet (usually at 3pm).
Saying ‘Happy/Merry Christmas’
- In Scots (a Scottish dialect): ‘Blithe Yule’
- In Gaelic: ‘Nollaig Chridheil’
- In Welsh: ‘Nadolig Llawen’
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