Everyone thinks their own country’s Christmas traditions are the norm, but that’s not true! Many festive traditions started in Europe, or were popularised around the world by the Victorians— like erecting decorated trees in your home. But many British traditions aren’t so widespread, which is a pity because they’re so fun.
It seems a shame these aren’t more commonly done overseas, so I’ve listed a few of my favourites. Maybe you could convince your family to give these a go this year, or just try and popularise a few where you live. That’s how these things get started!
It astonishes me crackers aren’t an essential part of Christmas dinner around the world, because they’re so delightful! They were created in the 19th-century by a sweet maker called Tom Smith, and are essentially a segmented cardboard tube you pull apart with the help of another diner.
They emit the titular “crack” sound because there’s a “snapping” strip of card between each end, similar to what you get with a cap gun. Inside is a gift (of varying quality depending on the expense of the crackers, but the more kitsch the better IMO), a piece of paper with a joke/riddle/puzzle to read aloud to everyone, and a paper crown to wear (which some families take very seriously, so it must be worn even if you look a tit). The person who ended up with the half of the cracker containing the goodies is “the winner” of the pull.
It’s just a fun activity to add to a good Christmas dinner, and provides children with a few extra novelty toys to play with at the table. And adults get some fun out of them too! They can also provoke some table discussion if the piece of paper contains trivia designed to trigger a conversation. Seriously, I can’t imagine Christmas dinner without pulling a few crackers.
An acquired taste, as not every Briton likes a Christmas pudding. And most YouTube videos of Americans trying one ends in it being spat out, but usually because they make the mistake of eating it stone cold! Christmas puddings were invented in the 14th-century and have evolved into dome-shaped fruit pudding (containing raisins, currants, prune, wine, and spices). They’re sometimes coated in flammable brandy butter, which is set alight at the table.
Less common these days is the tradition of baking a penny into the cake (originally a dried pea or bean), with good luck coming to whoever discovers the coin in their serving. I think the money aspect of the tradition has faded somewhat, as people are worried about choking (maybe go back to the dried pea idea?), but a lot of people still make a Christmas “pud” for dessert. Love it or hate it, the smell alone evokes Christmas in many people.
These have a similar taste to Christmas pudding, but more people enjoy them because of the surrounding pastry. They can be eaten hot or cold, with cream or custard (my favourite). Whatever takes your fancy! Mince pies don’t contain “mincemeat”, don’t be confused. They’re sweet not savoury, and are traditionally eaten throughout the month of December. It’s also common for parents to leave one for Santa Claus (not a child’s cookie), with a glass of sherry or brandy (not a baby’s milk) before bedtime on Christmas Eve.
How to explain pantomime, or “panto”? The word means something different overseas, as this has nothing to do with mime. It’s a musical comedy show, primarily based around a classic fairy tale or myth (e.g. Jack and the Beanstalk, Aladdin, Snow White, etc), containing lots of singing and dancing, silly jokes, comical wordplay, sexual innuendos (for the parents!), and the dreaded audience interaction and participation. (Yes, the fear of every adult is getting dragged up on stage to dance or sing along to something. Don’t sit in the front row…)
The phrase “he’s behind you!” is famously shouted to alert the hero to someone or something lurking behind them, and “oh yes it is!” or “oh no it’s not!” is a standard response from audiences asked a particular question in that style. It’s also tradition for the lead boy to be played by a girl (especially Peter Pan), and for the female “Dame” character to be a man in drag.
Panto’s run from October to February, but peak during the Christmas period, and can be produced by amateur and professional theatres. It’s common for a professional pantomime to cast famous people, with kitsch value added in the Z-list quality of some of them. (Indeed, many old-school British entertainers from the 1970s and ’80s now make their living from panto, and have become synonymous with it.) A few Hollywood celebs have also been tempted to get involved as it can pay very well, with Henry Winkler and David Hasselhoff most notable from recent years.
This is actually a German tradition that caught on in the UK in 1982 when the city of Lincoln established one. Indeed, many of the British Christmas markets retain the Germanic flavour of Christkindlmarkt, particularly in terms of selling delicious bratwurst sausages. A Christmas market is exactly what it sounds like — hundreds and potentially thousands of stalls selling trinkets, food, and drink — only with a festive theme and adornments.
They can be small or large, but often attract a lot of media attention. Some cities have extremely popular and well-produced ones, so visitors travel from hours away. They can also involve funfair rides (a ferris wheel, carousel, etc.), and anything else dreamed up to draw the crowds. Choirs, street performers, live music, you name it. There’s nothing better than wandering amidst brightly lit stalls on a cold winter’s evening, smelling the food, and buying overpriced Christmas goodies.
The Queen’s Speech
Every year, on Christmas Day, the Queen (or King!) gives a pre-recorded speech to the UK and Commonwealth. A lot of people take watching it very seriously (sit down, shut up, be respectful), but these tend to be your grandparents. These days it’s not as “magical” to hear from royalty, as it once was, and the Queen tends to say much the same thing every year, so it’s not essential viewing like in the 1950s and ’60s. But it’s still a nice tradition and a relatively rare time when you hear the Queen speak directly to all of her subjects. I’m surprised other countries don’t have a similar thing, with their elected officials offering some positive words of comfort.
I assumed everyone had a Boxing Day for a long time into adulthood, but that isn’t so. This is the day after Christmas Day, the 26 December, which is a national holiday in the UK. It bewilders me that people overseas may go back to work this day! This means they presumably can’t drink too much on Christmas Day either, as they have work the next morning! Madness! When Christmas falls on a Friday it must be a blessing. It just makes sense to give everyone a minimum of two day’s off, doesn’t it? Be fair to people.
Boxing Day is also handy for seeing other branches of your family you couldn’t be with for Christmas itself, so it can involve a lot of travelling to other people’s homes for a sort of Christmas Day Redux (with gift-giving also possible if you didn’t want to send stuff through the post but deliver it personally). “Bubble and squeak” is also a popular food to eat on this day, which is a quick and easy meal you can make from Christmas dinner leftovers.
It’s also the traditional start of the UK’s winter “Boxing Day” sales, which is sort of like Black Friday, only timed atrociously because all the stuff you bought for Christmas might be 25% off now! Yeah, I don’t get it either. And that’s before “January Sales” rub it in further.
So those are my favourite British Christmas traditions. There are some others, but those are the main ones it would seem strange not to have be a part of the experience to me. I know a few depend heavily on history and culture, so pantomimes aren’t suddenly going to be all the rage in a country that has no attachment to this art form. But you make make a pudding and mince pie, can’t you? You can ask your local government representative to argue for making 26 December a national holiday. Maybe you can order some crackers from overseas, too?
Do you have any traditions where you live that British people don’t do? Let me know in the comments below.