Guide to British Christmas Traditions
What You Need to Know
- Many of Britain’s modern-day Christmas traditions were made popular by the Victorians, including Christmas trees, decorations and Christmas puddings.
- However, the origins of Santa Claus can be traced back to Viking times, around 1300 years ago.
- Around 90 per cent of all British families will eat turkey on Christmas Day.
- As with much of Europe, mulled wine – warmed, spiced red wine – is traditionally drunk over the festive period.
- Traditionally, Christmas trees and other decorations should be taken down on the Twelfth Night (January 6th).
- It is considered bad luck to put up any decorations before the start of December, even if many shops break this unwritten rule.
- The Monarch has been giving a Christmas message to the British people and to the Commonwealth every year since 1932.
Food and drink play a central role of Christmas in Britain. In contemporary Britain, turkey is the centrepiece of most Christmas dinners. However, this has not always been the case. Swan, pheasant, goose and peacock were all eaten at Christmas in centuries gone by. And, while it is generally agreed that there is some truth in the assertion that Charles Dickens made the idea of eating turkey at Christmas popular, the invention of the refrigerator was more important as this transformed the bird from a luxury to a staple. Indeed, according to British Turkey, around 90 per cent of families in the UK will eat turkey at Christmas.
Roasted turkey is traditionally accompanied by a variety of vegetables, including Brussels sprouts, carrots, parsnips and roast vegetables, as well as by small sausages wrapped in bacon.
Other traditional Christmas foods in Britain include mince pies and Christmas pudding. The latter has been part of a Great British Christmas since the Middle Ages, when the Church ruled that festive puddings should be made with 13 ingredients (to represent Jesus and his 12 apostles), though again, the tradition was only really revived by the Victorians.
Along with food, drink also plays a central role in a traditional British Christmas. Like in the rest of Europe, hot, spiced wine is popular over the festive period. The British version, known as mulled wine, is traditionally made with red wine, heated and spiced with cinnamon sticks, as well as with cloves, oranges, sugar and lemon.
The Christmas Tree
Most homes across Britain will have a Christmas tree up in them over the Christmas period, while most public squares, churches and even some offices and shopping centres will also have trees.
This tradition dates back to the time of King George III, whose wife Queen Charlotte brought it with her from her native Germany. However, it was Queen Victoria who made the tradition of putting up a tree and decorating it truly popular.
Traditionally, Christmas trees are evergreens, with firs particularly popular. More recently, however, artificial trees have grown in popularity, though even these tend to be decorated with traditional adornments such as bows, bells and a star or angel on top.
As with the Christmas tree, since Victorian times, it has been customary to decorate a home with tinsel, baubles, lights and other festive adornments. Influenced by the US, many Britons now also light up the outside of their homes.
As a rule, all decoration should be taken down on the Twelfth Night (January 6), while it is considered bad luck to put either decorations or a tree up before the first day of December.
Christmas carols have been sung in homes and churches across Britain for many centuries. These generally take a Christian theme, though secular carols can also be sung. Many churches will host special carol services in the run up to Christmas Day, with the ‘Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols’ at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge the most famous.
More recently, the Christmas pop single has become another popular tradition. Since the 1950s, acts have competed for the Christmas Number One spot, with novelty songs, charity efforts and more-mainstream singles having claimed the top spot over the years.
As with other traditions, the actual roots of Santa Claus can be traced back hundreds of years. In this case, it is believed that the tradition began with the Vikings, who arrived in Britain in the 8th and 9th centuries. For their celebration of Jul – from where we get the term ‘Yuletide – children were told that the Viking god Odin would visit them in the middle of the night and leave them a gift of bread.
This morphed with the Dutch tale of Nicholas was Sinterklass as well as the central European tale of Saint Nicholas and eventually became the story of Santa Claus as children across Britain know it today. The tradition truly took off in Victorian times, though it was a Coca Cola advertising campaign of the 1930s that have Santa his red suit, jolly face and big belly.
Royal Christmas Message
The Royal Christmas Message has been a tradition in Britain since 1932, when King George V took to the radio to speak to the people of the Commonwealth. Today, the annual message is read by Queen Elizabeth II and broadcast on TV, radio and over the internet at 3pm, with the monarch chronicling the events of the past 12 months and giving her own personal thoughts along a particular theme.
- You can find great festive recipes from Delia Smith’s site.
- Not a fan of turkey? Read our guide to roasting a chicken