Your Ultimate British Christmas Guide

Of course, Christmas is Christmas and the basics are ubiquitous in any country with a Christian tradition. That said, everybody celebrates it, if they celebrate it at all, in their own way. Each family seems to have its own traditions, which change over time and as people come and go. Each country has its own unique foibles as well; and, like it or not, Christmas is an ever-changing feast (it always has been). Anyway, this brief guide will help you understand the basics of Christmas in Britain – if you’re visiting or if, like me, you’ve lived here all your life and are still confused.

1. A Christmas Carol

‘A Christmas Carol’ is a short tale, a novella, written by British icon Charles Dickens (1812-70). It was first published in December 1843 and only took the author about six weeks to produce. The story introduces us to the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, a bitter, anti-Christmas, miser, who one Christmas Eve is visited by the ghost of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley.

Marley’s Ghost tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three spirits. Much to Scrooge’s dismay, the spirits – in turn, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to come – do pay a visit. As a result, Scrooge is transformed into a kind benefactor. It is a wonderfully uplifting tale that, personally, I never tire of hearing. There have been numerous film and TV versions, many of them excruciatingly awful; but the very best of all has to be the 1951 film starring Alastair Sim.


2. Pantomime

Pantomime is a uniquely British – some might even say English – form of seasonal entertainment. Based on a simple plot in which the goodies always win, such as a fairy story like ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ or ‘Cinderella’, it relies on skilful ham acting, audience participation, bad – and often topical – jokes, a bit of slap-stick and some singing and dancing.

There are a few other essential ingredients: firstly, a pantomime dame, always played by a man, and a principle boy, always played by a girl.  Those who don’t know any better suggest this is cross-dressing; it is not; the dame is meant to be a parody of a woman and the boy normally looks exactly like a girl. There has to be an outrageous villain, who attracts boos and hisses whenever s/he enters the stage. A fairy godmother is always useful to have around and, if animals are involved (including horses and cows), they have to be played by humans. Though pantos are primarily aimed at children, good ones operate on two levels...

"We Brits love our double entendre"

The history of pantomime can be traced back to  a form of Roman theatre with mime, which evolved into Italian and French street theatre that involved stock characters: the heroine, Columbine, the old man, Pantalone, and the clown, Pierrot.  Crossing the Channel, this became more outrageous and bawdy and then received an injection of British music hall.


3. Christmas Jumpers

To be fair, Britain has often flirted with dodgy pullovers.  Think of those naff little short-sleeve things you see in photographs of the 40s and 50s, the dreadful ‘tank-tops’ of the 70s and the infiltration of Fair Isle in the 80s.

A Bit About Britain is not the kind of place to come for a fashion consultation, but even we know it wouldn’t be fair to entirely blame fireside crooners, skiers and golfers for every piece of hideous knitwear you’ve ever seen. Which brings us to the Christmas jumper.  

Always a favourite unwanted gift, the 21st century Christmas jumper is in a class of its own.  Indeed, this woolly wonder has gone beyond discomforting geometric patterns and embraced kitsch to an extreme that only those who think it’s tasteful to festoon their houses with illuminated inflatable nativity scenes can aspire to. The difference, of course, is that the Christmas jumper is meant to be ironic.  What some experts believe began in 2001 in the UK, when Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) met Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger) sporting a large reindeer head on his roll-neck, has evolved to a really ridiculous degree in which garish vulgarity is the new cool at Yule. 

Attach a few bells and lights, and it is possible to compete with your friends for wearing the most over the top jumper at the Christmas party.  With the addition of a compact power supply and a mobile application, who knows where it will end?


4. The Queen's Speech

The Royal Christmas broadcast is an intrinsic part of Christmas for many in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth.  The first Royal Christmas broadcast was in 1932, when King George V spoke on the ‘wireless’ to the Empire from a small office at Sandringham.  George VI carried on the practice, delivering a Christmas message every year from 1939, through the war years, until his death in 1951.  Our current queen, Elizabeth II, has broadcast every year except 1969, and the broadcast has been televised since 1957.  As well as reflecting on Christmas, the Queen mentions global, national and personal events which have affected her and her audience over the year. It’s usually at 3pm on Christmas Day, by the way.

Some foreign chappie wrote that some Brits – especially older ones – stand while this is going on and even remove their hats.  Well, the things you learn about yourself and your country from the Internet…but I can’t stop to natter – I feel a genuflection coming on.


5. St. Boniface

St Boniface was born Wynfrid, in Devon, sometime in the late 7th century.  By the early 8th century, he was working in Germany, converting the heathen volk to Christianity.  The story goes that he came across a group of pagans who were just about to cheerfully celebrate the winter solstice by sacrificing a young man under Odin’s sacred oak. Furious, Boniface picked up an axe and cut down the mighty tree – which was instantly recognised as a divine act demonstrating the power of Boniface’s God over the other ones.  

The astonished pagans understandably wanted to know what they would do for solstice without their tree.  Some say that a fir tree instantly grew where the oak had been, and Boniface urged all to take home one of those; other versions of the story say that a tiny fir tree was already there, a symbol of life growing in the roots of the oak. Thus, it is claimed that Boniface invented the Christmas tree.


6. Feast of Stephen

St Stephen was the first Christian martyr.  He was stoned to death in around 34 AD and his feast day is 26 December.


7. Merry Christmas

We can say 'Happy Christmas' or 'Merry Christmas' -but we don't say 'Merry Birthday', or Merry Anniversary’ (etc).  Does this suggest we don’t want people to be joyous on their birthdays?  I haven’t found a satisfactory explanation for this – not one that doesn’t ramble, anyway.  ‘Merry’ is an older word than ‘happy’ and used to mean ‘favourable, pleasant’.  ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen’ (note the comma) is an old carol and the phrase means something like, ‘stay well, chaps’.  Merry Christmas was used extensively in Victorian Britain – the first Christmas card said, ‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.’ 

But by this time, the meaning of ‘merry’ had changed to ‘mirthful’ – and could also mean ‘slightly tipsy’.  So the temperance brigade may have preferred to use ‘happy’. My own fudge on the subject is that it’s generally bad English to use the same adjective twice in the same sentence, so if you are wishing someone seasonal greetings for Christmas and the New Year you have to choose a different one for each; and Merry Christmas and Happy New Year sounds better than Happy Christmas and Merry New Year, even though either would be appropriate.


8. Traditional Christmas Dinner

I suppose everything here depends on when something starts becoming ‘traditional’. I’m probably being picky, but the popularity of turkey at Christmas is relatively recent; I mean, the creature isn’t even native to these islands. And another thing; while the origins of Christmas pudding are medieval, brandy butter seems to be a 20th century creation, though rum butter, originating in Cumbria, was around in Victorian times.  I suppose you could argue – with some justification – that potatoes aren’t traditional, either; like the turkey (and cranberries and tobacco), they were brought back from the New World. While I’m about it, I would not expect to see Yorkshire pudding served with turkey, as you see advertised on some menus; in my view, it should only be served with roast beef, or on its own with gravy.

The point is, of course, that traditionally Christmas was simply a time of feasting for those that could afford it. And those that could, would dine on a variety of dishes; peacock, swan and boar were all widely popular with the idle rich in medieval Britain. Henry VIII is reputed to be the first monarch to gobble turkey, but up to the Victorian era, and before the turkey take-over, the roast of choice was goose.


9. Christmas Crackers

Christmas crackers are short tubes of cardboard covered with coloured paper, twisted at both ends, which typically contain some sort of novelty, a joke or wise saying and a paper hat.  Two people hold the cracker at each end and pull it apart.  A ‘snap’ runs through the cracker so that a small ‘crack’ is heard when this happens.  The contents then fall out and are kept by one of the pullers.  Crackers are normally found decorating dining tables and are pulled before or after the meal; etiquette – including who gets to keep the goodies – vary; though everyone should wear a hat.

It is generally accepted that crackers were the creation of a London confectioner, Tom Smith, in 1846.  Smith was inspired by seeing bonbons (sweets) wrapped in tissue in Paris.  He took the idea to England, later adding little mottos, novelties, more extravagant packaging, and the ‘snap’.


About the Author

British author Mike Biles wrote the book 'A Bit About Britain's History: From a long time ago until quite recently', which originates with his blog, A Bit About Britain, an authoritative portal into Britain’s history and heritage.
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