Christmas in the UK

Since Thanksgiving just passed (here in the US) it is now, officially,  the start of the Christmas season. I thought it would be the perfect time to talk about the different traditions in the UK vs US. Because, what the hell is Boxing Day, right?

A note on Thanksgiving: they don’t have it in the UK. Thanksgiving was originally a breaking of bread between the Pilgrims and Native Americans ‘sharing’ land and enjoying the bounty of a successful harvest (mostly thanks to the Native Americans). There’s no reason why it would be celebrated in the UK.

The only downside I can see to not having Thanksgiving is not having a consensus on when the Christmas season starts. Here in the US, Christmas is all we talk about from the day after Thanksgiving until December 25th.  Or it’s certainly the only reason we shop.  A huge upside, however, is a lack of Black Friday related deaths. Have I mentioned on this blog (don’t know why I would have) that I hate Black Friday?

So, the main event. Christmas!

Christmas Eve is not as big of an event in the UK as here in the US. There might be some carol singing, or a trip to the pub to spend time with friends.  That’s about it. The big deal is Christmas Day.

I did hear an interesting factoid: instead of milk and cookies, sherry and mince pies are left out for Father Christmas.  Also, sometimes carrots are left out for his reindeer–why didn’t I ever think of this as a child!?

It’s the same religion, so the basic tenets of the holiday are the same.  Jesus’ supposed birthday, combined with the pagan Winter Solstice traditions to create an amalgam of seasonal and religious imagery and confusion. There are still presents, awkward and annoying family conversations, and there is still the over-consumption of food (especially sweets) and wine.

What are the differences?

Santa Claus is called Father Christmas

-though I imagine with the proliferation of American movies, everyone knows who you’re talking about when you say Santa Claus. Also, in most cases Father Christmas is not chubby, but thin. Legend has it that robins would watch your behavior and report back to him to help him make his naughty or nice list.  Some people argue that the two are distinct mythological figures, but honestly how many fake Christmas visitors does one person need?

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The food is quite different, I believe. We tend to sort of have Thanksgiving part deux, but of course they don’t have Thanksgiving, and their traditional food is quite different from ours. They serve a big Christmas dinner with lots of Brussels sprouts  and there is always a Christmas pudding.  Those are huge brandy-soaked concoctions sure to give you diabetes. They usually look something like this:

I’ve read there is some controversy about this dish, but according to the ‘traditional’ Christmas dinner equation, it is necessary. I’ve heard some people say how much they hate them (like fruitcake) but it doesn’t seem like Christmas dinner without one.  Of course, in a place like the UK, with a massive immigrant/not-naturalized population, there is an active shift going on in terms of Christmas traditions, and the celebration of Christmas at all.  Like the US tradition of Jewish people eating Chinese food on Christmas, I imagine there are a lot of Indian restaurants frequented by the non-religious, non-traditional, non-culinary members of society.  But, this isn’t a post about changing traditions around a new demographic makeup, it’s a post about the ‘traditional’ traditions, so here’s the damn Christmas pudding. They also have something called Christmas Cake, which is just like fruitcake, only they seem to have the sense to cover it in icing.

If you’ve ever seen Bridget Jones’ Diary and heard her talk about eating ’42 mince pies’, and then wondered wtf a mince pie is, I am here to solve this epic mystery.  A mince pie is a mini pie stuffed with savory meat and fruits and coated in powdered sugar.  It sounds like the most disgusting thing in the world to me, but I’m a vegetarian so my opinion should not be trusted on this matter. Still, the combination of savory and sweet is creepy to me, like that time Rachel on Friends made a parfait with ground beef in it.  But, it is very popular in the UK, so there must be something good about it. Actually, I’ve seen two different bits of info about the mince pie; one indicates it has actual mince meat in it, the other indicates just using beef fat added to the dried fruits and spices. The latter would be far more palatable, so I hope that is more common.

At Christmas Dinner, they always have crackers.  Not the Ritz kind, but this kind:

They’re so named because of the ‘crack’ they make when pulled apart. They usually contain some sort of paper crown or hat, a joke, and a small gift. People who have read Harry Potter are pretty familiar with the concept.

Outside of the Christmas meal, there are the presents (which tend to be less extravagant than in the US) and time spent with family.  The great thing about the UK: it’s pretty small. You don’t really have a good excuse not to get home for the holidays if it’s only a few hours by train from anywhere to anywhere else–people who live in Cornwall or John O’Groats, I realize that it’s not a few hours from everywhere to everywhere else, but before you argue with me consider the relative size of the UK vs the US and you will get my point). I think there’s more of an emphasis on Christmas as an event in the UK, and less an emphasis on Christmas as the time of year we spend all our money on gifts.

Nativity plays are much more common there. See Love Actually‘s final half hour for more info.  Children recreate the birth of Jesus.  I think those have gone out of fashion in schools here because public schools aren’t permitted to celebrate religious events.  In the UK, many more of the schools have a specific religious affiliation, and there is technically no separation of church and state outlined in their laws. So where we have the nativity scenes outside of churches, they have the plays in schools every year. Carol singers are also more common, traveling from house to house to sing.  I remember doing this when I was 10-15 years old, but I grew up in the Midwest.  I cannot imagine anyone doing it here in Philly, especially if they valued their lives. Also, every Christmas there is the Queen’s speech, which I imagine the more traditional people still listen to/watch every year (I imagine a lot of grandparents force their kids to listen/watch).

So, what the hell is Boxing Day?

The story says that wealthy families would indulge in massive Christmas feasts.  The next day, they would pack up the leftovers and distribute them to their servants. Another theory on the beginning of the tradition is that priests would pick this day to empty the alms boxes and distribute the contents to the poor. Boxing Day is (traditionally) December 26th, and is always a national holiday in the UK (and some Commonwealth nations).

Modern traditions for Boxing Day include recovering from the Christmas festivities, lots of online shopping, and giving money/gifts to charities and to tradespeople (milkmen, postmen, paper boys, etc.). Families spend the day together.

Other tidbits:

Traditionally the greeting there was ‘Happy Christmas’ rather than ‘Merry Christmas’, though I believe that’s less true now.

There is still a law on the books saying that every Brit must attend church on Christmas Day, and cannot arrive by motorized transport.  Only 13% of Brits reported attending a Christmas service every year, so I don’t think this one is enforced!

Most of this focuses on English traditions, what about the rest of the UK?

In Scotland, there is a specific New Years’ Eve tradition called Hogmanay. This was originally a festival devoted to fire, and there are still bonfires and the like, all rooting from Viking and Pagan traditional beliefs.  Mostly, though, it’s a big street party (though who would want to party in freezing cold Scotland in the middle of winter is beyond me. I suppose that’s where the fire comes in?)  Traditionally, Christmas was not a very important holiday in Scotland, so Hogmanay was the best opportunity the Scots had to relieve the winter Cabin Fever and need to drink and be merry.
There’s still a big festival every year.

In Wales, Boxing Day is called St. Stephen’s Day and was traditionally the only day of the year it was okay to kill a wren.  So children would stone them to death, like St. Stephen was stoned to death, then parade about the streets with the dead bird in tow.  Fun.  Now, I believe a fake bird is used.  But a less horrifying tradition coming from Wales is mistletoe! The Welsh were the first to associate mistletoe with Christmas, and the tradition of kissing under it started in the UK.

In Northern Ireland, things get a bit complicated. The Catholics would traditionally attend a midnight Mass on Christmas.  I’m not certain if Anglicans did this as well–if you’re reading this and know the answer, please comment!

So, those are the basics.  An important thing to know about the UK and Christmas–even though it is an undeniably religious holiday, the UK is far more secular than the US in general (except N. Ireland).  People rank religion far less important to their lives, especially in England.  Christmas remains more of a cultural holiday where traditions are followed because they are comforting, as opposed to one steeped in religious meaning.  Sounds like all of my Christmases, but for some of the really religious I suppose it could come as a surprise that God doesn’t play more of a part in the proceedings.

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4 responses to “Christmas in the UK

  1. Pretty spot on, but it’s important to know that Christmas Cake IS a fruit cake, often stuffed with alcohol and made weeks in advance, but importantly there’s a layer of marzipan under the icing!

    A Christmas pudding might resemble a fruit cake, is also stuffed with rum or brandy, but importantly it’s a steamed cake! I used to make them myself and I took about 4 hours to cook! It’s then served with either brandy or rum sauce. They have a very rich taste.

    But, importantly my fellow vegetarian, mince pies contain no meat! Completely suitable and the confusion probably arises as there’s two types of mincemeat over here. Any use of animal fats isn’t widely used in commercially available mince pies as I’ve eaten a whole load of different makes. All fruit, spices, and booze… Do you detect a theme yet?

    It’s funny how you don’t have crackers… I didn’t realise that they were so British!

    And as for Boxing Day, us Brits will never tell and will take the secret to our graves!

    Great blog post, I enjoyed reading.

    • Wow, thanks for the info! I got a lot of confusing information from different sources on the mince pie question. Good to know, and I’ll have to try it if I ever make it over to the UK during Christmas season. Thanks for the comment!

      • And it was only last year, through listening to an American podcast out of New Jersey for a long time, that I finally worked out what Black Friday was! Before that I’d never heard of it!

        • You’re lucky! It’s a terrible holiday for horrible people. I worked retail jobs for 10 years and it always meant having to be at work at 4 am. Now it’s even worse. They start opening their doors the night before. Imagine your Boxing Day sales starting at 10 pm on Christmas. Plus, people always get trampled or stabbed or something. All to save a few hundred dollars on a flat-screen TV.

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