Christmas Day is celebrated across the UK on 25 December, and is one of the most actively celebrated holidays throughout the country.
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*Please refer to this note for Scotland-specific information.
There is a degree of diversity in how Christmas is kept in the UK. Part of this stems from the divide between Church of England, Catholic, and other Christian traditions. Much of it, however, relates to the differences among English, Welsh, and Scottish cultures.
The UK still has a significant portion of the population that keeps Christmas in a very religious spirit. But to a large degree, the holiday has become rather secularised and commercialised. It is as much a time of family togetherness during off-work days as it is a celebration of Christ’s birth.
Gathering around the Christmas tree to open presents, many of them delivered by the mysterious but jolly old soul called Santa Claus is a symbol of the season. Interestingly, Christmas trees were not originally popular in the UK. It was not until the German-born Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, imported the idea from Germany that it took hold.
Kids in the UK put up stockings to be filled by Santa on Christmas Eve, but they also sometimes put up pillow cases for the same purpose. The latter is a much more effective “strategy” if you want large presents or lots of candy. The stockings or pillow cases are not always hung by the fireplace, but sometimes, they are hung near the child’s bed.
Instead of cookies and milk, British children will sometimes leave Old St. Nick brandy and mincemeat pies in exchange for the gifts he brings. Many also write Santa a “wish-list letter”, but some cast it into the fireplace instead of mailing it. This saves postage expenses, plus Santa is able to “read the smoke” the letter creates when burned to find out what requests were made.
The more religious side of British Christmases involve carolling services, nativity plays, and candlelight services at church. Some will still gather inside churches on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day to sing Christmas hymns and hear sermons on the significance of Jesus’ birth.
Christmas Day meals in the UK are mostly lunches, though they are often late lunches (early afternoon hours). Traditionally, there will be a roast turkey with dressing, roasted vegetables, cranberry sauce, sausages, peas and carrots, Brussels sprouts, mincemeat pies, chocolate desserts, and of course, “Christmas pudding.” The latter is made from dried fruits and is spiced with cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and more. It is made early and preserved with abundance of brandy.
In Scotland, “haggis” is a traditional Christmas food. It is a rich combination of sheep innards, onions, oatmeal, and various spices, which is traditionally encased in a sheep’s stomach.
A white Christmas is not very common in the UK, and the definition seems to have changed to accommodate the fact that many wish for one. UK meteorologists actually count a Christmas “white” if but a single snowflake falls in an area anytime on Christmas Day. Even so, this only happens about once every five years. It only “really” snows once in ten years, and this is usually in northern Scotland.
If planning to visit the UK during the Christmas season, you may wish to take part in any of the following activities:
- Look for “the lights of London.” Some of the most famous Christmas lights displays in the world are on Oxford Street, and they seem to get more and more impressive with every passing year. Also expect to see whole cities and small towns lit up as well and streets where shopping centres are located decorated and outfitted with Christmas pine trees brought in from Norway.
- Go to a Christmas play for kids. In theatres all across the UK, you will find children’s Christmas specials put on. These are often pantomimes based on Bible stories about Jesus, but sometimes, they are on secular fairly tales. In the latter case, expect a subtle tie-in with Christmas to be made at some point during the story.
- Attend the famous Christmas parade held in Windsor. There will be real reindeer to accompany Santa Claus on his sleigh ride through town. The parade begins at a castle and then winds through town to Kind Edward Court, which is right next to Daniels Department Store.
Should you choose to experience a British Christmas, you will notice the source of many of the traditions that have spread from the UK to other countries that celebrate Christmas. You will also notice some unique traditions that never quite made the transition. In both cases, there will be much to enjoy and much to learn.