Christmas in the UK

There are many festive traditions – trees, carols, Santa Claus (or Father Christmas as he’s known here) – that are familiar around the world.

However, there are some things that are peculiar to a British Christmas. But where did our customs come from and what makes a cracking Christmas in the UK?

Christmas crackers

Christmas crackerNo Christmas dinner in the UK is complete without these cardboard tubes, wrapped in bright paper and containing a novelty gift, a hat and a corny joke. But they were the invention of one man – Tom Smith, a Victorian sweetmaker.

On a trip to Paris in 1840 he saw bon bons – French sugared almonds wrapped in paper. He decided to introduce them to the UK. His real innovation came seven years later when he added a strip of chemically-impregnated paper. This made a small bang when the cracker was pulled apart. Packed with sweets, crackers were soon an essential part of the Victorian Christmas.

His sons later added hats and small gifts to the cracker and a Christmas icon was born. In 2017 a survey calculated that Brits would pull over 154 million. That’s a whole lot of corny jokes and paper crowns!

Turkey

Christmas turkey dinnerNowadays around 10 million turkeys are served every Christmas dinner. But this roasted bird only joined the Christmas feast relatively recently.

Originating in Mexico, turkeys were first eaten in Britain in the 1520s. They were probably brought here by traders from the Ottoman Empire, giving them their Middle Eastern name. Whoever introduced them, Henry VIII once enjoyed one at Christmas. Although, given his supersized appetite, it was almost certainly part of a much larger feast.

However, turkey was an expensive luxury, with only the wealthiest able to afford one. So, for centuries, goose and beef remained the country’s Christmas favourites.

During the Victorian era the turkey became more popular. Dickens mentioned them in ‘A Christmas Carol’, but they were out of the price range of most people. Even as late as the 1930s, a Christmas turkey would have cost a week’s wages. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the price came down enough for this flightless bird to take off as our Christmas dinner favourite.

Brussels sprouts

Brussels sproutsLove them or loathe them, the British eat over 411 million sprouts at Christmas.

Cultivated since Roman times, sprouts got their modern name in the 16th century when they were popular in Holland and Belgium.

When or why they became an essential – or hated – part of our Christmas dinner is less clear. It’s partly due to being available – sprouts are ready for harvest in the middle of winter.

Also, like many of our Christmas traditions, it’s probably down to the Victorians, who loved a sprout with their roasts.

Christmas pudding

Christmas puddingChristmas pudding? Plum pudding? Figgy pudding? Whatever you call it, this festive pud dates back to medieval times. Although it was a little different back then and contained fruit, spices, oats and meat.

By the 1500s, dried fruit was more available and the pudding shifted from savoury to sweet. By this time it was also associated with the festive season. That meant it faced the anger of Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans. They thought celebrating Christmas was sacrilegious and banned festive feasting.

The pud was back in fashion by the reign of King George I. He got the nickname ‘the pudding king’ thanks to his love of the dish. But the Christmas pudding as we know it today really came to life in the Victorian era. It was mentioned by Dickens and sent around the world as a taste of home and a symbol of Britishness.

But why do we set it on fire? Well, some say the flaming brandy represents the Passion of Christ. Meanwhile, the sprig of holly on top is the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head on the cross.

Mince pies

Christmas mince piesLike Christmas puddings, mince pies have medieval origins. Made with spices brought home by Crusaders, they lived up to their name and contained meat. They would also have been much bigger than the ones we enjoy today and fed several people.

The first known recipe for something like a mince pie dates from a 1390 cookbook. The ‘Tart of flesh’ contained figs, raisins, wine, pine kernels, lard, cheese, minced pork, honey and spices.

These ingredients were expensive, so people only ate the pies on special days like Christmas. The pie’s shape was also often associated with the manger from the Nativity. Some even had a dough effigy of the baby Jesus on top, until 17th century Puritans disapproved.

When the pies stopped containing meat is not clear. Victorian cookbooks contain recipes both with and without it. By the 20th century they had become the sweet, small treats we know, love and eat by the millions today.

The Queen’s speech

The first royal Christmas Broadcast was in 1932, when George V addressed the nation by radio. This first message was written by The Jungle Book author, Rudyard Kipling.

The time for the speech – still in place today – was 3pm. This was the best time to reach as much of the British Empire as possible by shortwave radio.

The Queen made her first Christmas broadcast in 1952. Her first televised address happened in 1957. She has delivered a speech every year since, except for 1969. That year, thanks to a documentary on the Royal Family, she decided she had been on television too much.

Nowadays, the message goes out on TV, radio and across the Internet. In 2017 she topped the Christmas Day ratings, with 7.6 million watching her broadcast across BBC One and ITV.

EastEnders Christmas special

Christmas TV specials are not unusual, but few places can have a tradition as dark as Christmas Day EastEnders. Over 33 years, writers have served up divorce papers, arrests, violence and murder with the Christmas dinner.

Basically it’s a public service. Because no matter how awful your Christmas Day, it can’t be as bad as the one suffered by the poor folks in Albert Square. 

Boxing Day

Bags of shopping from Boxing Day salesBoxing Day has a long history. In the medieval era it was a time of charity, and landlords sometimes gave gifts of money to their poor tenants. These were often in clay pots or boxes.

Alms were also collected in churches and given to the needy on the day after Christmas. The practice of giving was recorded in Samuel Pepys’ famous diary. In 1663 he reports giving ‘to the boys’ box against Christmas’.

These traditions became more structured during the Victorian era. Employers often gave household staff a day off and a box of leftover food as a reward for working Christmas Day. Eventually, in 1871, the day became a public holiday.

That paved the way for Boxing Day as we know it now: a time for visiting the family, picking up a bargain in the sales and eating leftover turkey.

Pantomime

Vintage poster for a PantomimeUniquely British, pantos have been entertaining us for over 300 years. But their origins come from 16th century Italian street theatre. This style of play incorporated dance, music and slapstick. By the 1720s popular shows were playing in London, revolving around the character of Harlequin.

Originally pantos took place all year. But in the 18th century, after worries they were pushing out serious theatre, pantomime was limited to the Christmas season. By the Victorian era, central characters like the Pantomime Dame – always played by a man – and scripts based on fairytales were common.

Celebrity participation started in the 1930s, as radio stars started to appear. They were soon joined by the current crop of TV stars and sports personalities.

Now, throughout December and January, there’s barely a theatre in the UK that doesn’t host a pantomime. Altogether now: oh no there isn’t! Oh yes there is!

Hogmanay

Hogmanay fireworksEverywhere in the UK celebrates New Year’s Eve, but nowhere does it quite like Scotland.

With roots in ancient Norse and Gaelic culture, traditions include first footing. That’s where a guest knocks on the door shortly after midnight to present a lump of coal to the hosts.

In some places there are parades of people swinging fireballs, while Edinburgh hosts a massive three-day event. Whatever’s going on, Hogmanay continues into New Year’s Day. Which might explain why January 2nd is an extra Bank Holiday north of the border.