Whenever Christmas is around the corner you know the festivities are about to start! Whether it’s your first time spending Christmas in the UK or you are interested in what the Brits do, here are some of the traditions you can expect.
From wearing crowns on your head to eating little mince pies, these are some of the best British Christmas traditions.
I personally love the adverts that are produced (they honestly are heartwarming), putting on a cheesy Christmas jumper and the festive spirit that comes out. Plus it’s cold so it makes a big difference from all the Australian Christmases I spent with hot summer days that were like 40 degree days!
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1. Christmas Decorations
Christmas is probably the only time of the year you can line your walls and cover the ceilings with sparkly decorations and get away with it! Nowadays, the Christmas retail market is littered with illuminated ornaments and glittering decorative pieces that can be seen in stores from as early as September – yes, September!
It is not enough to drape your Christmas tree with shiny baubles and sparkly tinsel. Today trees are adorned with personalised decorations for yourselves and even your pets. Why not make your tree London themed with decorations like this lovely handmade one of Buckingham Palace sold by Shop Christmas Online.
Go hard or go home. Christmas decorations are no joke – and don’t get us started on the external ones!
2. Buying a Real Christmas Tree
A tree inside a house is plain strange. A tree inside a house at Christmas – completely normal!
Who doesn’t appreciate the earthy smell of a real Christmas tree inside the home? The most exciting part is picking the perfect tree and taking it home to decorate. This is the perfect opportunity to keep the kids occupied for a while!
The idea of the Christmas tree was invented by the Germans in the 16th century. The tree would be decorated with apples, roses and tinsel. However, it wasn’t until 1846 when Queen Victoria and her German husband, Prince Albert, made the headlines when they were pictured standing in front of one with their children. The Christmas tree then became a popular addition to most households and still is to this day.
Did you know – Before electricity, people would decorate Christmas trees with real wax candles that would often result in house fires.
3. Christmas Cards
Send them to your loved ones, send them to your neighbours, send them to the mailman! Christmas cards are for everyone, and nobody should be left out. These thoughtful little letters are sent and received in millions at Christmas time and are displayed in windows and along the tops of fireplaces.
The idea of Christmas cards was developed in 1843 by a man named Sir Henry Cole, a senior civil servant, along with the help of his artist friend, John Horsley. Sir Henry Cole was involved in the setting up of the ‘Public Record Office’ (known in the UK today as the Post Office) and wanted to find a way it could be used more by ordinary people.
So together, they created the Christmas card we know and love today and sold them for one shilling each. The rest is history!
If you are looking for some adorable Christmas Cards then Roundabout Bunny has some of the cutest British wildlife ones, check them out here.
4. The John Lewis Christmas Advert
Ah, the good old John Lewis adverts. Patiently waited for each year, these tear-jerking, two-minute adverts are a British favourite. The infamous adverts are usually short films sharing messages of love and joy through the spirit of Christmas.
Here’s the 2020 Christmas ad which is called “Give a Little Love”.
Other firm favourites include the Coca-Cola advert (of course) and most recently, supermarket chain Aldi has been stirring up some competition.
5. Switching On the Christmas Lights
The act of switching on the lights is celebrated up and down the UK, usually with the help of a local celebrity. Christmas street lights were first put on display way back in 1954 on Regent Street, London.
However, it is worth noting that before this, in 1935, Harry Selfridge, the owner of the world-famous luxury store Selfridges, hung exterior Christmas lights outside the store. This became a local attraction and made Selfridges stand out against the rest of the shops on the street.
6. Christmas Markets
A trip to the Christmas markets has to be on the cards at Christmas time. Located up and down the UK, the markets are a structure of small wooden stalls selling everything from mulled wine and churros with chocolate to unique handmade gifts and adorable trinkets.
The first genuine Christmas market was held at Dresden’s Striezelmarkt, Germany, in 1434. Now you will find them in every major city in Britain, with Birmingham Christmas Market being the largest outside of Germany. The Christmas markets are a fantastic day out if you love to eat, drink and be merry!
7. Midnight Mass
Traditionally beginning at midnight on Christmas Eve, this popular Christmas custom is a celebration of the coming of Christ. Some services are held slightly earlier to allow families with young children to celebrate, of course.
One of the most famous landmarks to hold a midnight mass service in the UK is Westminster Abbey which usually begins at 11:30 pm and ends at 1 pm.
8. Carol Singing
‘Deck the halls with boughs of holly…’
Carol singing can be heard in most places in the lead up to the big day. From community performances to door to door visits, the history of Christmas carolling dates back to Pagan Winter Solstice celebrations. Pagans would celebrate by singing and dancing around in circular motions.
The first English carols emerged in the 1400s and were written by English poet and priest John Audeley. Audeley composed a total of 25 Yuletide hymns that focused on the theme of repentance.
Did you know? – In 1644, Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas altogether! It wasn’t until 1660 that this law was abolished, and people could once again celebrate the most wonderful time of the year.
9. Christmas Crackers & Hats
The history of Christmas crackers dates back to 1849 when baker and confectioner, Tom Smith, visited Paris and brought home a ‘bon bon.’ This consisted of a sugared almond wrapped in a twisted paper package. He replaced the sugared almond with small toys, jewellery and also included a motto or riddle as an extra.
It wasn’t until later that he was inspired by the noise of a crackling fire and thought it’d be a good idea to include a surprise ‘bang’ inside the package. In the early 1900s, the Christmas cracker became a log-shaped cardboard package housing small knick-knacks that produced a ‘bang’ when pulled apart.
The paper hats were added shortly after, an idea thought up by his sons, and the small riddles and mottos were replaced by jokes. The Christmas cracker soon became a festive tradition loved by all and is still popular today.
10. Watching Christmas Movies
It’s that time of year when it is perfectly acceptable to lounge around in your pj’s all day and snuggle up with a nice hot cup of cocoa to watch Christmas movies.
This is the kind of activity that brings the family together to watch the cheesiest of Christmas films. Home Alone has got to be the number one Christmas movie, or what about The Grinch? There are so many to choose from and so many to get through from the comfort of your cosy home.
Kissing under the mistletoe is a popular Christmas tradition, but what is it all about, and why do we do it?
Historically, mistletoe was believed to bestow fertility and was also considered a plant of peace. In the middle ages, mistletoe was hung from doors and ceilings in a bid to ward off evil spirits.
What you want to know is what the kissing part means, right? Well, a kiss shared under the mistletoe is interpreted as a promise to marry. So it may not be a good idea to kiss under the mistletoe at the office Christmas party!
12. Swimming in the Sea
Fancy taking a plunge into the icy waters of Great Britain on Christmas Day? No, neither do we.
Bizarrely, swimming in the sea is a tradition celebrated annually, whereby people dress up and take to the freezing water. The event first took place at Brighton Swimming Club in 1860 when visiting a swimming pool was rare. If you wanted to learn how to swim, then the sea was the best way to learn, with Christmas day being no exception. Nowadays, swimming in the sea on Christmas Day has become an activity enjoyed by many throughout the country.
People can be seen in Santa hats, elf costumes, and even mankinis, where they often take to the freezing depths for charity. So, why not give it a go this year?
13. Boxing Day
The day after Christmas is for lazing around the house, eating turkey sandwiches and maybe leaving the house to ‘blow away the cobwebs, i.e., get rid of that horrendous hangover.
Believe it or not, Boxing Day has nothing to do with the sport and takes its name from when Queen Victoria ruled the country in the 1800s. The term refers to when rich people would box up gifts to give to the poor. This became a day off for servants who would receive a box of gifts from their masters before taking it home for their families.
14. Christmas Eve is Reserved for Old Friends
‘Twas the night before Christmas’. Christmas Eve calls for a visit to the local pub to catch up with your old school friends who you only get to see this one night of every year.
For families with small children, it is vital to leave a mince pie, a carrot and a small glass of milk next to your fireplace for when Father Christmas arrives. The long journey across the world is sure to leave him and his reindeer famished!
15. The Queen’s Speech
If your Christmas in London doesn’t include laying on the couch watching The Queen’s speech with a mince pie and a belly full of turkey, then you’re not doing it right!
First broadcast in 1952, The Queen’s speech is enjoyed by millions from all over the UK every year on Christmas Day at around 3pm. The Queen’s Christmas Day speech includes a look back over the year along with an uplifting message of support to the citizens of the UK.
It is the only time of the year when The Queen does not consult the UK government for advice and instead uses the help of her advisors to create the yearly speech.
16. British Christmas Treats
Christmas morning isn’t the same without a little Bucks Fizz! This popular cocktail, a mixture of sparkling wine and orange juice, was named after British pop group, Bucks Fizz, after they won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1981. If you are familiar with Eurovision, you will know that the UK never wins, so it was a big deal back then – big enough to have an alcoholic beverage named after them that is still popular some forty years later!
Just thinking of these delicious fruit-filled pastries is enough to make our mouths water. Believe it or not, the inside of a mince pie is not actually meat but a tasty mixture of dried fruit and spices with a hint of cinnamon.
Taste tip – Warm it up and serve with a generous helping of brandy cream (thank us later!).
Yule love this! Historically, a yule log was a wooden log that was specially selected to be burnt on a hearth. According to ancient folklore, a portion of the log was burned each evening and placed underneath the bed for good luck up until the twelfth night.
Nowadays, a yule log is a chocolate cake made in the shape of a log which is enjoyed up and down the UK along with a steaming cup of tea!
Made from a mixture of red wine and spices, this alcoholic beverage is served hot and is the drink of choice at this time of year.
Did you know – In the 16th century during the Black Death years, mulled wine was deemed safer to consume than water!
17. Christmas TV Specials
Broadcast on Christmas Day, it is part of British tradition to watch a Christmas episode of MrsBrown’s Boys or Gavin and Stacey after devouring a monstrous Christmas dinner. The Christmas specials are filmed specially for the ‘big day’ and are viewed by millions each year.
18. Visit Father Christmas
Have you been good this year? Why not pay a visit to the man himself to find out! Available to see at many locations from the Royal Albert Hall to Leicester Square, you’re sure to catch him before he leaves for the North Pole.
Hi, I'm Kat, an Australian that moved to London in 2013 to start a new adventure. What a roller-coaster that was! I love helping others move to the UK and people explore the world! I’d be honoured if you’d say, “Thanks!” with a £3 coffee on Ko-fi.