Christmas traditions in England were the foundation for many American customs. At one time a minor and strictly religious occasion, the Victorians of the 19th century began celebrating the season in earnest. Many modern traditions and decorations are directly related to the Victorian style. Today, the English celebrate the holidays with a combination of modern traditions and those of their ancestors.
The Yule season is a time of goodwill and celebration. The first Christmas cards were sent in England in 1843. The practice of sending friends, family and business associates warm wishes continues to this day.
Christmas caroling is also an English custom. Groups of family or friends travel from door-to-door singing traditional songs during the week before Christmas. Some people reward the carolers with food, warm beverages or monetary gifts (which today may be donated to charity).
Christmas traditions in England have a soundtrack all their own. Today, carolers sing a mix of traditional and modern melodies. Many popular English carols are associated with specific towns and events:
- I Saw Three Ships seemed to first gain popularity in Cornwall and the south of England.
- O Little Town of Bethlehem: Though the lyrics were written by an American, the music came from a folk melody from Surrey.
- The Coventry Carol was originally performed at the end of performances in the cathedral at Coventry.
- The Sussex Carol first originated in the parish of Sussex, and is still performed in churches there to this day.
- Sans Day Carol was created and first performed in the village of St. Day in Cornwall.
- The Holly and the Ivy was first recorded in Gloucestershire in 1911.
- Deck the Halls is sung to the tune of a popular Welsh carol called Nos Galan.
The season is a time of festive decorations, including trees and mistletoe, which are popular parts of English Christmas traditions.
The English tradition of festooned evergreen trees began with Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, who brought it from his native Germany and introduced it in 1841. It has been a household custom since then.
Mistletoe customs, on the other hand, date back to pagan times and Druid rites. This custom was later embraced by Christianity as a symbol of love. English homes are also decked with fresh greens, holly, ivy, candles and berries.
Dinner and Food
Yuletide is a season for feasting and good food, including a sumptuous dinner and plenty of sweets.
Originally, Christmas dinner often featured roast goose, and it's still served in some homes. But as turkey became more readily available and affordable, it replaced goose as the meat of choice.Today, the traditional English Christmas dinner usually features a stuffed roast turkey, potatoes, carrots and other vegetables such as Brussels sprouts and parsnips. Pigs-in-a-blanket, small sausages wrapped in bacon, are also often served.
A popular English holiday tradition is eating a Christmas cake or pudding. Some people make the dessert from scratch but many purchase them from a bakery.
Christmas cake is baked with dried fruits, raisins and nuts, then soaked for weeks in rum. When it's time to be served, the cake is wrapped in marzipan, or almond paste, iced, and decorated. Christmas pudding, also known as plum pudding, also contains raisins, sugar and spices but is boiled instead of baked. It's traditionally served soaked in brandy and lit on fire or served with a hard sauce made of butter, sugar and rum.
Additional desserts include mince pies, puddings, trifles and pastries.
Crackers are a special dinner entertainment. These decorated paper tubes contain a paper crown, toys, and a joke or riddle. They are placed at each table setting. When they are pulled open, they emit a loud crack and the contents fall out. All diners wear their paper crowns during the dinner.
Children's gifts are brought by Father Christmas, the English version of Santa Claus. Letters from children are often tossed into a burning fireplace for the wind to carry to Father Christmas. He leaves presents for children either under their Christmas trees or in stockings left near the tree or at the foot of the bed. Most presents are opened Christmas morning.
Another Christmas tradition in England is Boxing Day. This historic holiday is December 26. It's believed by some to have originated from the custom of wealthy aristocracy giving boxes of presents to servants the day after Christmas. More recent celebrations of the holiday found the English presenting gifts of money or food to tradesmen and workers, such as postmen and paper deliverers. Although this practice occurs much less often today, the day is still a national paid holiday for many.
Other Christmas Traditions in England
Christmas traditions in England wouldn't be complete without involvement from the monarchy. The Queen normally gives her Royal Christmas Message to her subjects on Christmas afternoon. This is broadcast on radio and television throughout Great Britain.
A traditional English wassail bowl is often found at Christmas celebrations. Usually made up of spiced wine or spiced apple cider, the wassail bowl symbolizes well wishes and good health.
Festive Gatherings and Traditions
The English Christmas is a festive time, steeped in tradition. In fact, the very term "Merry Christmas" had its start in England. Many English customs have been adapted around the world by celebrants. Although some traditions have changed over the years, many are celebrated just as they were centuries ago.