Christmas / England / Local history / London / Tradition

On How to Have A Very British Christmas

Even though I have lived in London for 4 years it took me until my 3rd year here to have a proper British Christmas.  My first year I had a month off so naturally I went home.  My second year I stayed but had spent the holiday with expats. Finally my third year D filled me in on the traditions of his home land I had previously missed out.

Frankfurter Weihnachtsmarkt eröffnet

Picture source

I have to say generally Brits do Christmas really well.  The entire city is draped in lights, the shops on Oxford street contend for the most outrageously Christmas-y displays, ice rinks pop up all over the city and Christmas markets pop up in cities all over the country.  Now that I work a normal 9-5 and will be able to spend actual Christmas day off relaxing with D and his family I’m getting really excited.  It isn’t that Christmas in Canada is so different but the atmosphere in London at this time can’t be beat.

British Christmas/Festive Season deconstructed:

Christmas Trees

While traditional for many nations to have a tree the story of how they became popular in England is similar to how things typically spread in our modern day and age.  Having a Christmas tree was brought to England by Queen Victoria’s royal consort, her German cousin Prince Albert.  It had been tradition for the royal family to have a tree for some time but less popular for the rest of the country.  In 1848 a picture of the royal family gathered around a tree was published in the Illustrated London News and suddenly popularity spiralled making it the in thing to do.

It is also worth noting that each year since 1947, a Christmas tree has been given to the people of London from the people of Norway in gratitude for Britain’s support for Norway during World War II. For many Londoners the Christmas tree and carol singing in Trafalgar Square signal the countdown to Christmas.

Mulled Wine/Cherry/Port

Drinks of the season usually include tucking into a mug/glass/bottle of one of the above.  Mulled wine is made with red wine along with various spices, served hot or warm.  Basically it is tradition to consume alcohol you wouldn’t drink at any other time of the year.  I like a warm mug of mulled wine myself.

Christmas Crackers

When D told me about these I assumed it was a food item.  That is not the case.  Christmas crackers are small decorated cylinders with handles at each end.  Inside is a ridiculous fun hat for you to wear.  In theory the person who ends up with the larger end of the cracker after pulling it apart keeps the toy inside but everyone should really get a toy for themselves right?  It is Christmas after all.


They are horrible, genuinely horrible almost to the point of being a national joke but everyone does them at Christmas time because it is the thing to do.  Brits love to moan and so sprouts must be included in the meal to have something to moan about.

Empire Christmas Pudding

Empire pudding started off innocently enough, the original recipe was meant to include elements from all countries in the British empire.  Minced apples from Canada, sultanas from Australia, rum from Jamaica and so on.  Somewhere along the way as the empire died out and the British stopped being proud of that empire the pudding was renamed as Christmas Pudding.

It has also been tradition to put silver coins into the pudding, and granted you don’t choke on those, it is meant to represent good luck for wealth.  Potential choking hazard aside the typical way it is prepared is to pour brandy over the pudding and light it on fire.  Also there must be brandy butter.

Christmas Films

While many get into the spirit at this time watching the endless loop of children’s Christmas films and other typical films like a Christmas Carol there is one film that must be mentioned as being the film of the season, according to D.  That is The Great Escape, a non Christmas story.  D says it boils down to national identify.  The film is about WWII – the Brit’s favourite war and it shows Germans in a negative light and then of course glorious failure at the end.  Every country has to have something right.

The Queen’s Speech

Every year at 3:00 pm on Christmas Day the Queen sits down to address her minions people.  The message is actually for all of the common wealth but I don’t remember ever seeing this broadcast in Canada.  The whole point is to remind everyone who is boss.  *This may not be entirely accurate.  Officially the message combines a chronicle of the year’s major events, with specific focus on the British Empire originally and later the Commonwealth of Nations, with the sovereign’s own personal milestones and feelings on Christmas.  Thrilling.

There you have it folks.  This is what I have to look forward to for the next month and what you should look forward to if you ever find yourself in London at Christmas time.

** I forgot mince pies!  Which are basically tarts in Canada.


22 thoughts on “On How to Have A Very British Christmas

  1. Sweet! I always wonder about Christmas in other countries. I tried to stay in Canada one year, but my family was having Nunavit. (I’m so funny.) When I move for good, though, I think that’ll be it, and I’ll finally experience it elsewhere.
    Keep us updated on your London festivities! 🙂

    • It is interesting to see how differently people celebrate the same thing. For me it isn’t a proper Canadian Christmas unless there is snow. Although the last few years I know snow has been showing up later and later in the season. What about festivities where you are?

      • For most holidays, we pretty much just mimic what is done in the US. Sad, I know. We have the same old ham and turkey dinners which I hate. You’d think they would make it more islandy with seafood or something.
        The best thing, I guess, is Junkanoo. It’s a big parade/competition that happens every Boxing Day and New Year’s morning starting around 2am and going on until around 9am.

        • Actually, yeah I would assume there would be more of an island twist..what the US does reaches us all. This year they had Black Friday sales in the UK! I say keep that in the US with the people who will trample others for a discount. That junkanoo parade seems cool, pictures if you go!

  2. Christmas crackers! Lol I thought the same initially! Nothing like the Holidays in BIG cities! I’d love to experience Christmas in the UK or in other parts of Europe in the near future! Whenever people ask me when the best time of the year to visit NYC, I always say in December, when the city boasts all pretty lights and decorations. There simply is no better time! 🙂

  3. Wow, so interesting. I think I assumed it would be practically be the same as Canada but there are a few differences! I do love this whole Christmas market thing Europe has going on. I suppose it’s too cold and weather too unpredictable in Canada to have outdoor markets at this time of year but I do love them!

  4. Hey, I didn’t know those things – particularly the xmas pudding. Do you like it? The jury’s out for me. A guy at the Xmas show i went to said that it’s not a taste that fits the Canadian palate very well. Interesting, since it has Cnd Apples in it!

    • If it is with brandy butter than it is nice. I don’t think there are items from all commonwealth countries in it anymore though and I’m pretty sure apples aren’t in the pudding. That was back in the day.

  5. Pingback: Suited and Booted: London during Christmas | Wanderlust

      • We are a world away in TX, but there’s a large Brit group here – and lots of British influence among all the rest. International and very diverse, though people don’t realize it. (Londoner across the street – and our dentist’s wife is from there)
        There was even fireworks last night at the beginning of the annual Christmas Boat Parade. If there are fireworks all the time , the shows don’t have as much impact and seem less special.
        And, like you, there are lots of writers willing to work contract – so why the poor jokes?
        Hope you’re having a happy holiday

          • Surprisingly we do get snow here – even on the Gulf Coast some years…but it warms up quickly. It hardly got over 38 degrees (F), but we’ll be in the 70’s(F) a couple of days this week before the next front comes in over the weekend…and they’ll be rain before and after the front probably. But yes the weather is generally mild ( a bit of fog this morning) and we sometimes get to the beach over the holidays. I do so love your posts -visited there a few times…Never long enough!

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