The UK has a lot of traditions about Christmas that other nations might find strange. Countries with cultures relatively similar to Britain (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland etc.) as well as European countries may find this a little closer to home than those in the USA, say. Compare and contrast with Christmas in America, Christmas in Australia and Christmas in Japan.
The most important thing to remember, especially for American tropers, is that Christmas is the United Kingdom's premier holiday and day of celebrationnote (though in Scotland it was once second to Hogmanay). The UK does not celebrate Thanksgiving Day, and, not having been occupied by any foreign power since 1066, does not celebrate any independence day; despite this, Americans are notorious, perhaps unfairly, for asking why the UK does not celebrate these holidays. Nor do the British go in for one of these long religious celebrations like Ramadan or Hannukah. Thus, Christmas in the United Kingdom is far more of a dominant event than it is in the United States and elsewhere. Indeed, inhabitants of these sceptered isles have celebrated the winter solstice since before the birth of Christ, the Roman, Viking, and Norman invasionsnote (what about the Swiss invasions!?!), so, though Brits don't usually consider it, beneath all the tinsel, Brussels sprouts and unwanted socks at least two millennia of tradition and community are reflected in the average Christmas, with old and new customs — both original and appropriated — stacked on top of each other. This veritable smorgasbord of practices forms the nucleus of the very British affair described below.
Before we begin, let's debunk a tabloid myth. There is no mass PC-ing of Christmas. "Winterval" was a one-off commercial event and few things could annoy a Brit any more than someone wishing them "Happy Holidays". A "winter scene" on this year's Christmastime postage stamp still means Baby Jesus or suchlike will show up on next year's. Cards are still sent. Office parties are more common every year. Thank you, Stephen Fry.So, placed in rough order of when they take place...(DEEP BREATH)
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Shopping & Music
Christmas themed goods appear in the shops. This can happen as early as August, but is often delayed until after Hallowe'en, or at least interrupted by it with products for both festivals coexisting. Expect shopping centres to have their basic decorations up long in advance, and jokes about mince pies going off three months before they're used. Widely believed to be getting earlier and earlier each year; it isn't really, nor is it solely about rampant "commercialisation": British employees are usually paid at the end of the month, so for any Christmas bonus to be paid, there has to have been lots of Christmas shopping in October and November.
There are a couple of annual 'landmarks' in television advertising that effectively declare Christmas upon us: the first appearance of a vintage "Holidays are coming" Coca-Cola ad first aired in the early '90s, and the appearance of 'event' commercials advertising certain department stores to the soundtrack of teeth-grindingly twee Softer And Slower Cover versions of well-known songs.
Christmas music starts popping up everywhere. The populace is ruthlessly prodded into feeling goodwill to all men by the endless Christmas Songs drummed into their heads for weeks in advance of the big day. Unlike in the USA, contemporary musical artists rarely release seasonal albums of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"-esque standards, however. The Sinatra/Crosby/Como-era crooners can still be heard, but the UK has its own considerable canon of mostly home-grown Christmas pop songs, generally dating to a period from the 1970s until about 1985 when every major act seemed to produce one (or collaborated on one for charity: hello, Band Aid!), which seem as ingrained in popular consciousness as the more traditional songs and carols — indeed, several acts are now almost solely remembered for their hardy-perennial festive hit irrespective of how successful they once were, a sort of musical Flanderization. So, whereas the US has a Christmas firmly stuck in the 1950s, the British enjoy one which is welded firmly to the late '70s if music is anything to go by. (Frankly, the British '50s were quite unlike the American '50s, what with having to rebuild the country after the War.)
There's a core of roughly thirty songs that are regularly heard; and ten or so of these you'll encounter everywhere, for the whole of December at the very least. For many, the 'official' start of the festive period is the first timenote 2010 sighting: October 31st one hears the distinctive rasp of Slade singer Noddy Holder on their 1973 classic "Merry Xmas Everybody", perhaps the most pervasive of all of them. Until this moment there's merely been a few pretty lights and stars festooning the shops; after you've heard Uncle Noddy bellow the sandpaper-throated clarion call "It's Chriiisstmaaaass!!!" though, it's open season — albeit with the traditional response, "No, it's not. It's October/the middle of flippin' November/December 2nd"... delete as applicable to your cynicism. Just about every song in this category is an earworm, of course. Since 2006, when all digital downloads became eligible for the UK singles chart, a slew of these decades-old favourites have returned annually to the Top 40, the pack invariably led by two of the most recent: the bittersweet 1987 classic "Fairytale of New York" by The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl, and Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You". There might be an Anti-Christmas Song or two out there as well most years, trying in vain to balance out the effect of the rest.
Curiously, a few songs are routinely wheeled out that are not lyrically 'festive', but apparently still count due to their originally charting highly around Christmastime and giving off a warm fuzzy feeling — e.g. Frankie Goes To Hollywood's "The Power of Love"note (the band's label produced a Nativity-themed music video to capitalise on its December release in 1984, which contributed to this; a mimsy-pop cover version from a TV advert (see above) also topped the charts in December 2012), or East 17's "Stay Another Day", which beat Mariah to the hallowed Christmas Number One Single slot in 1994. The race for this chart position (and the often ultra-cheesy pretenders thereto) is very much a UK-specific phenomenon, as fairly accurately depicted in the film Love Actually. With the exception of the 2004 re-recording of Do They Know It's Christmas?, the last actual Christmas-themed #1 was Cliff Richard's "Saviour's Day" back in 1990; after that, songs as varied as the Noels House Party-derived novelty "Mr. Blobby" (1993), Michael Jackson's dour Green Aesop "Earth Song" (1995), three consecutive Spice Girls songs (1996-8), children's TV character Bob the Builder's "Can We Fix It?" (2000) and Gary Jules' funereal cover of "Mad World" from the soundtrack of Donnie Darko (2003) have taken the crown.
Since 2005 though you can nearly always expect the coveted Christmas Number One spot to go to whoever won The X Factor that year. This led to a backlash in 2009 when an online campaign propelled Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name" to the top instead, much to the displeasure of X-Factor supremo Simon Cowell. Since then numerous similar campaigns have attempted to hijack the position back for "real music" in the same fashion, though with less success.
Advent Calendars. A special calendar marking the 24 days of Adventnote (The Church season of Advent officially starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day, but almost all such calendars run from December 1st-24th, with a few extending to New Year). Each day, a little door is opened and something is revealed. This is often a picture — and in the commercial calendars, a piece of chocolate. All the typical Cash Cow Franchises, other popular-at-the-time children's media properties, etc. will have an Advent Calendar tie-in, while calendars from big confectionary brands such as Cadbury and Nestlé are also popular (older Advent Calendar fans tend to buy these) and tend to have rather better chocolates inside them.
The tradition originates in Germany, and is not unknown in the US, where it is observed by Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and fans of German chocolate. A related tradition is a reusable cloth with pouches labelled for each day into which one can put one's own choice of treat or marker.
Pantomime. A festive-season variant on musical theatre where not so stellar actors, often down-on-their-luck ex-soap stars, random C-list TV personalities and people referred to generically as "entertainers" in contravention of a law against mis-sold goods, perform a stock range of children's plays (Puss In Boots, Cinderella, Aladdin etc.), chock-full of songs, jokes, un-jokes, ridiculous costumes and audience participation, plus filthy single entendres to keep the parents happy and warp the children's fragile minds. The smaller scale, community-theatre takes on this tradition tend to avert most of the above, and are therefore significantly less excruciating to watch.
Candle Bridges. Seen in windows. They look like menorahs (at least, if you're unfamiliar with menorahs) but they aren't.
The Office Christmas Partynote (not that one, though it has an accurate depiction). Nearly all UK businesses will put on a Christmas party. This will have food, drink, Christmas music (often of the rather cheesy variety), bad dancing and often at least two people deciding to get more acquainted with each other. Those who do not wish to get acquainted with anybody should steer clear of the mistletoe, or of the party itself depending on how little you care for your workmates. Photocopier technicians can expect a rapid increase in callouts around this time.
Secret Santa/Kris Kringle. Common in offices, schools, and groups of friends. People write their name on a piece of paper, put it in a box, and pick a name out. They buy a present (for less than a certain value, e.g. £5, £10) for that person. Due to the inevitability of finding oneself with the name of the person in the group one knows the least, many people find this very difficult.
The Nativity Play. As Britain doesn't have the "separation of Church and State" of the US, it is common for primary schools to present a Nativity Play — basically a kids' version of the Birth of Christ. Various roles are handed out, from Mary and Joseph down through the Three Kings and various Shepherds, an Innkeeper or two, the Star and so on all the way to the Donkeys, Sheep etc. Love Actually's 'Third Lobster' probably hasn't happened, but the need to involve all kids means it can only be a matter of time. Much jealousy will be had over the choice of the Virgin Mary, not least among parents: "Little Bethany is every bit as good as Alice, but her parents invited the Head for drinks last year". Depending on the ethnic diversity of the school, the only black kid in the school will be the Second King (always the second). Tea towels and sheets are pressed into service for costumes, making it look like Roman-occupied Israel relied on Tesco's home furnishings department for clothing. Even the most atheist of parents will smile as their little Jonny recites his praise of the Baby Jesus (always a doll, for obvious reasons) like a Dalek who has a speech impediment.
Special church services. 'Christingle' is a service held on the last Sunday before Christmas Eve in Anglican Churches. Originating in Germany (as before the two wars Germany and Britain were fairly chummy, the monarchoriginally beingGerman and all), it was brought into the UK by the Children's Society charity and is a major fund-raiser for them. Children are given an orange embedded with a candle and four cocktail sticks with sweets/nuts/raisins on and a red ribbon tied around the middle (there's also a bit of tin foil to catch the melting wax) -– these are all, bar the tin foil, symbolic: the orange is the world, the foodstuffs are the fruits of the earth and the four seasons, the red ribbon is the blood of Christ and the candle is Jesus, The Light of the World. The children may parade around the church with the lit Christingles, attempting not to set the hair of the child in front of them on fire. Ahem.
Last thing on Christmas Eve there's 'Midnight Mass' to see in Christmas over midnight, like a sort of Anglican/Catholic hogmanay. In The Church of Scotland it's quite a big deal, it's called Watch-night and because of the way the Kirk is there it's not mass.
On Christmas Day itself British churches will be (relatively) crammed with congregations several times their normal size, as all the "Christmas-and-Easter" goers remember that they're religious for an hour or so. In the Church of England, this gives rise to the happy abbreviation "C-and-E C-of-E" for such twice-a-year attendees.
"Father Christmas", these days, is just another (somewhat old fashioned) name for Santa Claus. Originally, he was a separate figure of the "Old Man Winter" tradition — i.e. the 'Spirit of Winter/Christmas' who should be welcomed into homes and plied with food and drink. Though this has died out in favour of the modern St. Nick, there are two key differences between American Santa traditions, and British ones:
British families don't leave him milk and cookies, they leave him mince pies (a small, tart-sized pie filled with "mincemeat", which despite the namenote (a last remnant of meat meaning 'food' and not 'animal flesh' specifically, although it did contain meat as recently as the 19th century; as with many British culinary changes in the 20th century, rationing during one of the World Wars is probably responsible) generally contains spiced fruit) and a glass of something like sherry or brandy. No we can't explain why he doesn't end up being arrested, having been found inebriated after crashing his sleigh somewhere in Surrey. One or more carrots may be provided for the reindeer. Whisk(e)y is of course his preferred drink in Scotland, Ireland and anywhere you find Brits whose family were originally either Scots or Irish. His favoured tipple also tends to be suspiciously similar to that of your father. Funny that.
The Father Christmas tradition holds that he comes from Lapland, rather than the North Pole as American children are taught. Perhaps a little less magical, but easier for families who can afford to get to it via plane. And there are actually reindeer there. (And snow — the UK climate generally is rather too temperate to see a real-life 'White Christmas' more than once in a generation, despite the popular imagery and an annual rush to place bets on the subject.) The tourist board of Finland (contested by the Swedish) is understandably fond of this tradition. The fact that Turkey, where the original Saint Nicholas lived, is a mostly Muslim country is probably what has prevented it from attempting to get in on the tourist dollars. Well that, and also—Father Christmas in warm, sunny Turkey?
The Christmas Lunch
Almost lavish enough to deserve its own Useful Note. There are many rather specific parts to this — although all won't usually be included at once. Tends to be even bigger than the American variation, as Thanksgiving Day is not celebrated in Britain so the full weight, so to speak, of tradition lands on Christmas. Jabba Table Manners may result. The general aim is to consume at least 40% of one's own body mass over the course of the day — aided by the vast choice lying around of chocolate selection boxes, sausage rolls, mince pies, mulled wine, German confectionary, cheese-and-pineapple on sticks, and all those 'nibbles' supermarkets only seem to stock around Christmas: big bags of mixed nuts, large tubs of Twiglets (ask a Brit) and Mini Cheddars (ditto), cheese footballs, cheese straws, cheese twists, cheese puffs, cocktail sausages, a host of funsized things such as burgers and pizzas, all manner of peculiar savoury bites, 'luxury biscuit assortment' tins, etc. etc. These all turn up in the shops because they're theoretically what people like to buy at Christmastime; people only buy them because they're what turns up in the supermarket aisle labelled "Christmas" stuff and it's what seems expected of them; thousands of vol-au-vents remain untouched in freezers past June, but capitalism remains happy. It all appears from around the time the schools go back in autumn, which means every year the same stories turn up in the press featuring the person whose shop-bought Christmas pudding has turned out to be labelled "Best before 1st December" or similar. After this light deluge of aperitifs, Christmas dinner proper may feature:
A great big roast bird: Turkey is probably the most common mainstay, but some celebrate with a more traditional goose or a game bird instead. The latter are generally not eaten under any other normal circumstances. Goose was the bird of choice in Victorian-era Christmas (described in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol), but is now uncommon and much more expensive; although, unlike turkey, it actually tastes of something and doesn't require drowning in gravy to give it some moisture.
Other meats: Depending on the number of people in attendance, a roast joint of meat or some other centrepiece dish may also be presented: beef joints or various pig products (gammon/ham, pork etc.) are common, and arguably an older tradition than the turkey. (This is alluded to in Terry Pratchett's Hogfather). If you're not of the meat-eating kind then woe betide you, you'll have to make do with a hastily purchased and overdone nut roast. A meat pie is another staple, as is the beef Wellington, a slab of roast beef wrapped in pastry, with a mushroom and cream stuffing. In coastal communities, a fish is common. In Mousehole, Cornwall, the 23rd of December is celebrated as Tom Bawcock's Eve, after a heroic fisherman who put out during a storm and managed to catch enough fish to lift a famine, and the traditional "Stargazy pie" (so called because it features fish heads poking upwards out the crust, a creepy spectacle for some) is sometimes also served on Christmas Day.
Sides: Of course, all large offerings of meat require something to go with them to offset the sheer amount of protein involved. Here's a few accompaniments:
Sauce: As in North America, cranberry sauce is a traditional accompaniment to turkey if your family is aware of it; when they're not you'll get bread sauce, a lumpen whitish savoury concoction from medieval times which does indeed contain bread. The binding element to all dinners though is gravy, a lumpen brown savoury concoction made from the meat juices and the stuff stuck to the roasting tin, usually required when dining on drier meats like turkey or beef.
Roast potatoes: Every dish needs a starchy side; we opted for roast potatoes which, depending on who's making them, will either be crunchy-on-the-outside yet fluffy 'n' soft on the inside, browned-to-perfection little delights or rock solid beasts which are somehow burned and raw at the same time.note That awfulness is a classic sign that the spuds were cooked at too high a temperature. Higher temperatures do not necessarily reduce cooking time; you need the right temperature to ensure the heat penetrates the whole potato before the outside starts getting too crispy. If you're having this problem, put the potatoes in at a lower temperature for longer and see what happens. There is no inbetween.
Brussels sprouts: As in the place in Belgium. Whilst other veg does get served, these are a particular requirement. A green vegetable, essentially miniscule cabbages somewhere between ball bearings and golf balls in size, hardness and edibility — or reduced to little more than greenish slimy mush if particularly unlucky. People either love or ''really'' hate them.note (This is largely because they contain a foul-tasting chemical that many people genetically lack the ability to taste: generally those who do not like sprouts are the ones who can taste it.) Either way, the things are only ever eaten at Christmas — because it's Tradition. If you're on one side of the debate, you can't imagine being on the other.
Christmas Pudding: Also known as "plum pudding" or "figgy pudding". It's a very dark, rich steamed suet puddingnote (note that pudding in this case is not the North American custardy stuff, but rather a bulbous sort of dense, curranty booze-soaked spice cake, with a lot of dried fruit, nuts and alcohol. May contain silver sixpences (no longer legal tender) to give luck and major dental damage to whoever finds the damned things. Tradition is to pour yet more alcohol, usually brandy, over it once more for good luck immediately before serving and then set the whole thing alight for a bit with all the lights turned off. Providing fabrics, hair and especially eyebrows are covered, you don't trip bringing it in and everyone maintains a 5 foot clear radius, this will safely provoke "oohs" and "aahs" and add those pleasingly tangy top notes of ethanol and charcoal. If this has an ancient meaning, most have forgotten it. Christmas pudding can be made at home, but are usually bought beforehand — Harrods' puddings are considered the best pre-made. If made at home, it will have been done so either according to a thousand-year old recipe passed down from mother to daughter, or, more usually, borrowed from a celebrated TV chef's recently purchased Christmas-themed cookbook. Traditionally the mix is, uh, mixed on 'Stir-Up Sunday', the last Sunday before the season of Advent — over a month before the eating date — with everyone in the family taking a turn at stirring the pudding, starting with the oldest member and finishing with the youngest, and each person making a private wish. The truly dedicated, however, make their Christmas pudding (and occasionally the cake; see below) on the Advent Sunday the year before it is due to be eaten, to give it a year to 'mature'. Whether this improves the flavour is always hotly debated. In the weeks/months between making and serving, the pudding must be 'fed' (i.e. be lovingly doused in alcohol) periodically. Since Christmas puddings just never go off, and they're kind of dense and huge, it's also an unofficial tradition to have a good deal left in a tin for most of the rest of the year.
Can be served with cream or ice-cream, but most 'traditionally' with brandy butter (also known as hard sauce), a dietician's nightmare made from brandy (surprisingly), butter (ditto) and sugar (plot twist), of similar consistency to ice-cream but not as cold. One of those peculiarly festive foodstuffs that only seems to manifest in our universe in the run-up to Christmas, although leftover pots can be glimpsed as late as mid-January before they scurry off to whatever dimension they spend the rest of the year hibernating in. An alternative is rum sauce (sweet white sauce with rum). Combine cream, rum sauce and brandy butter for the ultimate cholesterol nightmare and maximum deliciousness.
Christmas Cakenote (not this kind): a dark fruitcake covered thickly in marzipan and then white icing (frosting), often whipped into a stiff snowscape (since royal icing tends to be used, which includes egg whites so sets more crunchily and solidly than regular icing: anywhere on a scale from 'fetch the hacksaw' to 'industrial laser required'), which will also weld the cake onto the Christmassy board it's stood upon. Small model Santas, reindeer, robins, holly leaves, 'Happy Christmas' signs, snowmen etc. may be cemented into the icing, and the sides wrapped with a decorative crepe paper band. These models will be of varying antiquity and wildly out of scale, hence scenes with Santa being menaced by a ten-foot robin and the like. Christmas cake is widely considered inedible yet equally widely considered delicious, much like its puddingy sibling: slices must be forcibly and messily dismembered for the benefit of that one person who wants marzipan but hates icing, the one who wants icing but hates marzipan, the one who wants both but hates the cake, etc. Also like Christmas pudding, best made to a murkily specific ancestral recipe — the only constants seem to involve the whole family stirring it, and the thing needing to be stuck in an oven for anywhere up to about 48 hours. Simply called fruitcake in the US, much the same tradition except nobody cooks it and everybody hates it.
When marzipan isn't an option (because everybody in the entire family hates it, except for that one aunt), the aforementioned brandy butter may be used instead. Then nobody has an excuse not to get drunk; again it's "tradition".
Once again as with Christmas pudding, it's traditional to make the cake quite some time before Christmas, stow it in an old tin in a cupboard, and 'feed' it brandy/rum/whisky/port/Old Hoggard's Brainrotter until Christmas Day to "stop it drying out". This is to let the flavours mature and ensure it is soft and moist. However as it's traditional to bake it as distantly as Guy Fawkes Night (the fifth of November) or even earlier and give it up to a tablespoon of booze per day this can result in a confection which bleeds brandy when you cut through the icing and has to be kept well away from naked flames.
As an alternative for people who prefer sponge to fruit cake, there's also Yule Log: basically a giant chocolate Swiss roll topped with very thick, very rich chocolate ganache, with icing sugar as a smattering of 'snow'. Can be served with ice-cream to make extra certain of dental devastation. The 'Yule Log' derives from a gigantic log that was the mainstay of the fire in the main hearth for all twelve days of Christmas. The modern Yule Log does not burn nearly so well and lasts only about 2 hours, but is very much more edible.
The main meal is usually the time for pulling Christmas crackers: if you've read Harry Potter, you'll be familiar with these, although the Potter characters receive much more spectacular versions. Basically a cardboard tube with two twisted ends requiring two people to pull, one from either end until it breaks in half and a little firework (little more than a popcap) goes bang and whoever gets the longest part of the tube gets to keep what's inside. You might consider that a mini tug-of-war and there's a winner, but nobody wins when it comes to this. Contents of the cracker typically are made up of a colourful but delicate as hell crepe-paper 'crown', some cheap plastic bit of junk and a piece of paper with a very poor joke written in Chinglish. These jokes are almost a trope of their own in that they are expected to be bad — often by way of a bad pun. To find a genuinely funny joke in a cracker would be a grave disappointment and may even ruin someone's Christmas. It is a legal requirement under the Christmas Act 1972 that each person dining at the table wear the paper hat, despite the fact that they look ridiculous. These are meant to represent the crowns worn by the Three Kings, or the crown of thorns worn by Jesus at His crucifixion. Or something. If they have drunk the right amount it won't actually matter.
It has been seriously suggested that people prefer bad cracker jokesnote ("so these two crackers walk into a bar..." — no not that kind) to good ones because that way one person (you know the one, that second cousin who everyone vaguely suspects got dropped on his head as a child) doesn't suffer the mortifying indignity of being Late to the Punchline. Genuine studies have shown that group togetherness is fostered by this shared groaning at the 'joke', in a way that simply wouldn't happen if some found it funny and some didn't. So yes, science has proven that bad jokes are the royal icing binding families together during this time. Aww.
Throughout all this feasting and merriment, it is traditional (at least in most of England) to be as drunk as you possibly can, while still able to sit up and eat. Buck's Fizz (orange juice and champagne; much like a mimosa except with more juice) and Bailey's Irish cream soda are traditional Christmas beverages, started as early as over breakfast. And that's just the fluids; the food itself, as shown above, will attempt to inebriate you as quickly as possible too.
Another traditional Christmas drink, at least in the south-east is the "snowball", which consists of a creamy liqueur named Advocaat (roughly the Rightpondian version of eggnognote (standard American eggnog is supposed to include whiskey or brandy — both for the purposes of intoxication and to reduce the risks of drinking something containing raw egg; yes, eggnog is supposed to contain raw egg: see Good Eats episode 913 — though this is often forgotten. Blame Prohibition.) ) mixed with lemonade to make it more "child friendly", seeing how at Christmas the drinking age seems to drop to about 5 so long as you're in the house and out of sightnote (in point of fact, the legal drinking age in the United Kingdomis5, if the child is at home and under parental supervision (or equivalent). Not manypeople know that. Or care for that matter). Despite this it's rather strong, so it's considered wise not to mix it with anything else and to take a break every two glasses. (During this break, we suggest a glass of Buck's Fizz, as it has fruit in it so it's not proper alcohol.)
Families beginning to stockpile vast quantities of alcohol, usually in the garage or utility room, as early in the year as September is not unheard of — commonly champagne, Buck's Fizz, brandy, Bailey's, wines and so forth. Mysteriously, though, by Christmas Day evening every seventh bottle will have transmogrified into certain odd types of liqueur that no one likes and just end up festering malevolently on a shelf somewhere. Forever.note (Or at least until your family produces the oddball uncle/aunt who actually likes it... or a sufficiently desperate youth/alcoholic, but we don't like to talk about that). In Scotland, the whisky will come out (usually some that has been given on the day as a gift), and in the less salubrious quarters the streets will run purple with Buckfastnote (ask a Scot).
Family traditions. Expect feelings to run high over the proper time for eating the Christmas meal; whether the Christmas tree should be real or artificial, lit or unlit, whether the lights should be bulbs or LEDs, and whether they should be white, single-colour or multicoloured (the giant Trafalgar Square tree in central London, effectively the 'nation's Christmas tree', used to have multicoloured lights, but now it has white ones because that's the tradition in Norway, the annual donors of the tree); when children get to open their first presents; whether they arrive in a stocking, a pillowcase, or just in a pile under the tree (the presents, not the children... unless the Christmas cake was particularly brandy-rich that year) or more than one of the above; whether family parlour games and carol singing are jolly fun or hell incarnate; and whether everyone other than the official cook goes to the pub while the dinner is prepared, or mucks in to help peel potatoes. Do not expect any two sets of in-laws to have traditions that match even slightly. (To get the general idea, read Terry Pratchett's Hogfather).
Christmas television. Viewing schedules will be crammed with Christmas Specials: that is (partially) stand-alone Christmas episodes of programmes, the occasional festive variety show, clip/compilation/best-of shows, and other quirks of the season. A recent tradition has been to repeat much of last year's 'new' Christmas programming on the few days either side of December 25th.
All details are to be found in the likes of the Radio Times TV listings magazine's Christmas bumper edition. Usually with some lovely festive-themed cover art. Recent covers have included a TARDIS snowglobe and an exclusive Christmas Day living room scene with Wallace & Gromit. 2012's starred The Snowman (see below). Although the RT runs year-round, with the dawn of Electronic Programme Guides many families will only buy a copy for Christmas, if at all.
Christmas morning is when our thoughts turned to the bearded man who's given us such great happiness and joy down the years — we refer, of course, to Nöel Edmonds with Noel's Christmas Presents.
Already bastions of misery and despair, the soap operas of terrestrial television (EastEnders and Coronation Street to name two) celebrate Christmas by sharply increasing the sheer amount of suffering that they inflict on their characters. Entire families gather around the tele-box to see who dies, who breaks up with who and which Christmas party is blown up by a freak lawnmower accident. This has a trope all of its own: Soapland Christmas.
Other programmes will do something special for their Christmas Episode, whether this means ramping up the excitement, sending the cast on holiday so they're doing the same routine against a different backdrop, or just clearly establishing that it's Christmas by working any of the above into the plot. This applies even if the series no longer runs in its original format. For example, the much beloved sitcom The Royle Family has long since stopped making new series in 2000, but it's made four Christmas specials between 2006 and 2010. Only Fools and Horses likewise did numerous Christmas specials after the regular series had ended.
Doctor Who, these days, does an hour-long Christmas special. Many people were surprised when it was pointed out that this tradition only started in 2005 with David Tennant. These specials at least take place at Christmas, with the 2010 special for instance being a sci-fi, time-travelling retelling of A Christmas Carol complete with Michael Gambon, Welsh mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins and a flying sky-shark. The usual Christmas tradition of the "classic" Doctor Who was simply to repeat all the episodes of a popular story all together in one long programme. The original series did once have its own Christmas special though, in 1965, complete with a jolly Breaking the Fourth Wall ending.
Top of the Pops, former long-running music show that was killed off after a disastrous rebranding back in 2006, now survives as an annual special which serves mainly to announce who has secured the above-mentioned coveted Christmas Number One single, usually from a The X Factor winner.
Christmas films — terrestrial channels tend to show both more and higher-profile films (often ones receiving their terrestrial premiere) over the Christmas period (as exhaustively covered in the aforementioned Radio Times bumper edition, naturally). In addition, while the usual Christmas-themed films (from It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street (x2) to Elf and Bad Santa) will inevitably be on, many thematically-unrelated ones have nonetheless become staples of the season — ET, Casablanca, Brief Encounter, James Bond films, the original The Pink Panther films with Peter Sellers, The Great Escape (which is almost a certainty for Boxing Day), etc. Interestingly, during its rather untrendy period in the late 1980s and early '90s, the original Star Wars trilogy definitely fell into this category, having become a much less common sight before it became cool again.
Michael Caine appears to be a rather incongruous festive favourite (making him all the more perfect in The Muppet Christmas Carol). Usually a toss up between the aforementioned Great Escape, Zulu and The Italian Job. It's also traditional for every adult male to quote all the iconic lines, and then discuss how iconic those lines are, and then rank them in order of how iconic they are, and then argue over the order.
Children's animated 1982 short The Snowman is so consistently shown and beloved that any attempt to remove it from the Christmas schedules could be seen as some sort of career suicide for the head of Channel 4. The one year it did omit the showing, they fell behind Channel Five (then almost entirely unknown and only available to roughly half of the country) in the ratings. A sequel adventure was finally produced for Christmas 2012, The Snowman and the Snowdog, which demonstrated this exalted status by securing the cover of that year's Radio Times Christmas double-issue (see above).
Police, Camera, Action! — a Very Special Episodemay air in the lead-up week to Christmas on ITV 1 or ITV 4 (in any case, mainly a Rerun, then on Christmas Eve expect an episode on ITV 4 which will be a re-run from either the 1998, 2000 or 2002 series and a 2007 series episode later on, and on Christmas Day they will usually show it either two or three times a day: with it being shown as early as 6:00am or 7:00am on ITV 4, then repeated in the afternoon, and an hour-long one (8:00pm to 9:00pm or 9:00pm to 10:00pm) which is a Very Special Episode.
Expect either Rust Buckets (1998 series), Round the Bend / Rogue's Roadshow (2000 series) / Diversion Ahead / Motorway Manners / City Limits (2002 series) or Speed Freaks (2007 series) / Death Wish Drivers / Less Lethal Weapons (2007 series) to air on Christmas Day.
On ITV 4 it's expected that this happens on Christmas Day, and has become a tradition since December 2007.
The Queen's Speech. More formally known as the Royal Christmas Message and originated by George V in 1932 (you can see a dramatization of him doing it in The King's Speech), it's broadcast on the terrestrial TV channels BBC One and ITV 1 at 3pm and is basically the Queen making a short to-camera speech to the country and The Commonwealth (over clips of her doing things, media footage etc.) on the events of the year. Political opinions will be of the neutral, non-party political variety (along the lines of 'People died. That's bad.'). Once, the text was leaked to tabloid newspaperThe Sun; despite the alleged shock, the world kept turning — the monarch will always say broadly the same things anyway, and no-one really imagines she just gets up from the table, wipes mince pie crumbs from her chin, quickly swaps a paper crown with her tiara and delivers a live off-the-cuff monologue to her subjects. Recently, the Queen, technophile that she is, has spread the message on the royal YouTube and via podcast as well as on TV. In 2012's broadcast, she appeared for the first time in 3D! Amongst all the wide variety of celebrations going on the length and breadth of the land, the hubbub and noise of the 21st century Christmas (complaints of "Change the bloody channel and put something decent on!" followed by a family argument on the monarchy), the Queen's Speech acts still as a bulwark of tradition, a unifying watershed moment in the nation's collective festivities; it marks the point after lunch in Christmas Day at which the whole country — children and grown-ups, religious and atheist, families together, full of the joy of the season — takes a break from the relentless frolics, drinking, present-opening, drinking, arguing, drinking, eating and drinking, and gathers snugly around its television sets en masse, sated and happy, joined together in a wonderful shared moment of calm and continuity, and falls asleep.
In Scotland, The Queen's Speech is a bit more divisive/apathy-inspiring on average than it is Down South. The moment of cultural unity described above was much more likely to be found during the late comedian Rikki Fulton's Last Call monologue, which was shown on Hogmanay until 1999. It has had its Spiritual Successors with Chewin' the Fat and Only An Excuse, but people generally agree that neither of them have quite managed to recapture the magic.
The Speech is shown 'live' (the same time it is shown in the UK at least) in the USA on CSPAN apparently
In 1993, as part of its Christmas in New York season, Channel Four broadcast "The Alternative Queen's Message", made by veteran and pioneering Flamboyant Gay Quentin Crisp (a British expat in New York from 1981 until his death in 1999), to run parallel to the Queen's speech on the other channels. Retitled "The Alternative Christmas Message", it has since featured a wide range of (usually controversial) celebrities and public figures touching on a number of issues. Previous presenters have included the parents of hate-crime murder victim Stephen Lawrence, a 9/11 survivor, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. In 2004, it was Marge Simpson. In 2008, just to give an idea of how 'alternative' it can get, the Alternative Christmas Message was given by President Ahmadinejad of the Islamic Republic of Iran. 2013's alternative message came from American National Security Agency 'whistleblower' Edward Snowden, and regardless of one's feelings towards him his surname is quite fitting for how (northern hemisphere) Christmas gets depicted on greeting cards.
Boxing Day is the day after Christmas, and is mostly used to get over Christmas; it has nothing to do with pugilism. Technically, the 26th of December is "St. Stephen's Day", named for the First Martyr (which is why his feast day is the day after Christmas) of Christianity, and hence the mention of "the Feast of Stephen" in the carol Good King Wenceslas. "Boxing Day" in contrast is not always the 26th, as it was (traditionally) postponed a day if it would fall on a Sunday; this derives from the original meaning, the day when the Church charity boxes would be opened and the proceeds used for the poor — the extra day's wait was so that the Sunday collection would be included in the distribution. Nowadays most people just ignore this: in practice the name is almost universally applied to December 26th.
Leftovers: The carcass of the Christmas turkey and the scattered remains of the rest of the previous day's orgy of feasting will on Boxing Day be rendered into consumables weird and wonderful. Common formats are enormous shove-it-all-in sandwiches, stews, broths, omelettes (yes, really), bubble-and-squeak (leftover potatoes and vegetables chopped into small bits, mixed together and shallow-fried), and, as Britain becomes more multicultural, stir-fries or curries. Also common among the well-heeled is eating out in a restaurant on Boxing Day, as the cooks in the family will likely be less than enthusiastic about making anything after the epic stress that is the previous day's cuisine.
Sport: Well-known for a cricket match taking place on this day. Sporting calendars put on hiatus for Christmas Day get back up and running: there is generally a full programme of football league games nationwide.
Great British Eccentricity: There is an annual act of Northern lunacy known as the Boxing Day Dip, which involves running into the North Sea, some people doing so in fancy dress. Some people (read: lunatics) do this in the south as well. Apparently it's fun. In Edinburgh, it's known as the Loony Dook and done on New Year's Day at Queensferry (the beach near the Forth Rail Bridge) as a charity event. Across the water in Dublin, it's done at the "Forty Foot" — traditionally naked. A particular club of lunatics in London hold an open-air swimming race in the Serpentine (a long snake-shaped pond in Hyde Park) on Christmas Eve. They continue swimming there all year round, apparently, even when they have to break the ice to get in.
Country pursuits: A traditional day for horse racing, game shooting and fox 'not'-hunting. In the West of Ireland an old tradition known as Wren-Boying takes place. This originally involved the killing of wrens but thankfully has evolved into a trick-or-treat style event. Children dress up and walk from house to house receiving money from the locals. This tradition is sadly beginning to die out.
More shopping frenzy!: Increasing numbers take advantage of the heavily lowered shopping prices everywhere known as the Boxing Day Sales. This name is the more accurate description of what have traditionally (but no longer accurately) been referred to as the January Sales — they've gradually crept earlier over recent years, so that December 26th's evening news will nowadays be fronted by features on the hordes of wild-eyed bargain-seizers who were queueing at 8am. Some sales finish within a few days and you can expect the adverts for these to crop up round about mid-evening on Christmas Day, or even Christmas Eve.
Advertising: Boxing Day (and to an extent Christmas Day itself) inevitably sees an instantaneous mass changeover in TV advertising — for weeks beforehand every other advert is for otherwise unseen brands of perfume, and every other ad is ruthlessly pushing the necessity of a Traditional, Wholesome, Affordably Luxurious, Authentic Family Christmas™ (you know, the ones with the gratingly Warmly Reassuring™ voiceovers)... then there is an abrupt and complete switch to nothing but ads for cut-price furniture ('Double Discounted Sofas' ahoy), reduced weekend getaways and celebrity diet plans. Happy New Year.