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 . The UK does not celebrate a designated harvest Thanksgiving Day, and, between not having been occupied by any foreign power since 1066 and having a revolution without any really truly clear dates for celebration that wouldn't also be divisive, it means Christmas in the United Kingdom is far more of a dominant calendar event and holiday 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 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 all blur into the very British affair described below.
In theory, the 'Christmas Season' for Brits is defined as the entirety of Adventnote , Christmas Day, Boxing Day (December 26th), the days afterward leading up to New Year, and then the remainder of the days until Twelfth Night (January 5th), after which everything comes to a complete close. Increasingly however the buildup has come to dominate, such that Christmas Creep is widespread and some Christmas trees can be seen thrown out on the roadside on Boxing Day.
In recent years, some traditions and conventions from other countries have started to appear, mostly due to the lower cost of transport and increased relations between the UK, America, Europe (especially Germany, Italy and France) and The Commonwealth. Naturally, these influences are subject to the same ebb-and-flow of any imported trend. For example, Black Friday, previously a chiefly-American spiel, crashed into the festive season in full force around 2014, and Brits everywhere seemed to go just as crazy for it as their friends across the pond... despite the perplexing illogic of Britain marking a day based on Thanksgiving. A mere two years later and the public appeared to have lost interest, with the images of quiet high-street shops inspiring the press to label the 2016 rendition "Blank Friday".
Before we continue, let's debunk a tabloid myth. There is no mass PC-ing of Christmas. "Winterval" was a one-off commercial eventnote and few things could annoy a Brit any more than someone wishing them "Happy Holidays"note . The secular winter scene on one year's festive postage stamps isn't "taking the Christ out of Christmas", it just means Baby Jesus or suchlike will show up on next year's, as they alternate. Cards are still sent. Office parties are more common every year. In fact, Christmas in Britain is so popular that from around the 1800s onwards, it has begun to be celebrated by virtually every religious denomination in some way or another. Christmas did almost die out in pre-1843 Anglo-Saxon Protestant nations (US and UK) until a certain book by Charles Dickens completely revitalised it, and it is very firmly here to stay.
So, placed in rough order of when they take place... (DEEP BREATH)
Advertising. Starting from right before the current year's Christmas, "cost-spreading" companies - such as Park, a company which supposedly makes this their sole goal - will usually release an advert telling people to begin saving or using their services so that they have enough money for next year's festivities. The advert mysteriously disappears after around a quarter into the following year, only to return time and time again as Christmas gets nearer, like a ruthless alligator waiting to feed on people who are insecure about their finances.
A couple of months or more before December 25th, ad breaks will start quietly smuggling in small yet increasingly suspicious quantities of allusions to the festive season, and the odd sprinkling of stars and sparkles will begin to make its way into advertisements. One or two might even hang a lampshade on this by pointing out how it's not Christmas for ages yet. Listen hard, though, and somewhere in the distance you'll soon start to hear bells jingling.
Around this time, normally just before the rest of the economy wakes up and breathes in the festive spirit, two particular strains of commercial will appear on screens nationwide. The first of these are for the 'Big Three' supermarket chainsnote , making sure that your ears ring by blaring obnoxious covers of Christmas carols while shoving down your throat their ideas of how Christmas should be, while more upmarket chains such as Waitrose and Aldi go for more subtlety. Given how these adverts are often filmed in the height of summer, eagle eyed viewers might spot the midsummer sun beaming through windows in the background, or a very obvious tree covered in green leaves. Closely following the supermarket ads are bizarre and borderline-disturbing adverts for perfume companies. As is tradition with these sorts of adverts, normally what is going on in the advert has nothing to do with the product itself, and will often involve two scantily-clad people performing horrifying body horror-esque poses as one of them smells the other - after depicting them in equally strange scenes that dont really make that much sense. 2016's flavour of the year was to have the female models bend their necks in such a way that they should have snapped.
There are a couple of annual 'landmarks' in television advertising that effectively declare the season officially upon us: the first appearance of a vintage "Holidays are coming" Coca-Cola ad first aired in the early '90s, and the appearance of adverts for major department stores, namely John Lewis and House of Fraser, marked by adorable animals, with Tear Jerker plots and overtly Softer and Slower Covers of rock songs. Before you know it, every other advert is full of happy people dashing through the snow, dressing in chunky red knitwear and ruthlessly pushing the necessity of a Traditional, Wholesome, Affordably Luxurious, Authentic Family Christmas come hell or high water.
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 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 it's just a few pretty lights and stars festooning the shops; after you've heard Uncle Noddy bellow the sandpaper-throated clarion call "It's Chriiisstmaaaass!!!", however, it's open season — albeit with the traditional response, "No, it's not. It's the 1st of December / the middle of flippin' November / October" delete as applicable to your cynicism. Just about every song in this category is catchy, 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 more recent: bittersweet 1987 classic "Fairytale of New York" by The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl, and Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You". In recent times the genre seems to have undergone something of a revival, with 21st-century popstars having grown up with all the above tunes hardwired into their brains their entire lives. Most years there might be an Anti-Christmas Song or two released as well, trying in vain to balance out the effect of the rest.
Curiously a few songs are routinely wheeled out that, although not lyrically 'festive', 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 , or East 17's "Stay Another Day"note , which beat Mariah to the Christmas Number One Single slot in 1994. The race for this hallowed 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 Band Aid's 1984 mega-seller Do They Know It's Christmas?note , the last actual Christmas-themed #1 to date 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), Westlife covering Abba's "I Have A Dream" (1999), children's TV character Bob the Builder's "Can We Fix It?" (2000) and Gary Jules' Softer and Slower Cover of "Mad World" from the soundtrack of Donnie Darko (2003) have taken the crown.
Beginning with 2005, you could 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. Numerous similar campaigns attempted to hijack the position back for "real music" in the following years, but charity-related singles with short shelf-lives clinched the top spot in 2011 and 2012: Gareth Malone & The Military Wives' "Wherever You Are" (2011) and a remake of The Hollies' "He Ain't Heavy He's My Brother" (2012). Although the X-Factor winner managed to win the race again in 2013 and 2014, the show has since suffered a steep decline in ratings and has not repeated the feat since; 2015's winner's single only finished at #12 and the top spot turned out to be a two-horse race for the position between Justin Bieber's "Love Yourself" and the NHS Choir's unlikely Simon & Garfunkel/Coldplay charity mashup, "A Bridge Over You"; the latter would eventually claim the top spot — Bieber himself even thought that the choir deserved the #1 more than he did. The next year, the first non-X-Factor related ("Killing in the Name" notwithstanding), non-charity Christmas #1 since 2003, Clean Bandit's "Rockabye", was propelled by incredibly high streaming figures, while several other bookies' favorites bombed hard due to minimal streams.
2017 saw another entirely unremarkable non-TV related, non-charity, non-festive Christmas No1 in the form of Ed Sheeran's "Perfect". It's been suggested that streaming is increasingly diluting the effect of The X-Factor, 'protest vote' buys and charity singles, because you're not necessarily buying these because you actually want to listen to them. The 2018 Christmas No1 saw a return to the charity chart-topper when LadBabys parody of Starship's "We Built This City" extolling the virtues of sausage rolls(!!) saw off the likes of Ariana Grande and Ava Max (the latter's "Sweet but Psycho" had to settle for #2) to claim the top spot. He would return to the top spot twelve months later, when a parody of Joan Jetts "I Love Rock n Roll" about his love of the aforementioned savoury snack saw off a collaboration between Stormzy and Ed Sheeran.
Caroling. Only mentioned with the caveat that it's nowadays very uncommon to see real, live Christmas Carolers. No matter where you are in the UK it's bloody cold by mid-December, but not always cold enough to get the warming, blanketing effect you get with snow. Caroling for charity donations may be organised by some churches, and that's because it's a huge effort to wander around in the dark with light drizzle running down your neck, getting about 30 pence per house if they answer the door at all. In recent years, organised caroling has seen somewhat of a resurgence, mostly to raise money for charity; backed by sponsors (who've already laid down significant sums of cash), these groups tend to take part in events at churches, department stores — being able to sing out of the rain inside a warm building being a serious plus — and other festive locations.
As with a lot of modern Christmas traditions, Advent Calendars originated in Germany, and the custom 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 calendar 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"note perform a stock range of children's plays based on Fairy Tales and other Public Domain subjects: Puss in Boots, Aladdin, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella and so on. A panto will be 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.
Stir-Up Sunday. This tradition is carried out around one week before Advent, or sometimes as early as several months before December even begins. It is the day when most people begin preparing their Christmas cakes and Christmas puddings (see the section on 'Food', below). During Stir-Up Sunday, the ingredients are combined into a mixture and then baked or steamed, respectively. The resulting confection looks like the final product, yet 'has' to steep and soak through with alcohol for the remainder of the run up to Christmas so that by December 25th one mouthful could floor a horse, meaning it is ready for serving.
Candle Bridges. Seen in windows. They look like menorahs (at least, if you're unfamiliar with menorahs) but they aren't. They first became popular when IKEA stores arrived in the UK in the late '80s and began to sell them as a seasonal Scandinavian tradition.
The Office Christmas Partynote . 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 mysteriously rapid increase in callouts around this time.
For the businesses that are not allowed to have parties (or alcohol) on work time (mostly the civil service), a bring and share buffet and/or an after-work trip to a local restaurant is generally substituted.
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 fairly low set 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 (ages 4-11) to present a Nativity Play — basically a kids' dramatic version of the Birth of Christ. Various roles are handed out, from Mary and Joseph down through the Angel Gabriel, Three Kings and various Shepherds, an Innkeeper or two, 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, as well as the fact that school classes normally number between 25 and thirty students, plus teachers and teaching assistants, means it can only be a matter of time. It is common to see pupils cast as stars, flowers, trees and animals, since they're the easiest roles to cast when there's too many performers compared to the actual cast size in the script. Much jealousy will be roused 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 monarchs of the era originally being German 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. Expect plenty of "Peace be with you"s and a somewhat pleasant smell of burning cinnamon to be found.
On Christmas Eve evening comes the Crib Service, another children-centric service, which sees the 'Blessing of the Crib' and where the church's Nativity crib scene is completed as a Baby Jesus figure is placed in the manger. May well be standing room only, as it's quite short, the carols are familiar and easy "Away In A Manger"-type, it doesn't involve either staying up late or getting up on Christmas morning, and the timing means little kids can be packed off to bed after getting home from it.
Last thing on Christmas Eve there's 'Midnight Mass' to see in the Yuletide 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. Midnight services are attended by large numbers of people both young and old; some families bring their still wide-eyed younger children, with the intent of tiring them out enough that they're too exhausted to wake up screaming for presents at 5 o'clock the next morning.
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.
- British families don't leave him milk and cookies, they leave him mince pies (a small, bite-sized shortcrust pie filled with "mincemeat", which despite the namenote 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.
- More recently, it isn't uncommon to see people in the UK talking about NORAD's Santa Tracker; despite being an American institution for decades now, the internet age means its following has spread across to Britain and other countries in the Commonwealth as well.
- The Father Christmas tradition holds that he comes from Lapland (the northern region of Finland), rather than the North Pole as American children are taught. Perhaps a little less magical, but slightly less likely to melt, and 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, as the two countries border each other with provinces that are both called Lapland) is understandably fond of this tradition, though nowadays the American idea of the North Pole as Santa's home is increasingly taking over. 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, not to mention being a bit too hot.
The general aim at Christmas 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 confectionery, cheese-and-pineapple on sticks, and all those 'nibbles' and peculiar savoury 'bites' supermarkets only seem to stock around Christmas: big bags of mixed nuts, large tubs of Twigletsnote and Mini Cheddarsnote , cheese footballs, cheese straws, cheese twists, cheese puffs, cheese selection boxes, little sausages on cocktail sticks (with little cubes of cheese), a host of fun-sized versions of things such as burgers and pizzas, plus sweet stuff like chocolate mints, choc truffles, "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 people's 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 12th December" or similar.
After this light deluge of aperitifs, Christmas dinner proper may feature:
A great big roast bird: Turkey is the most common mainstay, but some celebrate with a more traditional goose or a game bird instead, 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, you don't need time-consuming preparation and careful timing to make sure that it actually tastes of something, nor does it require drowning in gravy to give it some moisture.note
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.
- Pigs in blankets are a popular secondary meat feature, consisting of sausages wrapped in bacon. They are well worth trying.
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, usually required when dining on drier meats like turkey or beef. Most of the time outside of Christmas, instant gravy is usually used, but more people opt to make it the traditional way when it comes to the Christmas dinner, from the meat juices, some flour and the meaty residues and fat stuck to the roasting tin.
- Roast potatoes: Every dish needs a starchy side; Britain opted for roast potatoes — which, depending on who's making them, will either be (a) crunchy on the outside, fluffy 'n' soft on the inside, browned-to-perfection little delights, or (b) rock-solid beasts which are somehow burned and raw at the same time.note There is no inbetween. Tradition holds that the best are cooked in duck or goose fat to make them super crispy.
- Roast parsnips: A root vegetable served alongside the other roast stuff. If done right, they come out looking similar to chips (fries, if you're American). If done wrong, they will often come out badly burnt and singed. Most people don't mind that much anyway.
- Mashed potato: Don't ask. It's just sort of there; bonus stodge, if you will. On Christmas, potatoes aren't the only vegetable that gets mashed: swede, carrot and sweet potato mash are alternative fare at the table, each tasting very different to each other.
- Brussels sprouts: A (literally) bitterly divisive foodstuff. These are small green vegetables, essentially miniscule cabbages, somewhere between ball bearings and golf balls in size, hardness and edibility. People either love or really, really, really hate them. 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.note Whilst other veg does get served at Christmas, these are a particular requirement unique to the festive season. Why they are named after the capital of Belgium, meanwhile, remains a mystery.
- Yorkshire pudding: The Yorkshire pud is a humble thing, bowl shaped and made out of batter, which rises while being baked in the oven. It is the traditional accompaniment to roast beef, usually used to hold a small amount of meat or gravy, but some throw them in with Christmas dinner too — because what's a seventh helping of carbs between friends eh?
Christmas pudding: Also known as "plum pudding" or "figgy pudding".note It's a very dark, rich, curranty, spiced, booze-soaked suet pudding (a dense, bulbous sort of steamed cakey thing) made with a lot of dried fruit, nuts and alcohol, generally cooked by steaming the mixture in a cloth wrapping or pudding basin for hours on end. May contain silver sixpences (no longer legal tender) and other trinkets to give luck and major dental damage to whoever bites into the damned things. Tradition is to spoon yet more warmed alcohol, usually brandy, over it once more for good luck immediately before serving, darken the room and then set the whole thing alight for a spectacular entrance. Providing fabrics, hair and especially eyebrows are covered, you don't trip bringing it in and everyone maintains an 8ft blast 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 puds can be made at home, but are usually bought beforehand — expensive London department store Harrods' puddings are considered the best pre-made. If homemade, it will have been done so either according to a centuries-old recipe passed down from mother to daughter, or, more usually, borrowed from a recently purchased Christmas-themed cookbook by some celebrated TV chef. Traditionally the mix is, um, mixed over a month before the eating date, on 'Stir-Up Sunday', the last Sunday before the season of Advent — 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) around this time the year before it is due to be eaten, to give it a full twelvemonth to 'mature'. Whether this improves the flavour is always strongly debated. In the weeks/months between making and serving, the pudding must be 'fed' (i.e. lovingly doused in alcohol) periodically. As Christmas puddings are thus effectively pickled from within, they just never go off; since they also tend to be kind of dense and huge, it's an unofficial tradition to have a good deal left in a tin for most of the rest of the year, to either be periodically dug into now and then or to be forgotten in some little-used corner of the kitchen cupboards.
As mentioned above, plenty of stories arise around the time Advent begins of people's shop-bought puddings going 'off' long before Christmas. This is a surefire way of telling when the specific brand didn't use enough alcohol to preserve the pudding, and instead opted to cheap out and use heaps of artificial flavourings.
The pud can be served with cream or ice-cream, but is most 'traditionally' served with brandy butternote , 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 cake:note A dark fruitcake covered thickly in marzipan and then white icing (frosting), often whipped into a stiff snowscape. For this 'royal icing' tends to be used, which includes egg whites so it sets more crunchily and solidly than regular icing (anywhere on a scale from 'fetch the hacksaw' to 'industrial laser required'), and into which small decorative Santas, reindeer, robins, holly leaves, 'Happy Christmas' signs, snowmen etc. may be cemented. These will be of varying antiquity and wildly out of scale, hence scenes of 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: most slices have to 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. As with 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 a low 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 the Yule Log: basically a giant chocolate Swiss roll with vanilla or choc buttercream filling, topped with very thick, very rich chocolate ganache, and with icing sugar as a smattering of 'snow'. Can be served with ice-cream to make extra certain of dental devastation. The Yule Log takes its name from the Yuletide custom of keeping a gigantic log burning in the hearth for all twelve days of Christmas, as a way to bless the house it is in with good luck. The edible Yule Log does not burn nearly so well and lasts only about 12 minutes, but is much more appreciated among the table guests.
- Another odd and occasional visitor to the dinner table, usually served for either the kids or for people who aren't keen on the Cake/Pudding, is Baked Alaska: a marvellous concoction of caramel, thick and gloopy Italian meringue and ice cream. Like a Christmas pudding, the Baked Alaska is given a (much smaller) dosage of brandy and set alight via a blowtorch just before serving, so that the meringue on the outside turns a delicious light brown colour. Those who are adept at producing the dessert are able to create a perfect synergy between the crunchy meringue exterior and still-frozen ice cream within. Those who are less experienced often turn the previously proud looking confection into little more than a molten mess of flaming alcohol and sugary mush.
- It has been seriously, academically suggested that people prefer bad cracker jokesnote 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 be, while still able to sit up and eat. Obviously, all the prior examples of sticking alcohol in foodstuffs helps, but true drunkenness requires actual alcoholic drinks. Buck's Fizz (orange juice and champagne; much like a mimosa except with more juice) and Bailey's Irish cream 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.
- As a mainstay of Office Christmas parties, Christmas markets and homes alike, Mulled Wine is prepared by the gallon. Consisting of red wine mixed with numerous spices and sometimes raisins, the resulting drink is heated gently and then served by the glass. To some, this is the favoured drink of carollers, who often carry a glass or two around with them so the freezing nighttime temperatures don't seem to be so bad.
- Another traditional Christmas drink, at least in the south-east is the "snowball", which consists of a creamy liqueur from The Netherlands named Advocaat (roughly the Rightpondian version of eggnognote ) mixed with lemonade to dilute it, followed by further dilution with freshly crushed ice, plus a dusting of icing sugar to achieve that 'snowy effect'. This cocktail is fondly enjoyed by both adults and children, seeing how at Christmas the drinking age seems to drop to about 5 so long as you're in the house and out of sight.note Snowballs are commonly served to just about everyone in the house on Christmas Eve; the advocaat provides a nice warming sensation, and one or two glasses should be enough to floor even the most difficult of children or insomniacs and have them sleeping peacefully until it's time to see what Father Christmas has left on Christmas Day. 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 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 Buckfast.note
- In most houses, a cabinet, dresser or display case (or a space under the stairs if a cabinet will not suffice) will usually have its lower compartments dedicated to mature spirits and port, a kind of fortified red wine that is usually drunk around the time of the Christmas season.
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).
- 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.
- In the 80s and 90s, Christmas morning was traditionally 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 is now a trope of its own.
- 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 stopped making new series in 2000, but it 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 did an hour-long Christmas special every year from 2005-2017 — many people were surprised when it was pointed out that this tradition only started with David Tennant's tenure as the title character. These specials at least took 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. It became customary for an outgoing Doctor's final story to be that year's Christmas special: David Tennant, Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi all regenerated into their next incarnation in 2009,note 2013 and 2017.note This tradition switched to New Year's Day specials with Jodie Whittaker's arrival, the first of which aired at the top of 2019.
- The usual Christmas tradition of the "classic" Doctor Who was simply to repeat all the episodes of a popular story as a Compilation Movie. The original series did have its own Christmas special in 1965 (simply because Christmas Day happened to fall on a Saturday that year and they decided to put an episode out as usual), 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. (Unless Christmas Day falls on a Friday, this will already be known before the 25th.)
- 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.
- One or more of the Wallace & Gromit films. In 2008, the UK premiere of A Matter of Loaf and Death was the highest-rated programme on Christmas Day.
- One or more Harry Potter films come as standard over between Christmas Eve and New Years Day.
- Chicken Run usually shows up somewhere in there. It's The Great Escape for kids, made by the people behind Wallace & Gromit; what did you expect?
- At least three or four versions of A Christmas Carol will be shown on the terrestrial channels alone. The exact ones vary, but Scrooge (the Alistair Sim one) is usually among them and the Muppet adaptation — voted the nation's 2nd favorite Christmas film after It's a Wonderful Life in a 2011 Radio Times poll — is practically guaranteed.
- 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 Zulu and The Italian Job (1969). 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.
- Pirates of the Caribbean has begun to make appearances.
- The film adaptation of Roald Dahl's Matilda used to be unavoidable but has slowly been replaced by How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, even though everyone has a copy of it recorded onto VCR from The '90s.
- The Nightmare Before Christmas is a strange case: ITV used to show it most years, but only around midnight on Christmas Day morning, when its prime audience should be wrapped up in bed waiting for Father Christmas. In more recent years, the BBC purchased the broadcasting rights and showed it at more suitable times of the day.
- Die Hard, being set at Christmas, usually makes an appearance somewhere on one or more of the lesser Freeview channels. Some people don't consider it to be Christmas until Hans Gruber has left the building.
- 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).
- The Hollywood adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe will crop up at some point.
- Police, Camera, Action! — a Very Special Episode may air in the lead-up week to Christmas on ITV1 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 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."). While it was originally presented live, it has since become a pre-recorded message and the Queen has been dubbed "One-Take Windsor" by various camera crews for the minimal amount of fuss it takes to shoot the speech. Once, the text was leaked to tabloid newspaper The 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. Nowadays the Queen, technophile that she is, spreads 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, er, 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 become an annual tradition, featuring 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; the Rev. Jesse Jackson; and Sharon Osbourne (wife of Ozzy). 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. In 2004, The Simpsons delivered the speech (in the form of a specially made 5-minute short); a few months earlier Channel 4 had won the terrestrial rights to the show from BBC Two.
- Leftovers: Everything you didn't manage to eat on Christmas Day will be served today. 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 was the previous day's cuisine.
- Sport: Sporting calendars put on hiatus for Christmas Day get back up and running: there is generally a full programme of football league games nationwide. For some reason, the sport of boxing has never held events to exploit the naming coincidence.
- 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 dressnote . 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 Irish Sea 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.
- Family: Maybe you just had Christmas dinner with your very nearest and dearest so that you could have the traditional three helpings of turkey each rather than risk only filling your plate once to make the meagre rations go around. So if you're not shopping, Boxing Day is often the day EVERYBODY comes together, including in-laws and second cousins. They don't just do this with more leftovers, but with various nibbles bought specially for this day as well.
- 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 7:30am. 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. They're getting so early now that the US tradition of Black Friday has been adopted! The same thing is happening to Canadian Boxing Day!
- Advertising: Boxing Day (and to an extent Christmas Day itself) inevitably sees an instantaneous mass changeover in TV advertising — for weeks beforehand every advert has been all about feasting, drinking and merrymaking, chocolates, perfumes, spirits... then on an instant 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. Following these adverts is the return of Park (see the Advertising section), starting their plans to ensnare yet more people insecure about their finances for next Christmas. Happy New Year.
- King Cake: Because it wouldn't be a Christmas event without food and drink, there's a special confection made just for the day. Very similar to Christmas cake, the King Cake is lavishly decorated and often has little trinkets hidden inside each slice, normally a set of pre-decimal coins rolled out just for such an occasion. It is worth noting that this custom is not exclusive to Britain; a wide variety of King Cake variations exist across Europe and into the Americas, each with a slightly different style.
- Wassailing: A tradition carried over from the Scandinavian Yule, groups of people travel around with a 'Wassail Bowl' filled with a drink of some sort, normally wine or another alcoholic beverage. The group of people knock on doors and invite people to take from the Wassail Bowl, in return for giving the Wassailers some small gifts. Wassailers may also visit apple orchards, where they bless the trees with mulled cider, so that the next harvest will be plentiful.
- Superstitions: A commonly-held superstition is that while the Christmas decorations must not come down before Twelfth Night, lest bad luck befall the house for an entire year, they must come down on Twelfth Night, or the same will happen. If any decorations are left up or even present after Twelfth Night, they must remain on view until the next Twelfth Night begins. Of course, not many people follow this tradition any more, but it's not unusual to see a rogue bauble or strands of tinsel lying around for the rest of the year, having somehow escaped being put back into the loft. Eagle-eyed people may spot houses that still have exterior decorations and Christmas lights up as late as June, the residents simply having forgotten (or being too lazy) to take them down (or being understandably reluctant to do the job in bitter cold weather).