Christmas is a highly personal and nostalgic holiday. In the United Kingdom, UK Christmas traditions are stuck to with such adamancy, we still insist on our parents filling up stockings to lay at the end of our beds. We may be in our late twenties, but we’ll still leave cookies and carrots out for Father Christmas and his badass pack of reindeer, who work their antlers off all year round to distribute our presents on time.
We also find it unacceptable when our parents forget to eat up those snacks. Does the magic of Christmas mean nothing to them?! I’m getting stressed just thinking about it. Anyway, here are a few UK Christmas traditions that other countries might find really confusing.
Illustration by Mouni Feddag, courtesy of the Bright Agency.
The Strangest (And Most Iconic) UK Christmas Traditions
1. The Queen’s Speech
This Christmas tradition started in 1932 when King George V, our current Queen’s grandfather, made a speech over radio broadcast written by Rudyard Kipling himself. Originally meant to boost morale during difficult times, such as World War II, the speech has developed into an annual reflection, a royal summary of the year from the most British perspective out there.
The Queen’s 10-minute speech takes place at 3 p.m. on Christmas Day and is a moment for families to come together. There’s nothing more comforting than seeing the head of state dressed in a pastel-colored suit and pearl earrings reflecting on the victories and losses of the year. Its official name is “Her Majesty’s Most Gracious Speech,” but Britain shortens it to The Queen’s Speech, and I’m sure she doesn’t mind.
2. Adverts For The Big Supermarkets
The UK is obsessed with Christmas adverts (that’s ads or advertisements for the uninitiated). It all started with John Lewis in 2011. The British department store hired advertising agency Adam & Eve to make a Christmas advert so heart-wrenching there wasn’t a dry eye left in the country. It was all anyone could talk about that year.
In 2012, everyone waited with bated breath for the next ad — how could they possibly top their previous creation? Incredibly, the 2012 ad was even more eye-wateringly cute. Since then, the John Lewis advert has become a British Christmas tradition, and their competitors have since joined in. The result is a kind of branded Christmas advert battle, with the likes of Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Marks & Spencers battling out to win over the hearts of the nation.
Although Sainsbury’s very nearly won me over last year, John Lewis has once again stolen the show. They pulled out the big guns in 2018 and got Elton John himself involved. And the message they’ve sent is strong: Get your kid a musical instrument from John Lewis for Christmas, and they’ll become a global superstar.
3. Christmas Eve: The Biggest Drinking Night Of The Year
Something special happens in the UK on Christmas Eve, and it doesn’t involve Father Christmas or his pack of reindeer. Christmas Eve is the night of hometown reunions. It’s the one night of the year when everybody returns to their provincial towns to spend the festive season with their families. As a result, everyone flocks back to the local pub they frequented at school.
It’s an exciting time! You can square up your old classmates or ex-boyfriends and take a mental note of who’s bought a house, who’s had kids, who’s moved away, etc. It’s a night where you are totally free to pass judgement and not get the guilts because you know everyone is doing it to you, too.
Everyone tends to drink a lot more than they should. Desperate to show how much money they now earn, drinks and shots are bought by the bucket-load, and everyone tends to get utterly obliterated. The unofficial British tradition of getting excessively inebriated makes Christmas Day a bit more of a headache, but the food helps, and by the time the Queen’s Speech comes on, everyone feels fine again.
4. Pantomimes: Kitschy, Family-Friendly Plays
A pantomime (or a “panto”) is a play designed for families with young children and is a British tradition performed and enjoyed during the Christmas period only. The humor is slapstick, and the storyline is often a parody of Peter Pan, Aladdin or The Wizard of Oz.
There are certain tropes in pantomimes that make them unique. For example, there’s often a villain who will sneak up on the protagonist intermittently throughout the play. It’s the duty of the audience to scream “He’s behind you!” As a child, I always found it baffling how stone-deaf the protagonist seemed to be.
The most alarming part of pantomimes in my childhood memories was being put on the spot by the drag queen MC. This character would come on stage and pick out three or four children from the audience to join her. The children would come on stage and the MC would ask a couple of questions, then hand them a goodie bag of chocolates and novelty gifts.
Once when I was three, the MC pointed me out and tried to goad me onto the stage. I was absolutely terrified. “Go on Ali!” my mum hissed. I point-blank refused out of sheer terror, and can vaguely remember a spotlight shining on my tiny head and the audience laughing at my fear. I never went back to a pantomime again.
5. Christmas Food
There’s nothing more traditional about UK Christmas traditions than Christmas food. There’s pigs in blankets, for example, which are tiny sausages wrapped in bacon and baked. Or Yorkshire puddings, which consist of pancake batter shaped into small bowls to make the perfect vessel to pour in copious amounts of gravy. Someone somewhere decided Brussels sprouts are the ideal vegetable to go alongside it all, which I disagree with, but I eat them anyway.
Mince pies are consumed for the duration of the festive period, and they’re made up of spiced fruit and encased in sugared pastry. After Christmas dinner, someone gets out the Christmas pudding — a boiled fruit cake doused in brandy. The tradition is to set fire to the brandy to heat it up, which can be quite alarming.
We drink Buck’s Fizz in the morning, a bottled alcoholic beverage made up of orange juice and sparkling wine, and we pull Christmas crackers at the table throughout the duration of the meal. When these crackers bang open, out falls a party hat, a small gift and a joke to read out to the table. The jokes, in particular, are always absolutely terrible. For example: “Why did Santa’s helper go to the doctor? Because he had low elf esteem!”
This article was originally published on November 13, 2020, but it has since been updated.