We already know Americans are obsessed with British culture. With the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle set for May 19, it’s impossible not to feel a touch of Victoria Fever as the media breathlessly describes, or speculates about, every planned detail of the day. As an American preparing to marry into a British family (should we say, THE British family) we wondered: what tips could we give Meghan about her new home? We asked a few British Babbelonians what they thought Meghan — or any American — should know about British culture and how it differs from our own traditions here in the United States.
1. Learn The Ritual of Afternoon Tea
The British love of tea is a long-standing tradition and one that Meghan will soon find plays an integral part in her new life. Back in the day, upper-class Brits would drink “low” or “afternoon” tea, served on low tables, prior to dinner. Confusingly, lower classes would have “high” tea slightly later in the day, which was usually served on higher tables, hence the name. The tradition of afternoon tea, served with cakes or small sandwiches, became firmly established by the 19th century and is largely credited to the eating habits of the Duchess of Bedford. Today, the U.K. consumes over 160 million cups every day, and this usually involves black tea served plain or with milk and sugar.
2. Break Out The Pyrotechnics for Bonfire Night
Remember, remember the fifth of November. A strange celebration that Meghan will observe come winter is Bonfire Night, celebrated on November 5. The holiday commemorates the death of the nation’s most infamous criminal, Guy Fawkes, and his failed attempt to blow up the U.K. Houses of Parliament in 1605. Celebrating a failed attempt to blow up their own king (especially since it happened over 400 years ago) may appear somewhat strange, but it’s a tradition widely undertaken in the U.K., with firework displays, sparklers and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes.
3. Understand the Art of Queuing
While Meghan may never have to wait in line herself, queuing is a unique trait that she will observe about British culture. British people commonly queue for everything, whether it is an event, public transport, or they simply see other people queuing and decide to join. Brits see this as a completely fair system and “queue-jumpers” who push to the front are regarded with the utmost contempt.
4. Snack on Jaffa Cakes
Jaffa Cakes have become a favorite of the British since they were introduced in 1927. The “Jaffa” is often a subject of debate among the Brits — is it a cake, or is it a biscuit? (“Biscuits” in this case are better understood by Americans as cookies.) Despite its name and the fact that the base layer of the circular, sweet treat consists of sponge cake, the Jaffa Cake is officially recognized as a biscuit. Topped with sweet orange jelly, these iconic British treats are often consumed by dunking in a cup of tea or simply as an afternoon treat.
5. Eating Turkey And Pudding at Christmas
While Americans enjoy turkey at Thanksgiving, in the United Kingdom, eating roasted turkey is a tradition best saved for Christmas. Turkey first appeared on British plates during Christmas in the 16th century — it was believed that King Henry VIII became the first English monarch to have turkey for Christmas. By the 17th century, this had spread throughout the country, and it has now become the most popular food to serve on Christmas Day in the U.K.
Another British Christmas food tradition is Christmas pudding. This was established as part of the customary Christmas dessert in 1714 thanks to King George, who was a big fan of the pudding. Composed of dried fruits and flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and other spices, the pudding is traditionally doused in brandy and set on fire before serving. If Meghan is lucky, she may find a silver coin in her piece of the desert, as a single silver coin is often baked into the pudding and is believed to bring luck to the person who finds it in their bowl.
While we’re going on about Christmas, another tradition that many Brits adhere to is attending a pantomime. Often referred to simply as the “panto,” this is a production at theaters, based loosely on a traditional fairy tale, that encourages audience participation and includes topical jokes and slapstick humor designed to make the audience laugh. Many Brits will attend a pantomime production during the Christmas and New Year season, and notably, the Queen herself used to perform in pantomimes at Windsor Castle as a child.
6. Dance As The Brits Do
One of the strangest traditions of English culture is Morris dancing. This unique and traditional folk dance in the U.K. is believed to have originated in the early fifteenth century. Different regions now have their own unique styles of the dance and accompanying outfits, but it traditionally consists of people wearing old-fashioned clothing with bells attached and hitting sticks or waving handkerchiefs as they dance. You really have to see this one to appreciate it.
7. Embrace Customary British Foods
- Full English Breakfast
Usually consisting of a fried egg, bacon, sausages, bread, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms and baked beans, the Full English Breakfast is a British tradition that can be traced back as far as the 1300s. Often included in this breakfast is black “pudding” — actually a type of sausage that has been blended with onions, oatmeal and pig’s blood. British opinion on black pudding is fairly divided, but it has been hailed as a superfood by some.
- Bangers and Mash
Bangers and mash is a British staple consisting simply of sausages, mashed potato and gravy. The term “bangers” is believed to have come into use during World War I, when a shortage of meat led to sausages containing a high water content and made them more liable to make a popping noise when cooked.
- Bubble and Squeak
This dish is made by taking leftover vegetables such as cabbage, carrots and potatoes from a roast dinner, and mashing them together to form a paste, before frying it to hold the food together. This is traditionally served as a breakfast food, but can also be eaten for lunch or dinner.
- Welsh Rarebit
Despite the misleading name, this British dish does not contain actual rabbit. Instead, this is a dish made from melted cheese, mixed with ale and often mustard and served over toasted bread. Although the origins of the name are unknown, this great British snack was first recorded back in 1725 under the name “Welsh Rabbit” and has grown to be a common British dish.
Header image courtesy of The Royal Family.