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Christmas in England:
Wonderful traditions copied around the World!
London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral is lit up against the night sky and features trees decorated with Christmas lights for the holiday season.
“This happy breed of men, this little world, this precious stone set in a silver sea.”
Immortalized in Richard II, Shakespeare’s words may have referred to Christmas in England, for this island nation off the coast of Europe is indeed a shimmering world of happy people and events during December – owing as much to its faithfulness to time-honored traditions as to its embrace of new events.
This is the country, after all, that is credited with starting the custom of sending Christmas cheer by mailing Christmas cards. An Englishman by the name of John Calcott Horsley found a welcome audience for his creation in a three-panel card, with one panel depicting a contented English family and the other two showing Victorian acts of charity.
Horsley printed 1,000 of the cards, which contained a simple message: “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.” They sold for one shilling apiece in 1843 and were eagerly displayed near another relatively new English Christmastime focal point: the Christmas tree, which Prince Albert is credited with introducing to England in 1841.
The trees added to the natural pageantry of England, already famous for its mummers’ plays. As one of the oldest surviving features of the traditional English Christmas, “mumming” began in England more than 1,000 years ago and is best described as a pantomime, or play.
Still staged during Christmas in England, the plays are loosely based on the legend of St. George and the dragon and depict the struggle between good and evil.
St. Nicholas and Father Christmas: Towering Figures during Christmas in England
But for true pageantry, perhaps nothing can hold a candle – literally – to England’s devotion to St. Nicholas Day, which occurs early in the Advent season. The numbers speak for themselves: more than half of England’s 51 million residents belong to the Church of England, and many of them flock to one of the more than 500 churches in the country that are named in his honor.
Many of these churches invite this robust man with the long, white beard, burgundy robe and golden staff to attend Sunday services during Advent and explain to children, especially, the importance of giving and charitable living.
For more than 10 years, Canterbury has played host to an impressive St. Nicholas Fest during Christmas in England, which begins with a parade and ends at the cathedral with St. Nicholas and the archbishop leading thousands of children and adults in dance and prayer. The Cathedral Boys Choir completes the poignant scene by hitting the high notes of songs and carols that routinely move even the most world-weary Brits to tears.
St. Nicholas’ spirit of generosity apparently has struck a chord in England, for even churches that have not taken his name are now including him in their Advent activities. Meanwhile, provinces that prefer a more secular celebration, including London's Holy Trinity Sloane Square, sponsor St. Nicholas festivals that feature food and ale.
No matter what their church affiliation, many Brits attend church on Christmas Eve, and then hurry home so that Father Christmas may leave gifts for the children. Here, one longtime tradition has literally gone up in flames during Christmas in England: children used to write letters to Father Christmas and then put them in the fireplace so that they could fly up the chimney. Today, for the most part, children are content to write their letters to Father Christmas and leave them near their stockings.
English children especially are probably grateful to their ancestors for starting a nearly universal tradition of exchanging gifts on Christmas morning – a practice that eventually spread “across the pond” to the United States. However, the Victorians felt quite strongly that gift-giving should be clever and imaginative. In their day, for example, cobweb parties were quite the rage on Christmas Day. At these parties, a room was criss-crossed with yarns of many colors. Each family member was assigned a color and told to follow it, slowly and carefully through the tangles, until they reached a present tied to the end.
This may sound like a lot of work, but it pales to another famed tradition during Christmas in England: that of a 100-yard swim in bone-chilling winter water at places such as Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park and Sandy Bay in Porthcawl, South Wales. The former event dates back to 1864, the latter to 1964, and both draw hundreds of participants and spectators. Similar events have been organized in many other English cities, despite organizers’ astonishment at the growing popularity of a summer activity in the dead of winter.
To warm their palates, many English families sit down to a traditional turkey dinner on Christmas. “Crackers” still appear on many tables and amuse families throughout the meal. These cardboard tubes, which debuted in London in 1846, are wrapped in decorative paper and twisted at both ends. When they are pulled, they make a “crack” and release tiny gifts and candy.
Christmas in England: Fruit cake, mince pies, plum pudding and “crackers”!
Crackers are an entertaining attraction during Christmas in England, but they can hardly compare to the anticipation of a rich and juicy fruit cake, which many cooks prepare at least a week before Christmas and cover first with marzipan -- a rich paste made of almond, nuts and eggs -- and then a layer of white icing.
Other English families prefer sweet mince pies or brandy-laced plum pudding. In some homes, the pudding can be the center of attraction, and with good reason. It is wrapped in cloth and foil, and then boiled. Before the pudding is served, brandy is poured over it and then it is set on fire. The flames flicker only briefly, and then the pudding is ready to eat – or devour.
For many English families, Christmas in England would not be complete with tuning into the queen’s annual Christmas message, which is broadcast on television and radio stations. In the most traditional homes, a Christmas pie might be passed from one guest to the next, though the pie is not entirely edible. Small gifts are concealed in the pie, and everybody takes a spoon and a turn at grabbing a sweet and lasting treat.
Could it be a precious stone, as Shakespeare may have foretold? At Christmastime in England, it probably matters naught to this “happy breed of men (and women) in this little world.”
Blashfield, Jean F. England: Enchantment of the World. New York: Scholastic, Inc., 2007.
Calendar of unusual Customs and Traditions in England, Scotland and Wales. < http://projectbritain.com/curious/december.html >
England: Christmas traditions & customs. < http://www.thehistoryofchristmas.com/traditions/england.htm >
Innes, Brian. Nations of the World: United Kingdom. Austin: Steck-Vaughn Publishers, 2002.
Jeffery, Yvonne. The Everything Family Christmas Book. Avon: Adams Media, 2008.
Lister, Maree. England. Tarrytown: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2011.
Paul, Tessa (ed.). England: A Portrait of the Country Through its Festivals and Traditions. Danbury: Grolier Educational, 1999.
St. Nicholas Center. < http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/england / >