Recently on Expat Claptrap, I wrote a guide to Thanksgiving for Britons, most of whom know very little about the USA’s biggest holiday.
Christmas is of course, a holiday that both countries share, but the similarities between celebrations and traditions in the UK and in Britain are actually quite superficial. Each year, the BBC America website offers lists and videos about UK Christmas traditions, catering to their audience of anglophile tourists, but these articles really just scratch the surface. If you want real insider information, only Expat Claptrap has the experience and knowledge, coupled with the guts to share it with you. Here’s our guide to the sometimes bizarre world of lesser-known UK Christmas traditions:
The build up to Christmas:
The Christmas long-form advert: Each year, the beginning of the Holiday season is marked by the release of Christmas-themed television commercials, put together by the country’s favourite retailers, This year’s crop includes an ad about a penguin desperate to copulate (John Lewis) and a celebration of the good old days of trench warfare (Sainsburys). Each of these adverts is shown once an hour, every hour, on every channel, even on the BBC, which is otherwise commercial-free for the rest of the year. Viewer crying is obligatory during each transmission.
Christmas #1 songs: For some reason, Britons find it hugely important which pop song happens to be ranked #1 on Christmas day. Just to be clear- this is never a song about Christmas, it’s just whatever song happens to be the #1 song when Christmas Day rolls around. The ‘winning’ song is declared a national treasure and is then seared into the collective psyche of all Britons. For example, try humming a few bars of the classic “Mr. Blobby” to any Briton, and they will be magically transported back to 1993.
That Pogues song: The UK’s most-loved song that actually mentions Christmas is 1987’s “Fairytale of New York.” Interestingly, the most well-known part of this Xmas favourite (and the bit everyone always sings along to) is:
“You scumbag you maggot, you cheap nancy faggot, Happy Christmas your arse, I pray it’s your last.”
This sometimes makes for some awkward moments at Church-sponsored Christmas hymnals.
Mince pies: Christmas is tough for vegetarians here, as mince-meat pies are impossible to avoid in the weeks leading up to Christmas. These small, round dehydrated beef pastries only keep for a few hours, so it’s a common thing for these to be virtually force-fed to you at Christmas fairs and office parties once they come out of the package. Be sure to ask for them with a bit of gravy.
Office Christmas parties: Most people will of course notice that there is a lot of drunkeness in Britain around the holiday season, with Xmas parties often to blame. But did you know that most British weddings can be traced back to work office parties? It’s been estimated that around 53% of all British marriages began with an initial drunken office Christmas party snog. These parties are among the very few occasions of the year when UK residents have a chance to explore their alcohol-enhanced feelings.
The Christmas pantomime: Unknown in other countries, the panto is a sort of an interactive play, involving has-been TV actors performing in fairy-tales or Christmas stories, in limited-run performances that every Brit must attend each year. Each panto receives a sizable grant from the British government, as the promotion of these performances is seen as being in the national interest, due to their strong cultural significance.
Christmas pudding: A kind of a dark-brown, booze soaked mound of a cake that takes several weeks to make and tastes a bit like sweetened brandy mixed with mud. The correct way to enjoy a Christmas pudding is to light it on fire, and then leave it on your doorstep overnight on Christmas Eve, while the alcohol burns off. If your Christmas ‘pud is still there in the morning, you are obliged to scrape it off the pavement and bring it back in and serve it to your guests, who will pretend that they enjoy eating it.
The snowman: In America, we have “It’s a Charlie Brown Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” as Christmas TV shows that we grow up with and look back on fondly. Here, the equivalent is the 1982 TV special, “The Snowman.” In this 26-minute cartoon, famously written by a madman on hallucenogenics, a snowman kidnaps a child on Christmas Eve and then brings him on a hallucinatory (and dialogue-free) odyssey. This “trip” only ends when the snowman melts away into nothing, just as the child learns to be less terrified of him. As he dies, the child mourns and the programme ends. It’s a lovely programme all children should enjoy recounting to their therapists someday.
Meat with your meat: Christmas dinner, centred around a large roasted turkey, doesn’t at first glance look remarkably different from its American counterpart. But scratch below the surface and you’ll find meat, meat and more meat. How would you like some meaty stuffing to go along with your turkey meat? How about some meat gravy to pour on top? Brussell Sprouts mixed with bacon for your veg? How about some chipolatas (little sausages), wrapped in bacon? Maybe a little pâté on the side? The potatoes have been of course cooked using meat drippings.
Christmas presents: A common stocking stuffer here is a tangerine or an orange. A holdover from when fresh fruit in wintertime was considered quite a treat. There’s also a tradition of each child only getting one present to open on Christmas, another holdover, this time from World War II rationing, where presents and childhood joy were strictly rationed by the government. Efforts to change these old Christmas gift rationing laws were defeated back in 2006 when, instead pub opening hours were slightly extended. Some traditions are hard to change.
The Queen’s Christmas speech: All the families in Britain gather around their televisions on Christmas Day, to hear their monarch deliver her yearly message to her subjects. The speech is a pivotal milestone in national politics, as it sets out key agenda points for the year’s parliamentary sessions and lays the groundwork for Britain’s foreign relation policies. Afterwards, the Queen, like some kind of royal groundhog, returns to her humble, tax-payer funded abode, not to be seen for another year; content in the knowledge that she has done her duty in leading her country. For British citizens, it is customary to applaud at the end of the speech before resuming binge-drinking their way into oblivion.
BBC One TV watching: British TV guide ‘The Radio Times’ is far more thumbed-through than the Bible every Christmas, as watching television is the most important tradition of the entire holiday season. Each year, the country collectively enjoys a new Doctor Who Christmas special, as well as episodes of other modern classics such as the sitcom “Mrs Brown’s Boys” and soap “East Enders.”
Other old-fashioned Christmas traditions, such as “going to Church” or “singing Christmas carols” or even “Thinking about the birth of our Lord and saviour Jesus Christ” have largely been forgotten in recent years. Modern Britons are far too busy watching “Strictly Come Dancing” for such old-fashioned bunk.
The Christmas aftermath:
Boxing Day: The day after Christmas is known as Boxing Day in the UK, and is a major national holiday in its own right. The name comes from the old tradition of rural land-owners striking their tenants for not having produced enough rent money at the end of the year. The lord of the manor would save up his wrath, not wanting to ruin the holidays, but the day after Christmas he would gather up his peasants and proceed to “box” them around the ears if they hadn’t been productive enough. You may have seen this recreated on episodes of Downton Abbey. Today, Boxing Day is mostly an opportunity for people to nurse their hangovers and attend big post-Christmas sales events.
Kicking Day: The day after the day after Christmas is known in the UK as “Kicking Day” and in olden days gave rural landowners another opportunity to thrash their charges for any perceived insolence. Kicking Day is slowly being phased out, although the Duke of Westminster (the largest landowner in the UK outside of the Queen) is known to still give a good booting to some of his impertinent tenants this time of year.
Year-end best ‘list’ shows: The importance of TV continues after the holidays, as every other programme is a year-end “best of” list. These shows, featuring C-list celebrities nattering on about pop music, politics and even other “best of” tv programmes, continue straight on until the new year, making sure that all British citizens share the same opinions about things in society.
Post-Christmas depression: After Christmas, there is nothing to look forward to in the UK except approximately seven more months of sunless, damp winter weather. So the final and most-lasting Christmas tradition is misery and depression. Happy Christmas !