Christmas Traditions in England

Christmas Celebrations in England go back many centuries, and they date back at least to King Arthur, who made “merrie” in York in the year 521, celebrating with “minstrels, gleemen, harpers, pipe-players, jugglers, and dancers.”

Except for the brief period of the Republic under Cromwell, England has always been a special place for Christmas, and of course has been given international fame through Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol”.

According to Countess Maria Hubert von Staufer, who is Director of Christmas Archives International in the UK > “It is a popular misconception that Christmas in England was eradicated by the Cromwellians and was reinvented by the Victorians.” She says the customs people observed then were handed down from earlier days, when Christmas Celebrations were underground. The Countess has written about Christmas in 19th century Victorian England extensively, and says that it was celebrated with church bells, hand bells, choirs of singers and street performers. Wandering minstrels went from hamlet to hamlet and castle to castle in England’s past, and the tradition continued.

The English have an important role in the tradition of the Christmas Tree. It became most popular when Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, who was born German, brought it to his new country. In England, the Christmas Tree took its place next to the kissing bough, a mixture of mistletoe and evergreen. The most famous Christmas Tree in England today is in the heart of London, a giant spruce near the statue of Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square.

The giant Christmas Tree is an annual gift from the people of Oslo, Norway. During World War II King Haakon of Norway was in exile in England while Norway was occupied by the German Army. Each year during his exile, Norwegian military forces would smuggle a tree past the German Navy’s patrols, and take it to their King in England, so that he was able to celebrate Christmas with a tree from his homeland. Since then, the people of Norway have expressed their appreciation by sending a tree every year to the people of London.

Santa Claus is also a very important part of the English Christmas, just as he is in America. However, in England he is more often known as Father Christmas; but not to worry, he is the same guy, with a different nickname. Father Christmas is a jolly old man with white hair and a pipe, much like the American Santa Claus.

However, Father Christmas traditionally wears a green coat. The image of the red coat was introduced to England in 1930 on a Christmas card from America and in an advertisement by Coca-Cola. His green coat stems from the ancient midwinter festival and signifies the return of Spring. English children do write letters to Father Christmas as American children do to Santa, and at Christmas parties someone usually dresses the part and pretends to be Father Christmas. My own memories of an English Christmas are as much about Santa as Father Christmas, so as with many Anglo-American things, the two cultures merge.

The main meal at Christmas time is on Christmas Day around noon. The meal is traditionally roast turkey with roast and boiled potatoes, stuffing and vegetables, such as brussels sprouts. Some families will still have a Christmas goose however, and duck seems to appear on some tables at Christmas these days. Goose was the main Christmas course tradition for many years until King Henry VIII decided he preferred turkey.

For dessert, there is a special Christmas pudding, a favourite not just of children but of adults. Accompanied by brandy butter, the Christmas pudding is often soaked in brandy and set alight as it is brought to the table, a hazardous process with all the silly Christmas hats perched on everyone’s heads.

But, like America, in England Christmas is probably the favourite children’s holiday. That is hardly surprising, with all the gifts that Father Christmas, alias Santa Claus, will bring them each year!