There are very few English traditions left today that are celebrated with quite as much fervour as Christmas. The English love Christmas, and the buildup to this very special time of year starts as early as November. As soon as the nights begin to draw in, twinkly lights start appearing in gardens and porches, and the countdown to Christmas begins.
Even though snow is not guaranteed on the day, there are plenty of festive traditions to bring some Christmas cheer.
1. Christmas pantomime
Christmas has not truly begun, until you have attended a Christmas Pantomime. This truly British institution has amused the nation since the 18th century, and it has been growing in popularity ever since.
A pantomime, or panto, as it is referred to, is a type of musical comedy show, typically based on well known children’s stories. They are performed in theatres all over the country throughout the holiday season, starting from November to early January. They have become a landmark of the festive period and really do provide fun for all the family. The show is packed full of topical jokes and slapstick humour, and the compulsory cliched audience participation that has everyone on their feet. Larger theatres attract some very famous actors who take on the roles of the amusing Panto Dame, and the evil Villain.
2. Christmas Eve Carols from King’s College, Cambridge
Since the end of the First World War, the world-renowned Choir of King’s College in Cambridge has been heralding the Christmas season in England. A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is a tradition that was introduced by King’s College on Christmas Eve in 1918, to offer solace to people who were distressed, injured and bereaved at the end of the war.
The Nine Lessons are the same every year, and it is a much anticipated event of the Christmas calendar. It is broadcast live on the BBC worldwide on Christmas Eve. Members of the local community, as well as the wider public are invited to attend. The singing is divided into carols, sung by the illustrious King’s College Choir, and hymns, which the congregation joins in alongside the choir. This traditional carol service takes place in the spectacular setting of King’s College Chapel, which makes this event even more magical.
3. Carol singing
Christmas Carols are a fundamental component of the period running up to Christmas in England. These joyful Christian festive songs are sung by the young and old alike, and they are familiar to almost everyone, whether they are religious or not. Traditionally, Christmas Carols were sung in charming little English villages where carol singers would walk from street to street singing carols in exchange for charitable donations. This tradition still lives on today, and it is just one way in which English people like to spread a little festive cheer.
4. Boxing Day
In the UK, 26th December, the day after Christmas is another Bank Holiday. The name Boxing Day was coined during the reign of Queen Victoria in the 1800s, and it comes from a time when the wealthy used to box up gifts to give to the poor. Traditionally, Boxing Day was a day off for servant, and a day when they received a special Christmas box from their masters, and food and gifts to take home to their families.
Today, Boxing Day is an extension of the Christmas Day celebrations but it is much more low-key and leisurely. The day includes eating up lots of left over food, and ingenious ways of using up the Christmas turkey; from breakfast turkey omelettes, to turkey curry suppers. Traditionally, families also go on a Boxing Day walk, before they retire at home to play board games with the extended family, watch popular Christmas shows on the TV, look for some online bargains in the Boxing Day sales, or even go to a Boxing Day football match.
5. Christmas pudding
In England, on Christmas Day, families typically tuck into roast turkey, with roast vegetables, stuffing, Yorkshire puddings, pigs in blankets, followed by Christmas pudding and boozy custard. The more flamboyant families also douse their pudding with brandy, and set it alight as they ceremoniously carry it to the dinner table in a spectacular display. The origins of Christmas pudding go as far back as the 14th century but it looked and tasted very different to its contemporary cousin.
Back in the Middle Ages, Christmas pudding was more like a porridge made out of dried fruits, and meat (yes, meat!). This is how the term ‘mincemeat’ was created. Today, mincemeat is a delicious sweet mixture of fruits, spices and mulled wines that is used to fill Christmas pastries, and it is a firm favourite nationwide. Thankfully the meat element has long been dropped from the ingredients list!
Traditionally, a Christmas pudding should have 13 ingredients to represent Jesus and his 12 discipled, and it should be decorated with a sprig of holly, a reminder of Jesus’ crown of thorns. Christmas pudding is traditionally prepared on ‘Stir-up Sunday’, the Sunday before the Advent season begins. Although this tradition is not necessarily followed today, every member of the family used to take turns to stir the pudding with a wooden spoon from East to West, to honour the Wise Men. The mixture is molded into a round shape, and even today, sometimes a silver coin is hidden in the pudding, to bring good luck to the person who finds it on Christmas Day.
6. Christmas crackers
All over Great Britain, families will be sitting around the Christmas table, wearing a colourful paper crown while they enjoy their lovingly prepared Christmas meal. Rumour has it that even the Queen wears her paper hat over Christmas lunch.
This tradition dates back to Victorian times, when crackers were first introduced by a London confectioner called Tom Smith. The story goes that he had seen the French ‘bon bon’ sweets on one of his visits to Paris, and on his returned to London he tried selling them. He wrapped the sweets in fancy colourful wrappers, and he also included a small toy and a riddle with every sweet. However, they didn’t prove very popular with the British public until the crackers had a little fireworks upgrade. This meant that when they were pulled apart at each end, a loud snapping sound and crackle was heard, and the contents of the cracker would tumble out in a great display.
Today, Christmas crackers are a must-have on every Christmas table. Before the meal begins, families would pull apart their crackers with the help of the person sitting next to them. This makes a loud popping sound and a small gift falls out, such a keyring, tiny screwdriver or a bottle opener. The crackers also contain a party hat and a joke so terrible that barely anyone laughs at them!
7. Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square
If you have ever been to London around the Christmas season, you may have spotted the stunning Christmas tree standing proud in Trafalgar Square. This special tree comes from the city of Oslo, and it is an annual gift from the people of Norway in gratitude for Britain’s support in World War II. This beautiful evergreen Norwegian spruce is a perennial reminder of enduring friendship between the two nations. This enormous Christmas tree stands more than 66 feet tall, and it is illuminated by a myriad of light bulbs set in a vertical string of light, which is a traditional Norwegian way to decorate a Christmas tree.
8. The Queen’s Speech
Christmas Day is not complete without watching Her Majesty The Queen give her annual Christmas Day message. Queen Elizabeth II has upheld this tradition since she became monarch in 1952. Initially as a radio broadcast, and from 1957 as a TV broadcast, every Christmas Day at 3pm, Her Majesty addresses the nation of Great Britain and the Commonwealth with a 10-minute message of unity and positivity. Some families decide to stand for the duration of the speech and to raise a small glass of tipple to The Queen at the end of it.
England - A Fascinating Country
England truly is an intriguing and charming place to visit with its rich history and many traditions. Although, our popular illuminate Cambridge academic program takes place in the summer, students will be immersed in a wealth of English traditions during their two week stay with us.
Our carefully curated academic program has been meticulously put together by our highly experienced tutors with one aim; to provide a once-in-a-lifetime summer school experience to girls aged 15-17. Our esteemed summer program is all about creating immersive magical moments that spark intellectual curiosity and offer an experience of a lifetime.