I was recently published as the lead article in the Christmas special magazine for FOCUS expat community, sharing my insights & ideas for modern British Christmas traditions. Read my top tips here & hope you enjoy trying them out! Wishing everybody a very happy festive season!
There is plenty to read at this time of year which can explain the old traditions of Christmas in the UK, and it is great to explore some of these age-old celebrations and festivities, but I really wanted to share with you the modern version of these traditions. The behaviours, habits and customs which may baffle you if you are new to the UK, and I am often asked about in my role as an English Language and British Culture trainer. So here is my guide to the top ways to get into Christmas (otherwise known as Xmas) in the UK. Explore and discover!
When does Christmas start
First, we have the run-up to Christmas which starts as early as 6th November according to the shops (the day after Guy Fawkes Night on 5th November), or even as early as August according to Selfridges, which is when their Christmas shop opens. The good news is that these days Christmas is a big deal in the UK, unlike 1647-1660 when Christmas was made illegal and all festivities were banned by Oliver Cromwell (during the short period of our one and only republic), who thought there was too much fun going on for a religious day. Luckily, we really know how to go to town properly these days.
Christmas Lights switch on in London
So Christmas really launches when the Christmas Lights switch-ons happen around London from early November. The most famous ones are Oxford Street and Regent Street, but you will also find lovely lights in St Christopher’s Place, Marylebone High Street and Carnaby Street. It is a pretty important part of winter for us, especially as the days start to become shorter and sunset edges towards 3.50pm on the shortest day, 21st December. The switch-on itself is surprisingly popular, and usually will feature at least one minor, B-list celebrity (maybe somebody who won a TV singing or talent show). However do not let that put you off and enjoy the excitement of the big countdown while you oooh and ahhh over the lights. Christmas is on its way!
British Christmas jumpers
Now this one really confuses expats. What is so exciting about a Christmas jumper, I hear you ask? Plenty! Traditionally Christmas jumpers were a joke. Something terrible your granny knitted and gave you as a Christmas present. However over time they have become trendy, and the more terrible and naff they are, the better. We even now have a Christmas Jumper Day, on 14th December this year, where you get to wear your jumper and raise money for charity. So whether it is for work or pleasure, put on your most crazy, sparkly or flashing jumper and join in. Top tip: Primark is the best place to buy your Christmas jumper but the best ones sell out fast so make sure you get in there early.
Christmas TV Adverts
You do not have to work in retail to know Christmas is a big spending time, and to encourage us to get into the Christmas spirit, all the major stores release their Christmas adverts at the end of November or start of December . The Black Friday sales are a relatively new concept for us here in the UK, which has been inspired from the US promotions around Thanksgiving, although not many British people actually celebrate this festival. The adverts vary in approach and tone, but John Lewis is especially famous for releasing a tear-jerking advert each year, which features a poignant story, usually involving a child and toy. Clearly, you can then rush out and buy the featured toy at any John Lewis store and are a popular gift choice.
Secret Santa in the UK
How to gift and the custom of Secret Santa is an area which can be tricky if you are new to the country, and I receive many requests to explain how to approach this area.
Let us start with gifting etiquette. When it comes to schools and teachers, my advice is to first check if there is any sort of class joint gift and, if not, then buy a small present for each teacher in your child’s class. These do not have to be especially extravagant or expensive, but the gesture is appreciated. It is also worth including any teachers of extracurricular activities.
With work and sometimes groups of friends, Secret Santa is a popular British custom. The way this works is that all the names in the group are written on paper and go into a hat, from which you take a name secretly at random. Usually there are clear guidelines about how much to spend, perhaps £5 or £10, and the gift choice is yours. If you know the person well, then easy, however if they are an acquaintance or a lesser-known colleague, play it safe and go for some nice food or drink. The idea is to wrap the present up, label it from Secret Santa (do not sign your name), and then give it to the Secret Santa organiser, who will sort out the distribution. This often happens at the Christmas party, where each person will open their present in turn, watched by the others. Even at this point, people will keep silent about who chose the gift.
British gifting etiquette
Depending on the group and how well they know each other, sometimes you might receive a Secret Santa gift you do not like, do not understand, or is deliberately crazy or embarrassing, for example a humorous book or a silly tie. The main point here is to keep your cool, laugh it off and say thank you to Secret Santa in front of the group (obviously you do not know who you are thanking). You can always donate it to a Charity shop afterwards, and these shops benefit hugely with a rush of unwanted presents post-Christmas. In no circumstances say you do not like or want the present. It is better to be polite and get rid of it after the event.
If you are a manager of a team at work, then usually we would additionally buy Christmas gifts for each of our direct reports, and food or drink work well for these recipients. Top tip: For lovely and thoughtful gifts on a British theme, I particularly like Fortnum and Masons, Cath Kidston or Biscuiteers for interesting present ideas, or try the amazing collection of unique and inspired gifts at notonthehighstreet.com.
Sending Christmas cards is a lovely idea but increasingly a nice-to-do for closest family and friends, as life tends to be hectic before Christmas. Some people are switching to online greeting cards to be more environmentally friendly, except for their very nearest and dearest, however in Business sending Christmas greeting cards is still a common way to thank clients and suppliers.
Thank you cards
My final comment on this is thank yous. I am a bit of a traditionalist on this topic and I still think a hand-written thank you card, or at the very least an email, for gifts received shows time and effort, is thoughtful and much appreciated. Thank you by text or mentioned when you see the person next is acceptable but is not as highly valued. Thanking people for gifts is a British tradition which applies to birthdays, as well as Christmas, and the British still really love sending and receiving cards.
The British Office Christmas Party
Now we are getting nearer to Christmas, you might be invited to a Christmas party, either for work, through school or by friends. Christmas parties are clearly not unique to the UK, however the style of them is perhaps different, especially if they are for the grown-ups only.
The office Christmas party especially has a certain reputation. Depending on the company they can happen at lunch-time and last the rest of the afternoon and evening, or take place in the evening, if it is a more classy, civilised affair. Usually only the employees themselves are invited, and not their spouse or partner.
However, it does not tend to matter when they happen, they are usually focused on eating and drinking plenty and getting merry, so here are my top tips for enjoying the Great British Christmas Party:
- Dress up for Christmas parties. Find out the dress code, which will either be glam, or fancy dress. For the latter, you can put your Christmas jumper on. Crazy, flashing Christmas-themed jewellery, Father Christmas hats or reindeer headbands are also popular.
- Traditional Christmas Food: Be careful with your menu choices. It might seem like a good idea to go for the traditional Christmas meal option (roast turkey dinner and Christmas pudding), but if you have at least one Christmas party then you will soon become tired of eating this.
- Drinking at the Office Party: Pace yourself if you are drinking alcohol, and if you are sticking to the soft drinks, you can feel gleeful in the knowledge you will remember everything tomorrow and have the latest gossip to hand. Beware of Mulled Wine: it is tasty (wine brewed with spices and fruit), but surprisingly tricky to drink as it is hot and usually has a large amount of fruit debris floating in it. Hard to drink elegantly.
- Christmas Crackers: British people love crackers and usually have them at any Christmas meal. In fact Tom Smith, a Londoner, invented crackers in 1847. They look like brightly coloured presents, which you pull with another person to crack them open. Do not be shocked if you hear a bang as they open, and the tradition is the person who pulls the largest part, gets to keep it, although in reality everybody gets a cracker in the end. Inside you will find a colourful paper hat in the shape of a crown (must be worn during the meal), a useless little toy and a joke. Warning: the joke is not meant to be funny and usually relies on some play on words, but we always still like to giggle at them. If you are a non-native English speaker, it is also a great test of your English and I often use Christmas jokes with clients at advanced level to test their knowledge of idioms and double meanings.
- Christmas Party Fun: Some parties have dancing or karaoke, and it is fine to sit it out and chat instead, if those are not your type of fun. You get to observe the crazy dancing and funny events happening around you instead.
- Senior people are expected to join in and stay until almost the end, making sure everybody is having a good time. It is an important part of team bonding and getting to know colleagues in a relaxed way.
- Christmas parties tend to be light-hearted and somebody may embarrass themselves in some way at the office party. As long as it’s a minor incident, it is usually laughed off the next day.
- When you get back to the office, then everybody will be expecting a fairly quiet and relaxed day. The best recovery of course is eating lots of mince pies (do not be fooled: these do not contain meat but are sweet, highly-calorific pies with lots of raisins) or heading to the pub for a team lunch. The Christmas Party organiser knows it is wise to schedule a Christmas work event for Thursday or Friday.
British Christmas Music
Now that you have survived the Christmas party, we are edging towards Christmas Day itself, and you will certainly hear the sweet tones of traditional Christmas Carols. Head to Trafalgar Square to hear lovely carol singing throughout December around the huge Christmas tree given to us each year by Norway as a thank you for our role in World War 2. Alternatively, most churches hold a carol service at this time and are open to everybody, regardless of their religion or no religion. In addition you will also notice certain songs repeated time and time again out and about. This can only mean two things. First it is almost the X Factor final which is a popular TV programme involving a singing competition, watched excitedly by millions throughout autumn until the final in early December. That and the Christmas No 1 is coming, which is the song that will be no 1 in the music charts on the Friday before Christmas. Sometimes these two coincide and the X factor winner achieves the no 1 spot for Christmas. You will also hear a selection of “modern classics” played continuously in any shop or party. Listen out for ‘The 12 days of Christmas’, George Michael’s ‘Last Christmas’, Band Aid ‘Do they know it’s Christmas’ to name but a few.
Traditional Christmas Pantomime
It is traditional at Christmas to go to the theatre to see a ballet, a Christmas production or the very British Pantomime (Panto). The last is a type of theatre based on fairy tales (e.g. Cinderella, Puss in Boots or Jack and the Beanstalk), contain plenty of silly jokes, and audience participation is compulsory. You will see men dress up and play old women, women dress up and play boys, and two people dressed up as a horse or cow. Also do expect to sing along and shout out with everybody else at key points, including “look behind you!” when the villain is behind the hero, and “Oh, yes it is!” or “Oh, no it isn’t!”. The audience is always encouraged to “boo” the villain and cheer the hero.
What British people do on Christmas Day
It surprises some people that the UK still has an official state religion, the Church of England, with the Queen as its head. In reality, although 59% claim to be Church of England, a much smaller percentage are actively religious (around 2%), and Christmas time might be the one of the few times when somebody might go to church. This time of year also features key festivals for Jewish people (Hanukkah), and for Hindus (Diwali in November) and you will see these actively celebrated across London. Whatever people’s religion or lack of religion, most people treat the start of the Christmas holidays from Christmas Eve on 24th December until the New Year, as a time to have a break, eat and drink well, see family and friends, and generally rest.
So, if you are in London on Christmas Day, what should you do? Well, here are my top Modern British Christmas tips:
- Warning: almost everything is closed on Christmas day in the UK. Yes, everything! The tube, buses, most shops and restaurants. So if you want to go anywhere you will need to drive yourself, or book a taxi at least 24 hours in advance.
- Food and Drink on Christmas Day: If you want to eat a traditional Christmas dinner, you can have a go at cooking it at home yourself and an easy, very good Christmas dinner option is to buy and heat it up from M&S. Or if you are feeling up to the challenge, get inspiration from British TV chefs, Jamie Oliver or Delia Smith, but remember nobody actually likes eating Brussels Sprouts, they are just for decoration. Alternatively, why not book yourself a restaurant at least two weeks in advance (as many restaurants close, the ones which open are very popular). Some British people kick off early with a Christmas brunch on the day, and then eat the main meal later in the mid-afternoon, while others stick to the Christmas meal at lunchtime. Either way, plenty of wine and bubbly is usually involved, and perhaps a port or Bailey’s later for good measure.
- Watch British Christmas TV specials: TV is central to most people’s days at some point and highly-watched are the Christmas specials for popular TV programmes, like EastEnders, Coronation Street or Doctor Who. These TV programmes have been around for decades and the Christmas special episode includes some incredibly dramatic and extreme incidents, such as a murder, death, weddings or break-up.
- The Queen’s Speech: for the traditionalists everybody must be watching TV at 3pm for the Queen’s Speech which is a pre-recorded 10-minute message broadcast, including the Queen’s reflections on the past year. I am sure this year there will be some good clips from Harry and Meghan’s wedding, as well as Louis’ Christening. Although it is short, this is the time when some of the older generation tend to nod off to sleep and snore through it.
- Playing board games: Now this is a tricky one. Board games are a great way to spend time with family on Christmas Day, think Monopoly, Scrabble or Trivial Pursuit. It can keep the family entertained for hours (honestly, I once played Monopoly with my sister for 4 hours straight) but can end in conflict or even blows if everybody takes it a bit too seriously, in which case I suggest…..
- Go for a walk: Everybody benefits from a breath of fresh air and relief from the indulgence of eating, drinking and sitting down throughout the day, so why not head to your nearest park for a gentle stroll. Remember, if you are in London on Christmas Day, then this gives you special status of being a “proper Londoner”, and not disappearing off to the countryside, another city or country for the holidays. On this day only people in London act like they live in a country village as we greet each other, say good morning and everybody seems happy and friendly.
- As the light fades on the day and you head back to your cosy, warm home for more indulgence, TV and board games, do not forget the tradition of the chocolate tin (e.g. Quality Street, Celebrations or Heroes). A permanent feature in most British homes over the festive season, a large box or tin of chocolates will sit tempting you throughout December and mass consumption peaks on Christmas Day. But remember nobody likes the one in the pink wrapper and you will always find at least ten of these lying abandoned at the bottom. Chocolate-eating etiquette: putting your empty wrappers back into the tin is likely to annoy everybody, and all chocolates must be consumed or disappeared by the start of January, when Easter Eggs will immediately start appearing on the supermarket shelves, ready for April.
Whatever you are up to over the festive season, I wish you a very Merry British Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Victoria Rennoldson, Founder of Perfect Cuppa English
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