Christmas is one of those uncanny moments for an American in the UK–it’s almost the same, and yet… Here’s my A-Z guide to some peculiarly British customs at Christmas time.
A Fairytale of New York- So it’s strange to me that this song which is set in New York is actually unknown to so many Americans—but then it is sung by an Irish man and an English woman. It’s the MOST played Christmas song of the 21st century in the UK and Ireland so you’ll be getting to know it quite well… It’s a brilliant bitter sweet story of a couple who are down on their luck on Christmas Day—he’s in the ‘drunk tank’ and she’s berating him for being ‘a bum and a punk’ who stopped her from fulfilling her dreams… but somehow it’s still a song about love, and about the way something about Christmas shines through even when life less than rosy. Expect to hear it bellowed by drunken revellers weaving their way home from the pubs in weeks to come.
Boxing Day- The day after Christmas Day when, so the joke goes, families have got so fed up with each other that they end up in a punch up. In fact it’s traditionally the day that rich families would give their servants a box of goodies and let them have the day off. These days it’s usually spent watching Christmas telly and eating leftovers of Christmas dinner.
Bread sauce- One of the peculiarly British things you’ll find in a British Christmas dinner—although people get very wound up about which condiments belong and which don’t, so it’s not found universally. It is in fact made out of soggy bread—I know, sounds absolutely gross, but it mostly tastes like cream and bayleaf and the texture is quite compelling. Go on, try it…
Christmas dinner- So let’s be clear on this—mashed potatoes are not a Christmas food. Has to be roast potatotes. Yorkshire puddings can made an appearance here which, as I hope you know, are a savoury batter which goes wonderfully well with gravy and nothing to do with dessert. Sprouts are a must, even if everyone in the family strongly dislikes them. Turkey is still the dominant tradition—with no Thanksgiving to exhaust the palette, most people are in favour when December rolls around!
Christmas pudding- When you’ve eaten a very heavy meal, what better than a very heavy pudding? Christmas puddings are full of raisins, nuts, fruit peel and—if you’re doing it right—it’s been having a little bit of booze added every day like an alcoholic house plant. For the piece de resistance, cover it in brandy and set it alight! Ideally someone scorches their eyebrows, adding a dash of drama to proceedings.
Crackers- These are shaped like… elongated bonbons? There’s a tube of cardboard in the middle which always contains a paper hat, a stupid joke, some kind of cheap toy or trinket and a ‘banger’ which—when two people pull on the cracker from opposite sides—makes a dramatic CRACK noise as the cracker pulls in two, leaving one person with all the spoils. You then read out your terrible joke—wearing the hat–which will almost certainly feature a bad pun using the word ‘ice’ or ‘snow’, and you’ll feel united with your fellow diners in just how unfunny you found it.
Hogmanay—If there’s one British group that really knows how to make long, dark, cold nights into one long party, it’s the Scots. Hogmanay is a New Year festival and, I have to say, as an English person I assumed it was pretty much the same as south of the border—booze, the midnight countdown and a few fireworks then going home to sleep it all. In fact, it turns out there are all kinds of rituals involving visiting your neighbours, gift giving and… releasing balls of fire to roll down the street. Scots have more fun.
Mince pies- Not full of minced meat at all, but instead a sweet filling made mostly from raisins, apples and brown sugar. Be warned though, vegetarians, some mince pies do use suet as an ingredient so you might want to ask before you snack. Traditionally consumed during Christmas parties, even by those who profess not to like them but feel it’s a Christmassy thing to do.
Queen’s Speech- Her Maj, though she is a pretty visible part of British public life, doesn’t say very much, just lots of receiving flowers and being fed fancy food. On Christmas Day, however, her speech to the nation is broadcast. Poor Liz is not a natural when it comes to television—she’s not the smiling, bantering type—but she usually says a few reasonable things about how we all ought to try to be good and appreciate things. It’s the ritual more than the content that matters here—and her accent is really worth a listen…
White Christmas betting- The stereotypical view of the British is that we do nothing but talk about the weather, so to make things more exciting at Christmas we KEEP talking about the weather, we just make the financial stakes higher. Yes, betting on whether or not it will be a White Christmas is a thing. It doesn’t happen much any more—when we do get a bit of snow it tends to be in late January/ February, but you never know…