1. Boxing Day. In the UK the day after Christmas Day is known as Boxing Day and it is a public holiday. Why go back to work the day after Christmas when you could lounge around with your family eating leftover turkey and chocolate and playing with your new gadgets? In Britain, it was a custom for tradespeople to collect “Christmas boxes” of money or presents on the first weekday after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the year. This tradition is older than the country of America and is mentioned in Samuel Pepys’ diary entry for 19 December 1663. Even earlier than this, since they would have to wait on their masters on Christmas Day, the servants of the wealthy were allowed the next day to visit their families and would often be given a box of leftovers and gifts to bring to them. If Christmas falls on a Friday or Saturday then the following Monday is a public holiday instead, a nice long weekend! I feel like the US needs an extra day off to recover from Christmas too, who’s with me?
2. Christmas Markets. Admittedly the UK stole these from continental Europe but there’s not much better than spending an afternoon walking around a Christmas market in a historic city looking for presents and tasting as much food as humanly possible. The formula for a great Christmas market is to gather lots of wooden huts, decorate them with Christmas lights and tinsel and place them in an aesthetically appealing part of town. A good mix of local produce and traders and sellers from all over Europe is a must. High prices are also a must. A Christmas market in a historic city like Boston would be amazing. Did I mention mulled wine, mulled cider and hot chocolate? One Christmas I was so relaxed after drinking mulled wine at the Bath Christmas market that I fell asleep on my train and ended up 45 miles from my house. It was worth it!
3. Christmas Puddings. I have to admit that I’m not a fan of the taste of Christmas puddings but they are an important part of every British Christmas. What’s not to like about a pudding that gets doused with brandy and then set on fire before being covered in cream and then consumed. As a child I used to try to sneakily add extra brandy while nobody was looking for a more impressive brandy fire. If you have children in the family you can wrap coins in foil and place them in the pudding when you make it and watch the kids smile as they find pocket money in their desserts. You have to be careful looking for the coins when you eat though or you might have a rather interesting bowel movement! If you would like to try and make one, you can find a good recipe here
4. The Christmas Number One. In the UK a lot of emphasis is placed on the song that is top of the UK charts on Christmas Day. In recent years this has been a series of awful cover songs by X Factor winners that have about as much character as a railway timetable but before the X Factor stole Christmas there were a number of memorable Christmas number ones. In 2009 a backlash against the X Factor led to a successful online campaign to make Rage Against the Machines song Killing in the Name (with its lyrics of “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me”) number one; a not so subtle message to Simon Cowell that many in the UK were fed up with his manufactured crap.
5. Christmas Crackers. A Christmas cracker is a cardboard tube wrapped in decorative paper and with a small chemical covered wick in the middle that makes a loud bang when pulled apart by two people. Each cracker will contain an awful joke, a paper or foil hat that will either be too small or too large (but your family will insist you wear it) and a small gift. Depending on how much you spent on the cracker the gift will either be cheap, plastic and useless or metal and useless. You can’t escape Christmas crackers in the UK; every supermarket will build huge walls out of Christmas crackers in the run up to Christmas. My wife assures me that you can buy them in the US but that they are not commonly used at Christmas, I urge everyone to give them a try!
There are also some UK traditions that the UK doesn’t even need, if these made it to the US I would not be happy!
1. The Winter Wonderland Scam. Every year some unscrupulous businessman will create a “winter wonderland” and charge a lot of money to visit. This will usually consist of fake snow, miserable looking reindeer and a visit to an unfriendly Santa and will invariably disappoint. The UK does not usually get snow at Christmas so sprinkling fake snow on a muddy field and making children wait an hour to see a Santa who smells of smoke and gives out cheap tat to kids does not constitute a bloody winter wonderland! Despite the fact that this now seems to happen every year, families will still buy tickets and then complain that their Christmas has been ruined. Avoid unless you want to do it ironically.
2. Mince Pies. Mince pies are ubiquitous in the UK at Christmas; you can’t escape them. I can’t stand them. Why make a delicious pastry and then fill it with the most boring mixed fruit; sultanas and raisins? It’s like using a beautiful handmade beer mug and then filling it with Bud Light. I love the taste of the freshly baked pastry and as a kid I used to just eat the crust and ignore the centre but as an adult that isn’t really socially acceptable, especially in company. So I sit there as people cover them in cream and devour them, lying to themselves that they taste delicious. If you want to try a traditional British Christmas treat, skip the mince pie and go for a yule log instead; you won’t be disappointed.
3. The Christmas Panto. If you want to attend something that has awful acting, woeful story lines and an audience full of screaming children then pantomime is for you. If you have any kind of taste then it isn’t. I never liked pantomimes, even as a kid. Pantomimes are usually loosely based on fairy tales and feature slapstick comedy that would even make Mr Bean cringe. The audience is expected to participate by shouting to the performers and singing along with the songs but the best way to participate is by staying away!