10 UK Christmas Traditions That Confuse Americans
By Luke Bather
With Christmas just around the corner, it can feel like a time to celebrate togetherness and put aside our differences. But what about the differences in the way we celebrate Christmas? When you’ve been celebrating a holiday one way your entire life, it’s easy to assume that’s the way it’s celebrated everywhere—but just ask someone who celebrates Christmas across the pond, and you’ll see some subtle but strange differences. Here are just a few of them.
No, we’re not talking crispy snacks here. These are a series of three cardboard tubes connected by a wrapping of colored foil. They are a British Christmas institution, and you’ll see them on dinner tables right next to the cutlery. They’re somewhere between pulling the wishbone on a turkey and a fortune cookie. The idea is that you and the person next to you each grab an end and pull.
The tubes pull apart with a small bang (or crack) thanks to the tiny explosive inside. The winner of the game is the person with the lion’s share of cardboard tubes (i.e. two) and their prizes sit inside that middle tube. Now, unless you spend serious money on luxury crackers, don’t expect an incredible prize. Usually you’re looking at a small plastic toy or magic trick that barely works, a terrible Christmas joke on a small scroll of paper, and the most important thing of all: the paper crown—multi-colored, deeply embarrassing, and begrudgingly worn for about five minutes before being relegated to the trash.
Crackers stem from a Victorian confectioner named Tom Smith, who was on a visit to Paris in 1840 when he noticed how the French wrapped bon-bons in colored tissue paper and decided to try selling a similar product in Britain. After middling sales, inspiration hit him one evening by the fireplace when the crackling sounds caused him to imagine opening bon-bons with a bang. After finding the perfect mix of chemicals for his explosive new packaging, their popularity grew and grew.
2. Mince Pies
The humble mince pie has been a part of British cuisine since the 13th century, when crusading knights returned home with exciting new ingredients from the wider world: cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon. There were quickly added to pies with dried fruit, suet, and minced meat.
After the puritan ban on Christmas and all things deemed unholy, the mince pie (like all Christmas traditions) went away for a while before coming back in a slightly altered form. By the 19th century, the recipe had become sweeter, and the pies themselves much more bite-sized.
While spiked eggnog may very well be the booze of choice for the month of December in the U.S., the UK tends to prefer their festive tipple to be of the mulled variety.
Wassail in Anglo-Saxon means “be well” and was traditionally a greeting made at the start of the New Year. The act of Wassailing—going door-to-door with a bowl of spiced alcoholic beverage—was performed on the “Twelfth Night,” (January 5, 6, or 17, depending on which calendar you go by) and met with replies of “drink well.”
The drink in question, depending on where you lived, was likely either a wine or a cider which would be heated up and mixed with various fruits and spices. More common nowadays is simply “mulled wine,” which follows much of the wassail recipe at heart, but without having to wait until the New Year.
4. Christmas Pudding
A classic festive dish that dates back to the medieval era, the Christmas pudding is a sort of boiled fruit cake that’s heavily spiced, doused in brandy, and briefly set on fire. Traditionally, coins are hidden inside as an extra gift (or an unpleasant mouthful of metal).
5. Father Christmas
While he’s known in the U.S. as Santa Claus (an evolution of the Dutch settlers’ term “Sinter Klaas,” which is itself a shorthand for Sint Nikolaas), the UK refers to him almost exclusively as Father Christmas.
Although they’re generally thought of as the same person today, Santa and Father Christmas have very different origins. The modern-day Santa Claus owes a large debt to Clement Clarke Moore’s legendary 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” although he’s also inspired by a 4th-century Bishop of Myra (a.k.a. St. Nicholas), and, some say, the Norse god Odin.
Father Christmas, however, was more of a winter presence than a gift-giver. He’s been traced back as far as the 5th or 6th century, appearing first as a Saxon “King Winter” who promised a milder winter climate if people were kind to him. When Normans invaded, the St. Nicholas story was mixed in with the Saxon mythology to create something that started to resemble Father Christmas. The first recorded mention of Father Christmas by name (well, almost) comes from a line in a 15th-century carol, which says “Welcome, my lord Christëmas.” Lord Christëmas morphed into Sir Christmas and then Captain Christmas (which, frankly, should be brought back) before Father Christmas took its place in the 1600s.
Notably, while Mr. and Mrs. Claus famously reside in the North Pole, Father Christmas lives in Lapland, the northernmost region of Finland. There’s a huge Christmas-based tourism industry up there, with UK and Nordic travel agents selling all kinds of “meet Santa Claus” packages featuring reindeer rides, snowmobile adventures, and, of course, an audience with the big man with the white beard himself.
6. Merry Chrimbo
The British are seemingly notorious for their colloquialisms, so why should the holiday season be any exception? Christmas in the UK very often gets shortened to “Chrimbo” (or Crimble if you’re of the John Lennon school of phrasing). Meanwhile, the phrase “Happy Christmas” is just as socially acceptable as “Merry Christmas.”
Do you like campy theatrical productions of popular fairytales with a cast made up of minor celebrities and men in drag? Do you ever watch horror movies and have the sudden urge to scream “He’s behind you!” at the doomed protagonists? If so, pantomime may well be for you.
Pantomime, or panto if we’re continuing with the colloquialisms, is a type of musical comedy that’s a big deal in the UK. In 2012, during the throes of a national recession, the largest panto production company in the UK made more than $30 million during the Christmas period alone.
8. The Christmas Advertising Season
In the U.S., the commercial holy grail is the Super Bowl ad, with a 30-second slot costing $5.6 million at the 2020 game. As the UK isn’t exactly a hotbed of (American) football fanatics, the big commercial events appear around Christmastime. It used to be that the classic Coca-Cola ad served as a signpost for the start of the festive season proper, but for the past few years, adoration has shifted toward the always-anticipated John Lewis Christmas ad. John Lewis is a high-end UK department store chain that has made a name for itself in the last 10 years with increasingly more saccharine short films that seem scientifically engineered to tug at your heartstrings.
9. Boxing Day
December 26 is more than simply “The Day after Christmas” to the Brits—it’s Boxing Day! Boxing Day is not only a public holiday (which means it’s an extra day off work), it’s also the starting flag for the post-Christmas sales. Much like Black Friday in the U.S., the Boxing Day sales aren’t for the faint-hearted. With shoppers flush with cash from the distant relatives who didn’t know them well enough to get them a meaningful gift, the bargain-hunting can be riotous.
The origins of the name Boxing Day are dubious, but it has nothing to do with a prize fight. Depending on who you believe, it’s either named for the Church of England’s practice of breaking open donation boxes to distribute among the poor, or for the aristocracy giving boxes full of presents to their servants on the day after Christmas.
Whatever its charitable origins may have been, most Brits who don’t spend it shopping or visiting relatives just tend to eat leftovers and watch TV. Something we can all agree on.
10. The Royal Christmas Broadcast
A true British institution, the Christmas broadcast by the reigning monarch has been an almost yearly mainstay in one form or another since 1932. Originally starting as a radio broadcast by George V, the broadcast evolved as the monarchy did, and 1957 saw Queen Elizabeth II deliver the first broadcast televised live to the nation. However, due to radio interference, some viewers apparently heard U.S. police radio transmissions mixed in with the Queen’s speech, including the phrase “Joe, I’m gonna grab a quick coffee.”
Since 1959, the broadcast has been pre-recorded, but is still faithfully beamed into homes across the country at 3 p.m. on Christmas day. The exception occurred in 1969, when there was no speech because the Queen decided that after a documentary about the royal family had aired earlier that year, there’d been enough of her on TV already. The subject matter tends to be similar every year: a reflection on the events of the previous 365 days and an overall message of togetherness.
Since the ‘90s, its popularity has dwindled, with TV station Channel 4 broadcasting their "Alternative Christmas Message" at the same time since 1993. Their subject matter varies from the humorous (Marge Simpson delivered the speech in 2012) to the more serious and controversial—in 2006, a Muslim woman known only as Khadijah spoke about Islam and conflict in the Middle East, while Edward Snowden was the chosen speaker in 2013.
A version of this story originally ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2021.