10 UK Christmas Traditions That Confuse Americans

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iStock

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.

1. CRACKERS

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. What are they for? Well, 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 (which are totally a thing), 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 (he was really into bon-bons). 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 bitesize.

3. WASSAIL? WHASSAT?

While spiked eggnog may very well be the booze of choice for the month of December in the good old US of A, the United Kingdom 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).

The pudding’s medieval origin comes complete with some very specific instructions from the Roman Catholic Church, which say that “pudding should be made on the 25th Sunday after Trinity, that it be prepared with 13 ingredients to represent Christ and the 12 apostles, and that every family member stir it in turn from east to west to honor the Magi and their supposed journey in that direction.”

5. FATHER WHO?

Illustrated London News via Wikimedia // Public Domain

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.”

7. PANTOMIME

 

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.

Pantomime is something that has to be experienced to fully appreciate it, so perhaps it’s best to be bewildered by this star-studded (by British standards) televised panto from 1998 seen above and wonder how it’s so profitable.

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 million at the 2016 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. With a campaign this year costing an estimated $8.7 million, it’s clear that this is a Christmas tradition they take very seriously. But they’re not even the biggest spenders—Burberry’s star-studded, cinematic 2016 Christmas ad “The Tale of Thomas Burberry’” is rumored to have cost $12.5 million.

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 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 in 2013 Edward Snowden was the chosen speaker.

All images via iStock unless otherwise noted.

Kodak’s New Cameras Don't Just Take Photos—They Also Print Them

Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Kodak

Snapping a photo and immediately sharing it on social media is definitely convenient, but there’s still something so satisfying about having the printed photo—like you’re actually holding the memory in your hands. Kodak’s new STEP cameras now offer the best of both worlds.

As its name implies, the Kodak STEP Instant Print Digital Camera, available for $70 on Amazon, lets you take a picture and print it out on that very same device. Not only do you get to skip the irksome process of uploading photos to your computer and printing them on your bulky, non-portable printer (or worse yet, having to wait for your local pharmacy to print them for you), but you never need to bother with ink cartridges or toner, either. The Kodak STEP comes with special 2-inch-by-3-inch printing paper inlaid with color crystals that bring your image to life. There’s also an adhesive layer on the back, so you can easily stick your photos to laptop covers, scrapbooks, or whatever else could use a little adornment.

There's a 10-second self-timer, so you don't have to ask strangers to take your group photos.Kodak

For those of you who want to give your photos some added flair, you might like the Kodak STEP Touch, available for $130 from Amazon. It’s similar to the regular Kodak STEP, but the LCD touch screen allows you to edit your photos before you print them; you can also shoot short videos and even share your content straight to social media.

If you want to print photos from your smartphone gallery, there's the Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer. This portable $80 printer connects to any iOS or Android device with Bluetooth capabilities and can print whatever photos you send to it.

The Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer connects to an app that allows you to add filters and other effects to your photos. Kodak

All three Kodak STEP devices come with some of that magical printer paper, but you can order additional refills, too—a 20-sheet set costs $8 on Amazon.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

35 Offbeat Holidays You Can Celebrate in August

Buckle up! National Roller Coaster Day is coming.
Buckle up! National Roller Coaster Day is coming.
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Many of August's quirky holidays revolve around celebrating loved ones and seasonal delights, so grab your family (Fido included) and a bag of marshmallow and let's party.

1. August 1: National Girlfriends Day

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Rest easy, boyfriends of the world, this holiday has nothing to do with you. National Girlfriends Day honors the lady friends who are there for their fellow lady friends.

2. August 1: Respect for Parents Day

We have a feeling an unappreciated parent came up with this holiday.

3. August 1: Rounds Resounding Day

This offbeat holiday honors the art of singing rounds, so find some pitch-perfect friends and warm up those vocal chords (via Zoom is fine).

4. August 1: National Mustard Day

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We'll use any excuse to eat a hot dog—or three.

5. August 2: National Psychic Day

But don't bother planning a surprise party for your resident clairvoyant.

6. August 2: National Sisters Day

Make sure to set aside the first Sunday in August as a day to celebrate the unique bond that you have with your sister(s).

7. August 4: Single Working Women's Day

In 2006, Barbara Payne established the Single Working Women’s Affiliate Network to recognize the achievements that single women have contributed to the world. Single Working Women's Day comes at the end of Single Working Women's Week, a time to celebrate the women "who do it all. Not only do they bring home the bacon, but they also shop for it, cook it, serve it and clean it up, then take out the garbage, walk the dog, and fix the sink (or call the repairman!)."

8. August 5: National Underwear Day

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Underwear emporium Freshpair founded National Underwear Day on August 5, 2003. Since then it has grown to include events around the country that encourage the 80 percent of people who have worn the same style of underwear their whole lives to branch out.

9. August 6: National Fresh Breath Day

If ever there were a day to stage an intervention with your halitosis-afflicted friends, today’s the day. Or, give yourself an extra brush and a bonus swirl of mouthwash and say ah. Probably a good idea to lay off the onions and garlic for the day, too.

10. August 7: International Beer Day

Back in 2007, a group of friends decided to internationally dedicate a day to "gather with friends and enjoy the deliciousness that is beer, celebrate the dedicated men and women who brew and serve our beer, and bring the world together under the united banner of beer." And to that we say, cheers! Or salud! Or prost! Or gan bei! Well, you get the idea.

11. August 7: National Lighthouse Day

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In 1989, on the 200th anniversary of having signed "An Act for the Establishment and Support of Lighthouse, Beacons, Buoys and Public Piers" into law, Congress decreed August 7 to be National Lighthouse Day.

12. August 8: National Dollar Day

On this day all the way back in 1786, the Continental Congress established a monetary system for the United States of America. Today, you can honor the birth of cold hard USD cash by carrying a few Georges, Andrews, and Abrahams in your wallet. If you decide to invite Benjamin, give us a call!

13. August 8: National Happiness Happens Day

Celebrated annually on the founding date of the Society of Happy People (formerly known as the Secret Society of Happy People—but why keep that a secret?), which you can join for free.

14. August 9: National Book Lovers Day

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For most book lovers, every day is a day to celebrate reading. But for the sake of celebration let’s open up the floor to all interpretations of what it means to be a “book lover.” Perhaps you just love the physical feel of a book, and have no interest in cracking one open. Or maybe, this day is meant to honor books in love with each other. Today is the day to exalt book lovers of all shapes, sizes, covers, and word counts.

15. August 9: Veep Day

Veep Day commemorates the date in 1974 when Gerald Ford became President without ever having been elected as either vice president or president. Ford had become vice president after Spiro Agnew resigned due to a kickback scandal. When Nixon later resigned amid the Watergate scandal, Ford found himself occupying the Oval Office. This was the first time the VP had become president under these terms.

16. August 10: National Lazy Day

National Lazy Day falls on a Monday this year. So be sure to plan ahead.

17. August 10: National S’mores Day

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The original s’mores recipe, published in Scout leader Loretta Scott Crew's 1927 Tramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts, called these campfire treats Some Mores. Which is exactly what you'll be asking for.

18. August 11: National Presidential Joke Day

On this day in 1984, during a sound check for a radio broadcast, Ronald Reagan cracked the following joke:

“My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”

Who knew the Gipper had such a dark sense of humor? He certainly didn’t know the mic was already recording, and the tape leaked. Since this little gaffe, August 11th has lived on as Presidential Joke Day.

19. August 12: National Middle Child Day

Even though birth order doesn't really affect your personality, let's hear it for the middle children of the world.

20. August 12: Vinyl Record Day

First declared such in 2002, Vinyl Record Day is held on the anniversary of Thomas Edison's 1877 invention of the phonograph.

21. August 13: International Left Handers Day

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For those world citizens who have found themselves in a right-handed-scissors world, today the world honors your special gifts. The other 364, we righties are still secretly jealous. If you’re in the UK on the 13th, the Left-handers Club sponsors members-only areas called “Lefty Zones." Okay fine, we’re jealous all 365 days.

22. August 15: Chauvin Day

If you're worried that this is a day to celebrate chauvinists—you're actually kind of right. But don't worry: On the anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte's birthday, we celebrate the interesting etymological history of the word chauvinism, which comes from a man named Nicolas Chauvin, who idealized Napoleon so much that he became internationally mocked for his blind loyalty to a cause. From there the term became associated with any misguided or ill-intentioned adherence to a particular cause, and finally, the discriminatory mindset it refers to today. And now, for some reason, we honor him and it.

23. August 15: International Geocaching Day

Harry Potter: Wizards Unite fans all over the world will be participating in this celebration without even knowing it.

24. August 15: National Relaxation Day

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Preferably celebrated in a hammock, on a beach, or with a pooped pup.

25. August 16: Joe Miller’s Joke Day

Joe Miller was an 18th century English actor whose reputation for being serious was so well known, we now hold an offbeat joke-telling holiday in his honor.

26. August 16: National Roller Coaster Day

The amusement first took root in the U.S. as a means of distracting people from unsavory entertainments. More than 130 years later, it's still going strong.

27. August 18: Bad Poetry Day

Roses are red / Violets are blue/ You probably saw this joke coming/ But we made it anyway.

28. August 19: National Aviation Day

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt laid out the ultimate burn by declaring Orville Wright's birthday National Aviation Day. Why he chose to honor Orville over Wilbur in 1939 is a mystery to historians, but we think National Aviation Day is a great time to start preposterous rumors based on wild speculation, i.e. maybe Wilbur Wright was a figment of Orville’s imagination. (It could also have had something to do with the fact that Orville was still alive when FDR made the day official ... and Wilbur was not.)

29. August 21: National Poet's Day

A day to soothe the bruised egos of poets mocked just three days prior on August 18's Bad Poetry Day.

30. August 21: National Senior Citizens Day

Now this is the holiday for which Reagan would have wanted to be remembered. On August 19th, 1988, a proclamation was made by the then-president that deemed August 21st as a national day to give older U.S. citizens thanks and a heartfelt salute. Decades later, we're still doing it.

31. August 22: National Tooth Fairy Day

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Because anyone who can make a money magically appear under your pillow deserves a day of feting.

32. August 26: National Dog Day

Be sure to give a dog—or all the dogs—you love an extra treat or belly rub. Because they're all good boys and girls.

33. August 26: Women’s Equality Day

Celebrated on the anniversary of the certification of the 19th Amendment, which prohibits discrimination in voting rights on the basis of sex.

34. August 28: National Bow Tie Day

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Celebrate by learning how to tie one.

35. August 31: National Trail Mix Day

Also known as National GORP Day. We love us a handy bag of “good ol’ raisins and peanuts,” but let’s be honest: the addition of M&M’s are what make trail mix truly great.