10 UK Christmas Traditions That Confuse Americans

iStock
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.

11 Lively Gifts for Plant Parents

Blue Q/Amazon/Picnic Time/World Market
Blue Q/Amazon/Picnic Time/World Market

Many folks have been showing off their green thumbs this year thanks to the pandemic, so why not encourage their hobbies? There's a special gift for every kind of plant parent out there—think starter grow kits to gardening tools to cute cartoon socks. If the Christmas tree in the living room isn't enough greenery for your gift recipient's taste this festive season, we have some great gift options below.

1. Back To The Roots Garden In A Can Herb Growing Kit; $25

Back to the Roots/World Market

Herb gardens are compact, useful, and easy to maintain. If your giftee lives in an apartment and doesn't have outdoor space for a large garden, Back To The Roots's Garden In A Can Herb Growing Kit—a three-pack of basil, cilantro, and mint—is a great place for them to start their indoor horticultural journey.

Buy it: World Market

2. Plants Rock Cactus Growing Kit; $13

Plants Rock/World Market

Another option for small spaces is cacti, which do not require much water or attention. This kit makes it easy to start growing cacti in your gift recient's home. The tools are all included, so all your giftee has to do is plant the seeds and set the ceramic pot in a sunny spot.

Buy it: World Market

3. Picnic Time Folding Garden Stool With Tools; $69

Picnic Time/World Market

For more experienced gardeners, tools are essential for helping plants thrive. This stool with tools might solve the problem of sore knees and backs from kneeling in dirt. Not only is the seat portable and lightweight, but it also includes a storage tote and five pockets for tools like the included trowels and garden forks.

Buy it: World Market

4. Green and Pink Ribbed-Glass Plant Misters; $26

World Market

Indoor plants need as much care and attention as their outdoor cousins, but lugging around a watering can may cause a mess in your giftee's home. Using this set of two plant misters is an easy way to keep moisture-loving plants like orchids and Boston ferns nice and dewy.

Buy it: World Market

5. Cotton Macramé Plant Hanger; $18

World Market

Macramé plant hangers were all the rage back in the '70s. They've made a comeback this year as people have become craftier at home. This plant hanger is great for showing off plants that grow long, curtain-like tendrils and helpful when your giftee lives in a small space. With the roof as the limit, they can pack in as many plants as they want.

Buy it: World Market

6. Can't Kill Me 2021 Calendar; $8

TF Publishing/World Market

If your gift recipient loves plants but can't keep real ones alive, give them this mini wall calendar. It features, well, plant arrangements they can't kill, like succulents, bonsai trees, and snake plants. This calendar will surely add a dose of green to their home office.

Buy it: World Market

7. The New Plant Parent: Develop Your Green Thumb and Care for Your House-Plant Family; $17

Harry N. Abrams/Amazon

All gardeners want one simple thing: to know more about keeping their plants alive and thriving. This book has all the essentials for cultivating houseplants. It's full of tips and tricks for repotting a plant, taking care of certain types of plants, and adjusting light for your plant baby's survival.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Homenote Bamboo Plant Labels; $14

HOMENOTE/Amazon

Plant labels are a great way for your giftee to remember where they planted their rosemary versus their parsley before they sprout. This 60 label set comes with a pen, so the labeling process is a breeze.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Blue Q Proud Plant Mom Socks; $13

Blue Q/Amazon

Proud plant moms want to show off their love for their greenery any way they can. That's why these crew socks will be a hit with any of your green-thumbed friends. Blue Q also donates 1 percent of its sales revenue to Doctors Without Borders.

Buy it: Amazon

10. EuroGraphics 1000-Piece Jigsaw Puzzle; $20

EuroGraphics Toys/Amazon

This 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle will occupy your gift recipients from the fall harvest to the spring planting season. The challenging design of multiple succulents features each plant's common and scientific name.

Buy it: Amazon

11. AeroGarden Indoor Hydroponic Garden; $124

AeroGarden/Amazon

If seasons don't matter to your giftee and they want to start their herb garden right now, then the AeroGarden is going to be their best friend. They'll be able to grow herbs like dill, thyme, and mint indoors in the middle of winter. Thanks to the LED grow lights, there is no need to worry about plants getting enough sunlight. They can grow up to six plants at a time, all year round.

Buy it: Amazon

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How Gangsters and the Media Helped Make Trick or Treating a Halloween Tradition

Criminal behavior was seen as an inspiration for trick or treating in the 1930s.
Criminal behavior was seen as an inspiration for trick or treating in the 1930s.
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

On Halloween night in 1934, a scene played out in Helena, Montana, that the local newspaper, the Helena Independent, related as though it were a scene out of a mafia confrontation [PDF]. A group of teenagers roughly 15 to 16 years old knocked on a woman’s door and asserted they were there for the purposes of trick or treating. When the woman refused their request, they opted for a third outcome—property damage. The kids smashed her birdbath.

The paper identified the group’s “leader” as “Pretty Boy” John Doe, a nod to Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, a notorious gangster who had been killed in a police shootout just two weeks before. In media and in the minds of kids, the then-novel practice of trick or treating on Halloween was not quite innocent fun. It was emblematic of the public’s infatuation with civil disobedience and organized crime, and it would take no lesser positive influences than Donald Duck and Charlie Brown to make adults believe Halloween wasn’t merely a training ground for America’s youth to become hoodlums.

 

Trick or treating is a relatively new phenomenon in North America. The concept of going door to door and requesting candy on Halloween was virtually unheard-of prior to the 1920s, though it did have antecedents in ancient history. In the Middle Ages, following the Catholic Church’s re-appropriation of Celtic celebrations, kids would dress as saints, angels, and demons in what was known as “guising,” from “disguising.” These cloaked figures would go from one door to the next, requesting food or money in exchange for singing their benefactors a song or praying. This solicitation was known as “souling,” and children and poor adults who engaged in it were known as “soulers.”

Scottish and Irish immigrants likely brought guising over to North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Around the same time, kids were in the habit of dressing up for other holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve, and requesting money. When costumed events for Halloween became more prevalent and citywide celebrations were organized to help discourage kids from playing pranks, private groups began planning door-to-door visits in the 1920s. That’s when the disparate elements of costumes, mild pranks like ringing a doorbell and then running off, and getting treats all converged, seemingly taking a more sinister turn.

Early trick or treating was serious business.Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Writing in the American Journal of Play in 2011 [PDF], author Samira Kawash took a closer look at the rise in popularity of trick or treating and the seeming glorification of organized crime figures during the economically turbulent period of the 1930s. It’s little coincidence, Kawash wrote, that kids began to approach trick or treating as a form of extortion just as antiheroes achieved infamy in newspapers. The media reflected this influence, often writing of pranks in breathless terms. The threat of soaping windows if targets didn’t pay up in the form of treats was nothing more than a juvenile version of a mobster offering “protection” to a shopkeeper. Demands for candy could be considered a “shakedown.” The treats were “edible plunder.” Roving groups of costumed kids were “goon squads.” Some kids even bypassed requests for candy and demanded money instead.

In some parts of the country, the idea of making a choice between handing out food or suffering from a “trick” was new. In Beatrice, Nebraska, in 1938, a group of young boys told local police chief Paul Acton about their success. “We knock on the door,” one said, “and ask if they’d rather give us a treat, or have us dump over the garbage pail. Boy, have we been eating!”

The media took a critical approach to this new tradition, warning readers that such activities could be creating the criminals of tomorrow. Not everyone responded kindly to it, either. In Brooklyn, a school principal responded to a trick or treat offer by slapping a child across the face after he was admonished by a tyke to “hand it over or else.” Trick or treating had morphed from a pitiable request for charity to a sneering threat of property destruction in lieu of a candy bar.

 

Trick or treating began to lose some of its edge during World War II, when sugar rationing disrupted the entire concept of Halloween and vandalizing homes seemed especially cruel considering the global threat to democracy. In Reno, Nevada, in 1942, a school superintendent named E.O. Vaughn told principals and teachers to caution kids against knocking on doors, both because of the war and because it had a “tinge of gangsterism.” By the time candy had resumed normal production and the nation was no longer mired in war or a financial crisis, it had settled into something mostly innocent. (But not totally without mischief. In 1948, local police in Dunkirk, New York, advised adults to phone them when a group of kids was spotted so cops could “round up the children.”)

By the 1950s, trick or treating was less about property damage and more about having fun with friends.Joe Clark, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Helping restore the reputation of trick or treating were two familiar icons in popular culture. In 1951, Charles Schulz drew a series of Peanuts comic strips that featured Charlie Brown and his friends going door to door. (Peppermint Patty uses Charlie Brown’s head as inspiration for her pumpkin carving.) The strip, read by millions of people daily, normalized the practice. So did Trick or Treat, a 1952 Donald Duck cartoon that was released theatrically and featured Donald caught in a battle of tricks with nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie.

Further legitimizing the practice of demanding treats was the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, or UNICEF, which provided boxes for kids to collect their sugary bounty as well as request spare change. The effort eventually raised $175 million and returned trick or treating to its more charitable origins.

Although Halloween has settled into a widely understood arrangement in which candy is distributed without any overt threat of birdbath-bashing, not everyone has abandoned the brute force aspects of the 1930s. According to data compiled by GateHouse Media and taken from the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System, there were 19,900 acts of vandalism on October 31 over a 10-year period from 2009 to 2018. Only New Year’s Day was more eventful, with 21,000 acts committed in the same timeframe. For many, Halloween is a time to collect treats. For others, it remains the season for tricks.