I love spending time in London during December when the whole city is dressing up for Christmas. There is a magical atmosphere all over town with wonderful decorations and lights, Christmas markets offer mulled wine and roasted chestnuts, kids enjoy their visit to Santa’s Grotto and grown-ups look forward to finally wear their crazy Christmas-themed jumpers and accessorizes.
Most museums decorate their rooms and many illuminated events take place (I absolutely loved “Christmas at Kew” this year).
It is a very special time of the year indeed!
As for the Christmas celebrations – this is a day that belongs to family. As my family is German we celebrate in Germany, too. So far, I have never spent the festive season in the UK but I have had the support of my friends Kirsty, Ian and Andy to collect the most common Christmas traditions in the UK for you. So here they are: The five facts where Christmas is different in the UK. Thanks to Inka from Inkastour for being the inspiration to this post!
Christmas trees and decorations
Unlike in Germany where most Christmas trees get decorated for the 24th of December (which is “Heiligabend” or Holy Eve), the Christmas trees in the UK get up and decorated around the 1st of December. Some people do their tree while decorating the rest of the house. It’s even possible to have more than one tree. The tree gets lights, baubles and a big star on top. There is no fixed rule about how to decorate your tree or in which colour. That’s up to each family.
Btw, did you know that the Christmas tree was popularised by Prince Albert, the German husband of Queen Victoria, who wanted to share some traditions dear to him in England?
Holly and Ivy are popular for decorating the houses. Standing under a Mistletoe could earn you a kiss. Door wreaths can be found on many doors in the UK and I have never seen more beautiful ones than those in London.
Christmas in the UK is celebrated on the 25th of December. The big day is called “Christmas Day”, followed by “Boxing Day” on the 26th. The latter is a public holiday with shops open.
The 24th of December – final countdown in the UK
The 24th is “Heiligabend” or Holy eve” in Germany and the main evening with presents. In the UK the day is used for wrapping the presents and hanging stockings over the fireplace or at the end of the bed (or at any other central location where Santa Claus will find them to leave small presents).
Some families with smaller kids (and a real fireplace) burn their letters to Santa Claus as kids believe that he can read the smoke and bring the right presents accordingly.
If you need more Christmas cookies – today is the day to bake them.
Once all preparations for the big day are done, families gather around their tree and listen to stories or watch TV.
The 25th of December is Christmas Eve
Kids (and some grown-ups, too) wake up in the morning to find their stockings filled with smaller gifts. This can include an apple or orange, chocolate coins and little things like socks, toy cars, little toys, a nail polish or lip gloss.
After opening your stockings, the bigger presents get opened.
Christmas Dinner is the feast for the whole family (this might include friends and neighbours, too) and starts around midday. It’s very likely that you will find a Christmas cracker on your plate. What makes them special can be read further below.
The 26th of December – Boxing Day
Boxing Day on the 26th is a bank holiday. Originally it was the day when servants received presents from their employers. Donations which were collected throughout the year in boxes were distributed to the poor. Nowadays, the day is used to think of those who have helped us throughout the year, e.g. the postman, local shop owner, neighbours and to give them small presents, too.
Left-overs from yesterday’s food will be eaten, kids enjoy their new toys and many use the day to do some shopping as the shops are open. So it might be the first chance to redeem your new vouchers. However, shops will be packed with people and I wouldn’t enjoy shopping that day at all.
For those visiting London during these days and not celebrating with family and friends: please note that many museums are closed from the 24th until the 26th so better check the opening times online before your visit.
The Queen’s Christmas Speech
Some families listen to the Queen’s Christmas speech on TV after having enjoyed their meal. Christmas speeches have a very old tradition dating back to 1932 when George V gave the first speech on radio. The Queen has been given yearly speeches since 1952 and the first TV broadcast took place in 1957. This year it will be broadcast at 3 pm on the BBC1 and might last for approx. 10 minutes. People are already wondering what her Majesty might talk about this year. Will she mention the upcoming marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle or the expected new baby for Prince William and his wife Kate? I realised that the reactions to the speech are mixed. Especially the younger generations don’t listen to it anymore as they are critical towards the concept of Monarchy in general.
Food and Drinks for Christmas
The big family feast takes place on the 25th of December, which is Christmas Day. A traditional meal often includes a roasted turkey, potatoes, Brussels sprouts and carrots. There will be some sauce, too. Christmas puddings or fruit trifles are popular desserts. Mince pies or just some chocolate are also nice options. A good selection of traditional recipes are offered by the BBC.
The afternoon of Boxing Day is popular for a nice Christmas cake.
As many people live as vegetarians or vegans in the UK, there are many options to offer non-meaty and non-dairy treats for them as well. Each family might have their own tradition on what to eat, what kind of sauce, which dessert to have.
These paper crackers with small hats, gifts and riddles who crack when pulled apart can be found at most Christmas tables in the UK. They are places near your plate on Christmas Day. And they have become popular in Germany, too. Originally, they were invented in London by the sweet-maker Tom Smith in the 1840s.
Some interesting stuff at the end:
- I was told that Christmas season really begins once the Coca-Cola advert with the Santa trucks has been on TV.
- Brits say you need to take your tree and decorations down within 12 days of Christmas or you’ll have bad luck for the next year. I have never heard of this in Germany. However, both countries tend to take the trees down by Epiphany on the 6th of January so maybe there is some truth behind the bad luck idea in Germany, too.
There are some differences between a British and a German Christmas but overall, we don’t differ that much at all. For most of us, Christmas is the time for family and friends, to relax, to enjoy some nice food, exchange presents and share some love.
With this post I wish you all a very merry and peaceful Christmas! May you be surrounded by loved ones and receive gifts you wanted (not needed…).
This post is also available in: Deutsch