Christmas is Britain's most popular holiday and is characterized by traditions which date back hundreds of years. Many Christmas customs which originated in Britain have been adopted in the United States.
The first ever Christmas card was posted in England in the 1840s, and the practice soon became an established part of the build-up to Christmas. Over a billion Christmas cards are now sent every year in the United Kingdom, many of them sold in aid of charities.
Christmas decorations in general have even earlier origins. Holly, ivy and mistletoe are associated with rituals going back beyond the Dark Ages. (The custom of kissing beneath a sprig of mistletoe is derived from an ancient pagan tradition.) The Christmas tree was popularized by Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, who introduced one to the Royal Household in 1840. Since 1947, the country of Norway has presented Britain annually with a large Christmas tree which stands in Trafalgar Square in commemoration of Anglo-Norwegian cooperation during the Second World War.
Popular among children at Christmas time are pantomimes: song and dance dramatizations of well-known fairy tales which encourage audience participation.
Carols are often sung on Christmas Eve by groups of singers to their neighbours, and children hang a stocking on the fireplace or at the foot of their bed for Santa Claus (also named Father Christmas) to fill. Presents for the family are placed beneath the Christmas tree.
Christmas Day sees the opening of presents and many families attend Christmas services at church. Christmas dinner consists traditionally of a roast turkey, goose or chicken with stuffing and roast potatoes. This is followed by mince pies and Christmas pudding.
The pudding might contain coins or lucky charms for children. For afternoon tea Christmas cake is offered. It is rich baked fruit cake with marzipan and icing. A party favourite are Christmas crackers. There will be one to each plate on the Christmas dinner table. A Christmas cracker is a brightly coloured paper tube, twisted on both ends and filled with a party hat, a riddle and a toy.
Another traditional feature of Christmas afternoon is the Queen's Christmas Message to the nation, broadcast on radio and television.
The day after Christmas is known in Britain as Boxing Day. This day takes its name from a former custom giving a Christmas box to delivery men and trades people called regularly through the year. Nowadays dustmen, milkmen, or postmen get a tip for a good service at Christmas time.
Of Special Note...
MISTLETOE, considered sacred by the British Druids, was believed to have many miraculous powers. Among the Romans, it was symbol of peace, and, it was said that when enemies met under it, they discarded their arms and declared a truce. From this comes our custom of kissing under the mistletoe. England was the first country to use it during the Christmas season.