England, Christmas in

England, Christmas in

The English Christmas has gone through a number of striking transformations in its nearly two-thousand-year history (see also Europe, Christmas in Medieval; Myrrh; Puritans; Twelve Days of Christmas; Victorian England, Christmas in). Current English Christmas celebrations bear some resemblance to American celebrations. This resemblance is partly due to the fact that English settlers brought many of their Christmas customs to America during colonial times (see also America, Christmas in Colonial). The fact that the British and American peoples have adopted similar Christmas customs since that time may be even more significant in explaining the resemblance.

Like many Americans, the English celebrate the holiday with a Christmas tree, gifts, and Christmas carols. Over the centuries the English developed a large stock of Christmas carols. Many of these songs, such as "O Come All Ye Faithful," "Joy to the World," and "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen," have also established themselves in the American carol repertoire. Caroling, a popular Christmas custom in England, keeps these songs in circulation. Another popular custom in both countries, sending Christmas cards, began in England in the nineteenth century. The English decorate their homes with greenery for the Christmas season. Old traditions promote holly, ivy, and mistletoe as the most appropriate plants for this purpose, but other green branches may also be used. After nightfall brilliant light displays illuminate the main avenues of many towns and cities (see also Ornaments).

Father Christmas

In England children expect Father Christmas to bring them their gifts. Children write letters to Father Christmas explaining what kind of Christmas gifts they would like to receive (see also Children's Letters). Instead of mailing them, they burn them in the fireplace, relying on magic to float their words up the chimney and across England to the ears of Father Christmas.

Christmas Eve

Christmas carols ring out all across England on December 24. For those who prefer to stay at home, British television and radio stations broadcast many musical performances. At King's College Chapel in Cambridge, lines form early for seats at the famous Ceremony of Lessons and Carols service.

Christmas Day

Children dash to the fireplace on Christmas morning to retrieve their now-full Christmas stockings. Many homes also keep a Christmas tree, underneath which family members will find another heap of gifts. Unwrapping these gifts is one of the highlights of Christmas Day. Other highlights include sitting down to a large, festive meal and listening to the Queen's speech. Each year British television broadcasts the Queen's Christmas greeting to her subjects. King George V began this Christmas tradition in 1932. Other popular Christmas Day activities include attending Christmas morning church services and playing parlor games. Indeed, Christmas game playing is a very old tradition in England.

Christmas dinner in England may feature roast goose, roast turkey, or roast beef. Potatoes, gravy, and vegetables usually accompany the main dish. Plum pudding, the traditional Christmas dessert, crowns the meal in many English households. Since the pudding contains a coin, and perhaps other good-luck tokens as well, diners must bite gently in order to avoid breaking their teeth. A kind of party favor known as a Christmas cracker adds a playful note to the holiday meal. Wassail, a traditional holiday punch, may follow the repast.

Boxing Day

The day after Christmas is also a holiday in England. It is called Boxing Day, although in the past it was known as St. Stephen's Day. Many families go to the theater to see a pantomime on this day. Fox hunting is another traditional Boxing Day activity. The English also enjoy other sporting events, such as soccer matches and car races, on this day. The wren hunt, a custom once practiced in England on St. Stephen's Day, still survives in Ireland.

Regional Customs

In past times people in some regions of England saluted their fruit trees with song and ale in honor of Christmas. This custom, known as wassailing the apple trees, still continues in a few places (see Wassailing the Fruit Trees). In the medieval era the well-to-do feasted on wild boar for Christmas. Today, an elaborate boar's head dinner survives at Oxford's Queen's College. An old Christmas Eve custom called ringing the Devil's knell, persists in the town of Dewsbury in Yorkshire. This practice sprang up around the folk belief that the Devil dies each year at the moment when Christ is born. The church bells still toll on Christmas Eve in Dewsbury, announcing the Devil's demise. On New Year's Eve many people in northern England welcome firstfooters. A firstfooter, the first person to cross one's threshold after the start of the new year, sets the household's luck for the coming year.

Lesser-Known Days and Customs

In pre-industrial England, numerous minor days of observance studded the Christmas season calendar. These included Stir-Up Sunday, St. Thomas's Day, St. Stephen's Day, Holy Innocents' Day, St. Distaff's Day, Twelfth Night, and Plough Monday. More important holidays, like Epiphany and Candlemas, were also celebrated. What's more, after 1752, when England adopted the Gregorian calendar reform, some people continued to honor the previous date for Christmas, giving rise to the observance of Old Christmas Day. Most of these minor holy days and holidays faded away during the nineteenth century, as the English calendar was reorganized around the industrial work week.

Though many of the customs associated with these days have faded as well, some weathered the transition. For instance, the town of Glastonbury still awaits the blooming of the Glastonbury thorn on or near Old Christmas Day.

Extinct Customs

Throughout their long history the English have adopted and invented many distinctive Christmas customs. They have also discarded a number of customs over the years. One such discarded custom, electing a Lord of Misrule to preside over Christmas festivities, fell out of favor in the seventeenth century. While the Lord of Misrule ruled over towns, schools, courts, and noble households, the boy bishop supervised the revelry taking place in church circles. The boy bishop did not outlast the Middle Ages, although this custom has been revived in a few churches. The boys who lived in the centuries that followed found another Christmas time sport: barring out the schoolmaster. If successful in keeping their teacher from entering the classroom in the days before Christmas, they won themselves a couple days of vacation from school.

Another old English Christmas custom, mumming, gave ordinary people license to disguise themselves in old clothes, mask their faces with burnt cork, and roam about the town engaging in horseplay. Around the time of the Renaissance, the wealthy developed their own version of this custom. They began to celebrate the Christmas season with masques, elaborate costumed balls that included dancing and perhaps a bit of playacting as well.

Although masques themselves began to die out as a form of Christmas entertainment in the late seventeenth century, the English continued to celebrate Twelfth Night with costume balls and playacting until the nineteenth century. During the nineteenth century many English families decorated their homes with a kissing bough for the Christmas season. Anyone passing beneath this spherical bunch of greenery could be claimed for a kiss. The kissing bough did not survive the transition to the twentieth century. Neither did the waits. These semi-official bands of musicians used to wander the streets during the Christmas season, singing for food, drink, and tips. They disbanded during the nineteenth century, when people began to view their activities less as a seasonal entertainment and more as an annoyance. (For more on extinct Christmas season entertainments, see Games; Ghosts.)

Further Reading

Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. McInnes, Celia. An English Christmas. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1986. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Patterson, Lillie. Christmas in Britain and Scandinavia. Champaign, Ill.: Garrard Publishing Company, 1970. Pimlott, J. A. R. The Englishman's Christmas. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1978. Ross, Corinne. Christmas in Britain. Chicago: World Book, 1978.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003