7 Modern British Christmas Traditions
We think about our Christmas traditions as stretching back into the mists of time, but most of them are surprisingly recent.
Yes, there are some ancient traditions, like burning a Yule log – not that many people bother with that any more. But most of our traditions that we think of as dating back centuries actually come from Victorian times; many of them directly attributable to Charles Dickens’ bestseller A Christmas Carol. Dickens didn’t just record the Christmas traditions he saw around him; he souped them up a little bit as well. The idea that Christmas Day was a uniquely special day that you should spend with family, for instance, was not commonplace before Dickens’ novel was published.
Beyond Dickens, Christmas trees arrived in Britain in the 1830s, and became a fixture when Prince Albert put one up in Windsor Castle in 1841. Crackers were invented in the late 1840s, and turkey only became the standard Christmas dinner in the late 19th century (though even then, they were still a luxury for most families). Christmas cards were similarly a Victorian invention. Of the essential ingredients of a traditional Christmas (at least those that aren’t explicitly about religious worship), only singing carols and hanging mistletoe date back more than a thousand years.
The Christmas traditions on this list are modern in the sense that they’ve all been part of a British Christmas for 25 years or less. Some might last the test of time; others already feel like they only have a few more years to run. But if you’re looking forward to a British Christmas this year, here are some of the rituals and traditions that you won’t have read about in the history books.
1. The John Lewis Christmas advert
It seems mad that an entire nation would count down the days until a department store releases an advert, waiting with baited breath for any hint of news about the music being featured, the storyline or the theme. But that’s exactly what happens in the UK every year ahead of the release of the John Lewis Christmas advert. The first notable ad was in 2007, and by the early 2010s, John Lewis advert-fever had firmly set in. In 2012, the song used in the advert became a Christmas number one.
John Lewis Christmas adverts follow a particular theme. They tend not to focus too much on John Lewis’ actual products – in 2013, the only gift shown in the advert was an old-fashioned alarm clock that John Lewis probably didn’t even sell – but instead to tell a story that’s heartwarming, perhaps tear-jerking, and that reflects the messages associated with Christmas. If John Lewis is doing well, then they will make lots of people cry.
One of the best parts of the release of the John Lewis Christmas advert is the continuing story of the most patient man on the internet – an American professor of computing named John Lewis, whose Twitter handle is @johnlewis, and who spends much of the autumn and winter fielding tweets that were intended for the department store (and occasionally ones intended for Congressman and civil rights leader @repjohnlewis as well). His calm, polite responses have almost become part of the Christmas tradition in their own right; they certainly embody the spirit of the season.
2. TV Christmas specials
What’s on the TV is a big part of British Christmas Day. Of the most watched TV programmes in the UK each year from 1981 onwards, a full nine of them took place between Christmas and New Year, and six of those were on Christmas Day itself. Competition between broadcasters to have the highest-rated programme on the day can be fierce.
A long-standing part of the British Christmas TV tradition are Christmas specials of the soaps, especially Coronation Street and Eastenders; Eastenders was the most-watched programme of the year on Christmas Day in 1986, and Coronation Street nearly managed the same feat in 1987 (it was beaten by the New Year’s Day episode of Eastenders). If British Christmas adverts are all about expressing the true spirit of Christmas and leaving everyone with a warm fuzzy glow (with a side order of selling something) then Christmas Day soap specials are the opposite. Christmas in soap-land is invariably a time of disaster, with characters frequently ending relationships, breaking out into fights, and sometimes even murdering each other. Apparently that’s exactly what British people want as family entertainment between finishing off the turkey and breaking out the Christmas pudding.
Slightly more wholesome is the Doctor Who Christmas special. The first one aired in 1965, and featured the main character – the Doctor – turning to the camera and wishing “a merry Christmas to all of you at home!” The next time the series had a Christmas special wasn’t until its revival in 2005, but from then on the science fiction show has become a Christmas fixture. It hasn’t broken the fourth wall again, but the events that take place are typically Christmas-themed, including things like Christmas trees going on the attack and menacing robot Santas.
It can of course be the case that the top-ranked programme on Christmas Day is something completely unexpected. In 2015, there was Eastenders, Doctor Who and Downton Abbey all battling it out to be number one – but on the day, the most watched programme proved to be the traditional Queen’s Speech, watched live by 7.2 million viewers.
3. Christmas number one
It’s not just the top-ranked TV show that’s hotly competitive in the UK – it’s also about which song is number one on Christmas Day, a theme that even appears as a plotline in Christmas romantic comedy Love Actually. Pre-2000, the Christmas number one was a mixture of standard Christmas songs and whatever was popular at the time (both the Beatles and the Spice Girls had Christmas number ones three years in a row, 33 years apart). But since then, the list of songs that have made the coveted number one slot has got stranger.
In 2000, Christmas number one was – bizarrely – the theme tune from the kids’ TV show Bob the Builder, “Can We Fix It?” Then from 2005, the successive winners of the X Factor started to get Christmas number one, boosted by the talent show’s massive audience. In 2008, the winner Alexandra Burke’s anodyne cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” led to a backlash by fans of the song, who frantically bought other versions of “Hallelujah” to try to beat Burke to the number one slot. They were a long way off beating Burke’s 576,000 sales, but managed to get Jeff Buckley’s cover to number two, and Leonard Cohen’s original to number 36 – all the more impressive given that “Hallelujah” had never made it to the top 40 before, regardless of who was singing it.
But by 2009, music fans were starting to get fed up of the X Factor claiming the top spot year after year, so set up a campaign to get arguably the most anti-X Factor song they could think of to number one instead: Rage Against the Machine’s expletive-filled protest song against institutional racism and police brutality, “Killing in the Name”. It sold half a million copies and was praised by the X Factor winner too. Since then, competition for Christmas number one has started to open up again a little more, with a single in support of the NHS, “A Bridge Over You”, reaching number one in 2015.
4. German Christmas markets
The idea of a market that happens around Christmas time is nothing new. But the idea of a specifically German Christmas market in the UK is one that has grown in the past 20 years or so. Manchester’s German Christmas market began in 1999 with 15 stalls – now it has 300 stalls and nine million visitors annually. The idea of a traditional British Christmas has long been inspired by a traditional German Christmas thanks to all the traditions that became popular after they had been imported by the German Prince Albert, following his marriage to Queen Victoria. It makes sense that German Christmas markets, though a relatively recent import, would feel consistent with our existing idea of what a proper Christmas should be. Supermarkets like Aldi and Lidl also helped pave the way by introducing British people to German Christmas food like stollen and lebkuchen as part of their general Christmas offering.
Whatever the reason, British people have now taken German Christmas markets thoroughly to heart. Every major city has got itself a Christmas market complete with wooden huts, cosy atmosphere and heaps of indulgent food and drink.
5. Christmas drinks and food from notable brands
Of course, it’s not just Germany that Britain gets its Christmas traditions from. Just as many, if not more, are imported across the Atlantic from the USA. Referring to Father Christmas as Santa Claus is an Americanism that came to the UK around 150 years ago, and is now firmly embedded in British culture. Newer traditions like the Elf on the Shelf have not yet become widely established in the UK, but probably will do in the next few years.
But one tradition that’s arrived relatively recently and is here to stay is the idea of brands producing specific Christmas food and drink. Of course, Britain has always had Christmas food and drinks, it’s just that previously it was either generic (like mince pies) or a brand that was produced year-round, just strongly associated with Christmas (like Quality Street). What’s new is the brands like chocolate manufacturers or Starbucks producing items that only come out at Christmas, such as the famous pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks, and imitations at just about every other coffee shop you could care to mention. Mars had great success with Malteaster Bunnies at Easter, and have now adapted that to Merryteaser Reindeer at Christmas. This delicious tradition looks set to stay.
6. A season of sales
Where the USA has Black Friday, the UK has the Boxing Day sales. The day after Christmas, when shops reopen, has in recent years become a massive shopping holiday as all the Christmas stock gets discounted. Millions of shoppers go out for the sales; it’s the most lucrative day of the year for some retailers. While Boxing Day has been a day of sales for a while, it’s in the past ten or fifteen years that the sales have become such a major feature that they now stretch out for longer, with some shops starting discounts on Christmas Eve, and others carrying out with discounts until the New Year.
Like Black Friday sales, Boxing Day sales have become an event in their own right: shops will open early, and the media will cover the worst excesses of the sales as well. Visiting the Boxing Day sales has even been recommended as a tourist activity for visitors to Britain. But the sales aren’t the sole focus of Boxing Day. For the rest of the day, which it’s normal to have off work, Brits go back to watching Christmas specials on TV and finishing off the leftover turkey.
7. The alternative Christmas message
The Royal Christmas Message has been a tradition since King George V first made a radio broadcast on Christmas Day in 1932. From 1957, the message moved from radio to TV, but otherwise the tradition remains largely unchanged: the monarch reflects on the year gone by, both in relation to the fate of the world and their own personal experiences, such as the birth of children or grandchildren, expresses hope for the year to come, and speaks briefly about the Christian significance of Christmas.
But since 1993, Channel 4 has broadcast an alternative Christmas message. Initially, the messages were intended to be subversive and sometimes mocking of the Royal Christmas Message, but the comic messages have become fewer and now the message is more typically serious. In 2016, the message was given by Brendan Cox, widower of murdered MP Jo Cox, and in 2015, it was Abdullah Kurdi, the father of the toddler Alan Kurdi, who tragically drowned as the family fled Syria that year. The alternative Christmas message has increasingly become a point of reflection in the middle of an otherwise exciting day.
Images: london eye with lights; victorian carollers; john lewis on oxford street; call the midwife still; grace chatto from clean bandit; german christmas market; shop window with sale signs; brendan cox