10 British Winter Traditions
At the heart of a British winter is, of course, Christmas. Decorations, wrapping paper and gift ideas start appearing in shops from September, and Christmas music can start playing as early as November.
But though a traditional British Christmas is central to the season, it’s not the only winter tradition celebrated in the UK. In this article, we take a look at the wide variety of traditions and celebrations taking place over winter.
If you’re joining us at our International Study Centre, you might even have the opportunity to experience some of them for yourself.
Halloween in the UK is a fascinating mixture of different traditions. Much of how Halloween is now celebrated in Britain has been imported from the USA. That includes carving pumpkins; in Britain, the traditional vegetable that was carved was a turnip, which is significantly more challenging! Trick-or-treating has also been adopted wholesale from US traditions.
But there are also traditional British Halloween celebrations, drawing on the Celtic tradition of Samhain, which haven’t crossed the Atlantic. One such tradition is apple-bobbing, a vital part of any British Halloween party, where apples are floated in a bucket of water and players have to catch one with their teeth. Ghost stories are also popular on Halloween. Some modern pagans also draw on older Halloween traditions, celebrating by walking or dancing between two bonfires, as a symbol of purification.
In general, though, a British Halloween is an optional celebration: some people will decorate their homes, hold parties and give out chocolate to trick-or-treaters, while others will make sure to be out that night – or just not answer the door. Trick-or-treating in the UK focuses much more heavily on treats than tricks, and trick-or-treaters mostly call only on houses where the resident has indicated an interest, for instance by putting a Jack-o’-lantern outside.
2. Bonfire Night
Part of the reason that British people are less interested in Halloween than Americans is because Bonfire Night follows so fast on its heels. This peculiarly British celebration commemorates the 5th November 1605, when a group of Catholics unsuccessfully attempted the ‘Gunpowder Plot’ – a plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament with the king, James I, inside. Guy Fawkes became the most famous of them, so Bonfire Night is also called Guy Fawkes Night. The plot was discovered, the plotters executed, and James I instituted an annual celebration that his life had been spared. Fireworks were set off and bonfires lit in celebration – sometimes with effigies of Fawkes and the other plotters burned on them.
Throughout much of the 400 years for which it’s been celebrated, Bonfire Night has verged on the riotous, but for the past 100 years it’s been a calmer, usually family-friendly celebration with big public bonfires and fireworks displays. The tradition of burning effigies of Guy Fawkes, which survived into the 20th century, has now mostly died out. Modern bonfires seldom feature effigies at all, and where they do, the effigy is more likely to be of a disliked celebrity or political leader.
3. Christmas crackers
Invented in the mid-19th century, crackers are a vital part of Christmas celebrations in the UK. The concept is simple: a decorated cardboard tube which can be pulled in half to make a “snap!” sound. Inside, there’s typically a joke, a paper hat, and some kind of small present; millions of people in the UK only have screwdrivers small enough to adjust their glasses courtesy of Christmas crackers. The “snap” comes from a card strip that produces the sound when it’s pulled apart, and because they have the potential to be flammable, they often can’t be brought on planes. Perhaps that’s why the tradition of Christmas crackers, though very popular in countries such as the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, hasn’t really caught on anywhere else.
That said, the days of the Christmas cracker might be numbered as eco-conscious buyers increasingly reject the plastic toys that are likely to go in the bin on Boxing Day. Expect to see sales of plastic-free and recyclable crackers hit an all-time high this Christmas.
4. Nativity plays
Plays recounting Biblical stories have been part of Christian culture in the UK since medieval times, when what were called mystery plays were performed in major cities at any significant religious occasion. These plays were banned in the 16th century as part of the Reformation, but as government control of religious worship relaxed, practices such as religious plays returned. That said, until 1968 a play could technically be banned for including characters from the Bible, no matter how respectfully the play was intended.
It’s hard to imagine now that nativity plays would be prohibited for potential disrespect towards the Christian faith. Modern nativity plays are typically put on by primary schools, with intense competition for who gets the coveted top billing as the Angel Gabriel or the Virgin Mary. A little over 35% of British primary schools are technically Church of England or Catholic schools, though for many of these their religious character is very light-touch, expressed only in activities such as saying grace at lunchtime, and putting on nativity plays. As the UK becomes more religiously diverse, nativity plays are becoming less popular. But there’s still a significant portion of the country that associates the coming of Christmas with making halos out of tinfoil and tinsel, or trying to approximate the costume of a Middle Eastern shepherd two millennia ago.
A very different sort of Christmas play is the pantomime. Pantomimes can be performed all year round, but they’re particularly associated with Christmas and the New Year. A pantomime is a musical comedy, usually of a well-known story (think of any fairytale adapted by Disney, and you’ll have a good range of pantomime stories), with lots of audience participation, slapstick humour, cross-dressing (both men dressed as women and women dressed as men) and a mix of child-friendly and adult humour, often referencing current affairs.
One aspect of the pantomime tradition is that pantomimes are supposed to be fun, not high-quality, so a pantomime can be anything from a primary school’s alternative to a nativity play (indeed, many primary schools do both), through to a fundraiser for a local theatre group, up to a West End production featuring celebrities. Pantomime is found where there are large numbers of British immigrants, and seldom anywhere else; the joy of traditions like hissing the villain, joining in with the songs and yelling “he’s behind you!” when the hero or heroine appears to be in danger probably requires growing up with them.
6. The Queen’s Christmas Message
Since 1932, it’s been traditional for the monarch of the United Kingdom (then George V; now Elizabeth II) to deliver a message to their subjects at Christmas. Initially this was broadcast on the radio, and now it goes out on TV and online as well. The message is short – usually only around 10 minutes – and millions of people reliably tune in every year.
The Queen is studiously apolitical; some people thought that she came too close to expressing a political opinion when she said during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, “I hope people will think very carefully about the future”, which must seem remarkably anodyne to anyone not familiar with British political conventions. So the Queen’s Christmas Message is an unusual departure in that she dictates the themes she speaks on, and writes much of the message herself. That makes it a rare insight into the mind of a monarch who, after more than 65 years on the throne, is arguably more popular than ever. She typically speaks on themes such as family, peace, and hope for the future.
7. Boxing Day
The day after Christmas – also a bank holiday – is nearly as celebrated in the UK as Christmas itself. It’s a day for eating up leftover turkey, stuffing, cake and chocolate, and continuing to relax with family. Boxing Day also has its own associated traditions. One is Boxing Day sales, where shops sell leftover Christmas stock at significant discounts. Like Black Friday, Boxing Day sales can start very early in the morning, and there are often newspaper headlines about shoppers who came to blows in the process.
A very different way of celebrating Boxing Day is with a Boxing Day swim. These happen across the country, often in fancy dress and with the aim of raising money for charity. Swimmers gather at well-known points and go for a dip in the sea – a chilly experience in the UK in winter! Unlike in other countries with a tradition of winter swimming, Britain doesn’t have many saunas to warm up in, so the most the swimmers can hope for is relatives with towels waiting for them when they get out again.
8. Winter food
There are plenty of traditional foods that are only really eaten in the UK over the festive season. There are the roasts – traditionally turkey or goose, or nut roast in vegetarian households – but arguably more distinctively Christmassy are the accompaniments. Sides such as pigs in blankets (chipolatas wrapped in bacon), roasted chestnuts or bread sauce are very seldom eaten outside of the festive season.
Just as important as the savoury course, though, are the assorted Christmas sweet dishes, such as Christmas cake (a heavy fruit cake with royal icing), Christmas pudding (a fruit pudding soaked in brandy, and set alight before serving) and mince pies, none of which are eaten past early January. There are other traditional foods like trifle that aren’t especially associated with Christmas, but that are also mostly dying out except at times like Christmas when people reach for old-fashioned recipes, or recreate family favourites.
The tradition of wassailing has waned, but many people are familiar with the concept from Christmas songs such as “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” which is all about the practice. The song is about a group of singers who come to the door to wish someone merry Christmas, and then demand “pudding and a cup of good cheer”. What’s more, they insist that “we won’t go until we’ve got some”, which is wassailing in a nutshell: going from door-to-door, singing in celebration, and demanding food and drink from each of the households.
In medieval times, it was the privilege of the poor to go to the doors of the rich, sometimes becoming quite rowdy in the process. More recently, where wassailing is still practised, it’s done in a spirit of neighbourliness and spreading festive cheer. But for the most part, wassailing has been replaced by carol singing, which can still involve going door-to-door and singing, but usually with the aim of collecting money for charity, rather than the expectation of being served cake or drink.
10. Burns Night
Rounding off the winter festivities is Burns Night on 25 January. This is a Scottish celebration (though celebrated by people with Scottish ancestry or connections throughout Britain) celebrating the life and works of Scots poet Robbie Burns, whose birthday was the 25th. The tradition began just five years after Burns’ death, with friends of his holding a supper in his memory. The tradition now involves Scottish food and music – including live bagpipes for those doing it properly – and recitations from Burns’ work.
A full traditional Burns supper involves a piper welcoming guests, and when the haggis is served (a vital part of any Burns supper – there are vegetarian haggises on the market now) this should also be to the accompaniment of bagpipes. Before anyone gets to eat the haggis, the host performs Burns’ Address to a Haggis. After the meal, there are more speeches and recitations, and at the end, the guests sing Auld Lang Syne, which is also traditional at New Year in the UK. The full affair can stretch to several hours and multiple courses, but many people in Scotland will commemorate the evening with selected portions of the tradition, such as having haggis, neeps and tatties (that’s haggis, turnips and potatoes) for their dinner.
If it all sounds very serious to hold a supper in honour of a national poet, it’s worth noting that many Burns Night traditions, like many other British winter traditions, are carried out slightly tongue-in-cheek, and with a keen sense of fun.