Countdown to Christmas: A Guide to Advent in Britain

Advent in the UK is about so much more than just the calendar.

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We’re less enthusiastic about other holidays. Valentine’s Day consists of chocolate and cynicism; Easter of semi-frozen or semi-melted chocolate eggs depending on how early or late in the year it happens to fall. St George’s Day scarcely gets a mention (and no bank holiday) and St David’s Day and St Andrew’s Day don’t get much more attention. There’s a bit of enthusiasm for Hallowe’en, and then again for Bonfire Night. Other international holidays, like the carnival season, aren’t marked at all.
But we do make up for that with Christmas. An annual complaint is that the start of Christmas gets earlier every year (Christmas menus might appear in pubs as early as September; councils might start stringing lights up from October) but nothing really gets going until November at the earliest, and that hasn’t changed much. After all, Love, Actually, one of Britain’s finest Christmas films, starts with scenes of present-buying, Christmas trees and ice-skating with the caption ‘5 Weeks Before Christmas’ – i.e. November – and that was released more than a decade ago. Dragging Christmas out for as long as is reasonably possible is arguably a British Christmas tradition in its own right – as is complaining about it.
So what are the components of the run-up to a great British Christmas? Here’s our list.

1. Advent calendars

A modern take on the traditional advert calendar.

Technically, Advent starts four Sundays before Christmas Day. But scarcely anyone in the UK thinks about it on those terms, because Advent is defined first and foremost by advent calendars, and they start on the 1st of December.
The classic advent calendar has 24 or 25 windows that you prise open to reveal a small chocolate behind each one – sometimes a larger one for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, or a couple of miscellaneous days along the way. The chocolate will be in a Christmassy shape, whether that’s a present, a reindeer, or something a bit more obscure like a candy cane (which doesn’t normally lend itself well to the square shape of the chocolates).
Unpopular parents who are more cautious about feeding their children chocolate (especially first thing in the morning, which is when advent calendars are usually opened) might choose an advent calendar with images behind each window, or even parts of the Christmas story. And some might go for something a little fancier, like a calendar with a small toy behind each window instead of chocolate. Some families even have reusable advent calendars in felt or wood, that they can fill with sweets and other treats themselves. But for most people, slowly counting down chocolates and struggling with the temptation to open the next day’s window is the key childhood memory of the run-up to Christmas.

2. Christmas lights

Any city, town or even decent-sized village in the UK has its own set of Christmas lights. From late November onwards, trees and lampposts are festooned with varyingly tasteful decorations, which might be straightforward fairy lights in an accommodating tree or a fully animated sleigh pulled by reindeer with flashing red noses, depending on the taste and budget of the local council. In some parts of the country, the less obviously Christmassy of the lights (usually the ones with neutral symbols like candles, and not Christmas trees, presents and jolly Santas) are reused several times throughout the year for other celebrations like Diwali and Eid, to the extent that in some places they’re never even taken down, just switched on and off at different times of year.
But the switching-on is the important bit. That’s an occasion for a celebration in its own right. Usually a local celebrity (last year, Susan Boyle in Edinburgh, Kylie Minogue in London and Jason Manford in Manchester) will do the honours and flick the switch to turn on the lights, with a crowd gathered and counting down. There might be stalls from local businesses, performances from street artists and a choir or two as well.

3. Christmas adverts

There’s an urban myth that Coca-Cola’s Christmas adverts were the origin of Father Christmas’s red clothes, but the tradition actually predates this.

Do we enthuse about Christmas adverts because they’re well-crafted artworks that allow us to celebrate a shared experience, or because we’ve been brainwashed by corporate strategies that encourage us to deal with our feelings by buying things? Hundreds of articles have been written on that subject since this year’s John Lewis advert was released a couple of weeks ago, and we’re not going to add to them here.
Whether it’s a positive trend or not, the launch of the big Christmas adverts – especially John Lewis’ – is an event now, leading to discussion about who’s seen it yet, whether it’s as good as last year’s and – yes – whether or not it made you cry. In 2014, it was about a boy and his toy penguin, last year, it was about a lonely old man, living on the Moon, produced in part to support Age UK’s campaign to help elderly people who are lonely on Christmas Day. This year’s advert features Buster the Boxer dog, enviously watching woodland creatures getting the first bounce on his owners’ brand-new Christmas trampoline (don’t worry, he gets his turn). Much as they’re intended to sell products – and they’re very good at doing it – the background of all of these adverts is a story about what Christmas means to us culturally, and they have to get the tone – of companionship, caring and love – just right in order to succeed.

4. Nativity plays

It’s pretty clear from numbers one to three in this list that Christmas in the UK only has the faintest of religious trimmings. Yes, carols will be sung when the Christmas lights are switched on, but someone will probably choose ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ because it’s lovely to sing, ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’ because they like angels or ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ because of a fondness for the poetry of Christina Rossetti. Spiritual meaning is usually pretty low on the list of considerations, and when it comes to something like the later verses of ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ or ‘Ding Dong Merrily On High’, most of the people singing it don’t have much idea of what’s going on.
The exception to this is the nativity play. This is where primary-school children act out the story of the Nativity, usually with a doll performing the role of Jesus and the number of angels who appeared to Mary varying depending on the number of children in the class. Large primary schools will stretch to have multiple angels, multiple narrators and speaking parts for the ox, the ass, and several of the shepherds’ sheep. So advent in primary schools is spent on sticking together halos and trying to decide on an appropriate costume for a first-century innkeeper – an excellent part for an assertive child.

5. Pantomimes

Pantomimes are usually colourful and lively.

The other side of pre-Christmas theatre – well, “theatre” – is the pantomime. This is a great British tradition that is sometimes seen at other times of year, but the run-up to Christmas is where it reaches its peak.
A pantomime is a play, usually telling a classic story such as a fairytale, with audience participation, slapstick comedy and lots and lots of crossdressing. Sometimes scholars of Shakespeare will compare 17th-century audiences to those today, and claim that while audiences of the past were rowdy and would heckle the actors and try to get involved in the play, audiences nowadays are well-behaved and clap when they’re supposed to. This isn’t quite true. It’s just that bad behaviour is confined to – and expected at – the pantomime. There are usually jokes for kids with actors falling over alongside more knowing jokes – often based on politics – for their parents. And then there’s the audience participation, where the audience will be told to clap, or shout, or sing at certain times, and there will always be a moment when the hero fails to notice the villain sneaking up on them, and the audience has to shout, as loudly as possible, “he’s behind you!”

6. Carol singing

As mentioned above, carols exist in an odd space in British Christmas celebrations. There are plenty of people who would never think of setting foot in a church all year round who are delighted to show up to a carol service and warble along. City shopping streets are lined with woolly-hatted choirs singing for charities. Often non-religious Christmas songs, like ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ or ‘White Christmas’ are sung alongside ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ and ‘Silent Night’. Add this to the odd mix of Christian and pagan symbolism in something like ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ and you end up with a confused set of cultural markers indeed.
But it also makes a kind of sense. A British Christmas is all about family and community, and carols are a shared tradition. Almost everyone knows the words to the most popular carols, whether they attend church every Sunday or would struggle to remember the second half of the Lord’s Prayer. Wendy Cope’s poem ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ looks at her father’s thoughts on that carol – his complaint that it should be ‘denizens’, not ‘citizens’ of heaven above, as Heaven is not a city – encapsulates the deep significance that carols have for us. Britain doesn’t have much in the way of traditional songs for other times of year, but we make up for it with carols.

7. Christmas trees

Decorating the tree can be one of the best parts of advent.

There are few Christmas-related questions quite as fraught as when to put up the Christmas tree. The town’s lights might have been on for a week or two and ‘Rocking Around the Christmas Tree’ playing enthusiastically through the speakers of the local corner shop, but is that soon enough? Get a tree too soon and by Christmas there’ll be bare twigs surrounded by a carpet of spiky needles. Get it too late and you’ll be stuck with the stunted runt of a tree that no one else wanted from the petrol station.
Even if you happen to solve this problem by living somewhere with plentiful Christmas tree or an artificial one that won’t transform your living room into a spiky obstacle course, the issue of when to put it up remains. No one wants to be the first person in the street to put it up, but then it’s grim to walk through a spectacle of Christmas cheer whenever you leave the house and come back home to Scrooge central. And the longer you have it up, the longer you have to enjoy a house delicately scented by pine and feeling like it’s the holidays.
Putting up the Christmas tree is a ritual, too. There’s the argument between tasteful minimalism and so thoroughly covering the tree in tinsel, baubles, small chocolates wrapped in tinfoil, candy canes and whatever else came to hand that no hint of green remains visible. Another discussion is whether Christmas presents should be placed under the tree whenever the giver has finished wrapping them, so they accumulate slowly throughout the month, or hidden in a cupboard to be put there on Christmas Eve at midnight by whoever drew the short straw on dressing up as Father Christmas that year. Inevitably, once both issues have been resolved, the family pet will be attracted by a bauble, try to kill it, and the whole lot will tumble over and need reconstructing.
It’s said that Britain doesn’t have much by the way of Advent traditions. While it’s true that we have fewer formal Advent traditions than a lot of European countries – we don’t do anything for St Nicholas Day, for instance – hopefully this list has shown that there are in fact a whole lot of dearly held traditions for Advent in the UK, even if we don’t always recognise them as such. After all, if you need to make a big song and dance about recognising a tradition in order for it to continue, it’s probably not that strong a tradition in the first place.
If you celebrate Christmas, what do you do for Advent? Let us know in the comments!

Image credits: banner; advent calendar; advert; pantomime; decorating the tree.