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What Does A Traditional British Christmas Look Like?

Published by: Chef Matty Riedel • Updated: January 23, 2024

The traditional British Christmas includes Nativity plays, carols, distinctive lights and decorations, Christmas markets, opening presents, royal broadcasts from the monarch and Boxing Day sales. Traditional food includes roast turkey, crackers, mulled wine, mince pies, plum pudding and cake.

What Does The Traditional British Christmas Look Like?

British Christmas is full of celebration, tradition, family, love and delicious food. It tends to be a bit different from how other regions of the world celebrate it due to the presence of some region-specific customs.

You will be able to experience several things during a British Christmas, some of which you will be able to learn about below. Take a look!

Holidays And Family Time

Christmas in the UK surrounds itself with holidays, especially since the new year is also so close. Schools, universities, and many workplaces take breaks and have holidays, with most people travelling to their families to spend time at home.

Families tend to gather in one place and spend their time setting up the decorations, and buying presents for each other. The day of Christmas usually also includes a larger gathering with traditional meals and feasts.

Many families also tend to have some of their own customs and traditions that they tend to follow every time this holiday comes around.

These holidays usually last until the first week of January.

Plays And Carols

Traditional carol singing is a major event and occurrence in churches and on the streets. Choirs and groups usually practice long and begin singing their rehearsed songs well before Christmas, resulting in an atmosphere brimming with anticipation and joy.

Carol services are also common all over the country, with the most popular one being A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, performed and broadcasted on television by King’s College, London.

Nativity plays are also popular in theatres, churches, and streets. Many neighbourhoods also tend to host these. Pantomimes are also a traditional custom usually performed within families or on a larger scale.

Lit-Up Streets

A gorgeous display of lights on the streets is what awaits you here during Christmas time. One of my favourite memories of this time is simply walking the streets a week or two before Christmas and participating in the festivities and ambience.

outdoor christmas tree lights and decorations

All towns and cities tend to have such special lit-up streets. Usually, these lights are installed at the beginning of November. They are also officially switched on around this time, resulting in large groups of people gathering at specific locations to witness this beautiful event and mark the onset of the holiday season.

Some of the most popular light decorations take place on Oxford Street in London, with Regent Street also displaying breathtaking lights.

Christmas Markets

In England and the rest of the UK, Christmas markets are the talk of the town and often begin as early as November in some places. These markets tend to include Christmas lights and decorations, stalls for food, performances, rides, events and lots more.

Most of these take place in the same area every year and are usually out in the open, with most of them requiring reservations and bookings to enter the market. Some popular markets include Winter Wonderland, Southbank Winter Festival, Bath Christmas Market and many others.

Many families and friends usually visit these markets where they live to participate in the amusement.

Decorating Trees

Apart from public decoration, families decorate their homes to celebrate Christmas. This is also common to the rest of the world, with housefronts seeing strings of fairy lights hanging throughout the street. Even if you stroll down a street, then you will be able to enjoy the sight immensely.

Inside people’s homes, families usually decide on and bring home a Christmas tree and either make or buy decorations for it. We usually decide on a date and decorate the tree, usually when the whole family comes home for the holidays.

One of the most popular and lavish Christmas trees here is the tree set up on Trafalgar Square.

Christmas Meals

Christmas meals are a lavish occasion on the day of Christmas, traditionally at lunchtime, although some families also prefer to carry this out for dinner. These days, the Christmas roast is just as likely to be cooked in your favourite air fryer as in your trusty oven.

christmas meal consisting of bread, meat and vegetables and puddings

The meals feature some mouth-watering staples. In general, too, Christmas time brings with it some of the following items.

Roast Turkey

Roast turkey is the most popular dish prepared and eaten at lunchtime on Christmas. Hours are sometimes spent preparing this dish since it is the meal’s highlight. It includes roast turkey with stuffing and accompanying vegetables, with potatoes being a staple.

Cranberry sauce or reduced stocks or gravies are popularly served with these. Wine also tends to accompany this meal. Depending on the household, other additions are also made to this meal.

For the vegans and vegetarians amongst us, a delicious nut loaf is the go (try this delicious recipe)

Crackers

Christmas crackers are not foods or drinks but are crucial to the traditional British Christmas meal. These are table decorations laid out near each person’s dish. Before the meal, two people have to pull each end of the cracker to produce a popping sound that reveals a small gift.

Mince Pies

No British Christmas is complete without mince pies. These small pies are sweet in taste and flavour and include a pastry on the outside and mincemeat filling on the inside. This filling is usually made from fruit and spices, sometimes with alcohol and suet.

9 mince pies (delicious) in a baking tray - 3 are missing (who ate the mince pies?)

Mulled Wine

Mulled wine is a spiced alcoholic beverage commonly served before and during Christmas. This traditional Christmas drink includes a mixture of red wine, spices and occasionally some fruits and is usually served hot.

Plum Pudding

Plum pudding is served as the main Christmas pudding, usually eaten as a dessert right after the main meal. It includes a pudding made from dried fruit and other binding ingredients. This is all topped with yummy custard, which you can make yourself using this recipe.

Fun fact: it does not generally contain any plums.

Tea And Christmas Cake

Teatime takes place in the evening and includes tea and a traditional cake made from fruit. This is usually undertaken around 5 PM, although many families forgo it due to the satisfying and filling meal they have for lunch.

Presents

Everyone loves Christmas presents in the UK. Children usually hang up their stockings on the edge of their beds here instead of using fireplaces to carry this out. Of course, variations are natural depending on the customs of individual families.

presents wrapped in colourful paper

Apart from these presents hidden in the stockings, the main or bigger presents are usually kept under the Christmas tree, with families waking up fairly early on the day of Christmas to sit together and open these presents.

People usually begin their shopping spree for Christmas presents as early as November to get them ready for the holidays.

Royal Broadcast

A unique feature of the traditional British Christmas is the Royal Christmas Message that the royal family usually broadcasts at 3 PM on Christmas Day. Those interested in this broadcast typically make it a point to gather in front of the radio or television to listen to this message.

This message usually includes greetings from the monarch and some key highlights of the year. Some other thoughts and reflections are also included here.

This kind of message was first broadcast in 1932 by King George V and has since become a part of the fabric of Christmas here.

Boxing Day

Boxing Day is another quintessential British experience that takes place on the day after Christmas, that is, on December 26. Traditionally and in historic times, this day was an important occasion for giving gifts to the poor. However, its evolution has now made it a significant day for shopping.

This day sees major sales, offers and discounts from brands nationwide, resulting in flocks of people visiting such shops and malls to buy some belongings and presents.

This day is also popular for sporting events wherein families gather to watch a sport, especially football.


FAQs

Do Brits Say Merry Christmas?

Yes “Merry Christmas” is used commonly depending in Britain unlike America where people are scared witless about offending anyone!!

What Do People Do On Christmas Eve?

Usually, people tend to attend midnight mass in their church to welcome the holiday. This church service either starts at midnight or a couple of hours before midnight and includes different traditions depending on the sect or church to which people belong.

Christmas Eve also includes finishing the decorations and having family feasts.


The Bottom Line

The traditional British Christmas is a lovely sight to behold, with decorations and festivities starting well in advance and lighting up the streets. The gorgeous lights and plays, TV shows, feasts, markets, carols and the general excitement of the holidays make this time worth experiencing and enjoying.

Chef and Restaurant Owner Matty Riedel
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