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Christmas celebrations in the UK
Christmas shopping
  Christmas trees
  Christmas decorations
  Christmas church services and carols
  Christmas food and drink
  Christmas crackers
  Christmas presents
  Twelfth Night


This page gives a brief introduction to some of the Christmas traditions in the UK.

The English Christmas
Publisher: Pitkin Guides
Date: August 2001

The Traditions of Christmas
Author: Victoria Magazine
Publisher: Sterling Publishing
Date: October 2004

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The first most obvious sign of Christmas comes in late October or early November, when shops put up Christmas decorations. Christmas lights are used to decorate some of the main shopping streets, artificial Christmas trees are going up in living rooms, and there are often special ceremonies when these are turned on (see: Ideas/Album/ChristmasLights and Ideas/Events/November).

British people normally buy Christmas presents for other members of their own family and to their partner if they have one. Some people also give presents to some of their friends (you may want to ask before you do this). Presents are normally covered with colourful wrapping paper. If you are going to spend Christmas Day with somebody else's family in the UK, you may want to take some small gifts for each member of that family (the family will probably buy some presents for you) - if you are not clear about what is best, ask your host. If you are sending a present by post (or if you are ordering it online), you should do this at least a couple of weeks before Christmas Day. For some gift ideas, see: Ideas/Gifts/Christmas.

Most British people also give Christmas cards to their friends. If you need to send cards by post to an address in the UK, post them at least one week before Christmas Day (it is best to send them in the first half of December). It is helpful if you write your name and address clearly on the card, so that the person who is receiving it is clear about who sent it (sending cards is a good way to keep in touch with someone). It is becoming increasingly popular to send electronic greetings cards (for details of how to do this, see: Life/Computer/Guide).

If you receive a present or Christmas card from someone, you should normally give one back to that person. The value of the present is not important: just try to choose something that the person will like. If you are a student, people will understand that you may not have much money to spend!

Christmas lights in Bond Street, London

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Advent is a religious celebration of the time leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ. Advent wreathes are made and placed on special candlesticks in churches (see picture below). The candlestick holds five candles: four red ones around the outside, and one white candle in the middle. On Advent Sunday (four Sundays before Christmas Day, at the end of November or early December), one of the red candles is lit. On each of the next three Sundays, one more of the red candles is lit. During services on Christmas Day, the white candle in the middle is lit (this is known as the Christ Candle).

An advent calendar contains 24 doors, one of which is opened on each day from 1st December until 24th December (Christmas Eve). Behind each door is a picture (some calendars have chocolates or other presents). Advent calendars are usually bought for children. This tradition started in Germany. For an example of an advent calendar, see:

Advent wreath

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In the UK, many people like to put up a Christmas tree in their homes (including many non-Christians). These may be either real trees (sold in garden centres) or artificial ones (sold in department stores). Electric lights are often used, and other decorations are hung on the branches. It is traditional to put a star or an angel at the top of the tree (these represent the story of the birth of Christ).

Trees are also put up in churches and other public places. One of the most famous is the Norwegian Christmas tree which is put up each year in Trafalgar Square in London (for details of the history behind this tradition, see: Ideas/Events/December).

Presents are often kept
under the tree

Christmas tree outside
St Paul's Cathedral

Red, gold and silver are
popular colours for decorations

The tradition of putting up a Christmas tree and decorating it (a German custom) was introduced into Britain by George III's wife Queen Charlotte. The custom became firmly established during the reign of Queen Victoria. After her husband (Prince Albert) died in 1861, Queen Victoria spent Christmas each year at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight - special tours between mid-November and the end of December give visitors the chance to find out how she celebrated Christmas there (these tours must be pre-booked - see: Ideas/Events/November or Ideas/Events/December for details).

Christmas tree at Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight

Decorations on the tree

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In December many people decorate their homes. They may buy holly, mistletoe, flowers or wreathes from a florist's or market stall, and put these up either inside the house or outside the entrance. Red, green and gold are the most common colours used for decorations.



A Christmas wreath


People may blow up balloons and put up other decorations such as paper chains. Christmas cards are put up (sometimes they are fastened to long pieces of string and hung up on the walls).

Blowing up balloons


Christmas cards are displayed

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Carols are songs about Christmas which are sung at this time of year. Some of the most popular Christmas carols include:
O come all ye faithful
Once in royal David's city
Silent night
O little town of Bethlehem
In the bleak mid-winter

Carol singers sometimes perform in public places, raising money for charities. Carol services are held in churches (non-Christians are welcome to attend if they wish). One of the most famous carol services in the UK is "A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols" at King's College Chapel in Cambridge: this takes place every year on Christmas Eve and is broadcast on the radio and television.

Carols from King's (CD)
Performer: The Choir of King's College Cambridge
Label: Decca
Date: November 2002

The Christmas Album (CD)
Performer: Aled Jones
Label: UCJ
Date: November 2004

Many people like to go to a church service at Christmas, even if they do not go to church at other times of the year. One popular service is the Midnight Eucharist on Christmas Eve: this normally starts at about 11:30pm and lasts about an hour (so it is Christmas Day at the end of the service). There are also services during the daytime on Christmas Day. Some church services involve taking communion: Christians who have been confirmed queue up, then kneel in front of the altar and are given a wafer (representing the body of Christ) and some red wine (representing the blood of Christ). Non-Christians can queue up in front of the altar but should not take the wafer and wine (if you keep your hands by your sides you will receive a blessing instead).

Church entrance

Christmas carol singing

King's College Chapel

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Delia Smith's Christmas
Author: Delia Smith
Publisher: BBC Consumer Publishing (Books)
Date: September 1994

Countdown to Christmas
Editor: Mary Cadogan
Publisher: BBC Consumer Publishing (Books)
Date: September 2002

In Britain, a traditional Christmas cake is a rich fruit cake topped with mazipan and covered with white icing sugar. This is eaten at tea-time (in the late afternoon) on any day shortly before or after Christmas. For instructions about how to make such a cake, see: Britain/Food/Cooking/ChristmasCake.

Christmas cake

Mince pies

Mulled wine

A typical Christmas meal is shown below. Roast turkey is the most common meat, but other birds such as chicken or goose are alternatives. Stuffing, roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts or other vegetables and gravy are eaten with the meat. For information about cooking a typical roast, see: Britain/Food/Cooking/Roast.

A Christmas pudding is a traditional pudding. Brandy is sometimes pourred on top and set alight. Rum butter (or rum sauce) and ice cream may be served with the pudding. A common alternative pudding is trifle (to see how to make this, see: Britain/Food/Cooking/Trifle).

A typical Christmas meal

Carving the turkey

Christmas pudding

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It is common to pull a Christmas cracker before starting a Christmas meal. You ask a person next to you to pull one end, while you pull the other. The person who ends up holding the middle part wins the toy or other small gift which is inside. There is a paper hat to wear during the meal (if you want). Finally, there is a piece of paper with a joke written on it - you read out the question first and see if anyone can think of the answer, and then read out the answer. Don't worry if you can't understand the joke!

A Christmas cracker

Pulling a cracker

Paper hats

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As all British children know, if they have been good then Father Christmas will come to their house during the night of Christmas Eve and will bring presents for them. Children sometimes write a letter to Father Christmas (sometimes called Santa Claus, or just Santa), helped by their parents, asking for the things they would like to get. He flies through the sky on a sleigh pulled by reindeer, the most famous of which is called Rudolph (who has a red nose). Traditionally, Santa entered houses by coming down the chimney. Children hang a long sock or stocking outside their bedrooms, and when they wake up they usually find that Santa has filled it with small presents.

Father Christmas and his little helpers ...

... come and puts presents in stockings

Christmas presents should normally be opened on Christmas Day - they are often kept underneath the Christmas tree until this time (to avoid confusion they should be marked with the names of the giver and receiver). The time for opening presents is not fixed, but most families choose to do this in the late morning or after lunch. Presents are taken from under the tree, handed out to the right people and then opened. You should thank the person who gave you a present if he/she is there - if not, you should send a thank you letter soon afterwards.

Presents are put under the tree ...

... handed out and opened

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After the Christmas meal, it is common for people to go for a walk together or to play games. Charades is a game in which people try to act out the name of a famous film, book or person, without speaking. Games such as Monopoly, Scrabble, Pictionary, snakes and ladders or card games can also be a good way of spending time together.


Board games

Manufacturer: Hasbro

Scrabble Classic
Manufacturer: Upstarts
Manufacturer: Mattel
  Super Boggle
Manufacturer: Hasbro

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Buy a ticket for a pantomime or other attraction

Pantomimes are plays aimed at children which are staged in many British theatres after Christmas. Popular pantomime stories include Aladdin, Cinderella, Dick Whittington, Jack and the Beanstalk, Peter Pan, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. The audience are asked to take part by shouting out when something is said or when they see something, or by booing when the bad character appears. Often there are songs, and children are sometimes invited onto the stage. It is common for one of the main characters to be a woman playing a man's role, and for another to be a man dressed as a woman (a "pantomime dame").

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January 6th is known as Epiphany, and celebrates the night when the Three Wise Men visited the baby Jesus Christ (in Orthodox churches this date represents the baptism of Christ). It is popularly known as Twelfth Night, because this day is twelve days after Christmas Day. Christmas lights and decorations should be taken down on this day. For details of some events celebrating Twelfth Night, see: Ideas/Album/TwelfthNight and Ideas/Events/January.

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Other websites with information about Christmas traditions:
Lovely Christmas:

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How to make a Christmas cake: Britain/Food/Cooking/ChristmasCake
Christmas lights in London: Ideas/Album/ChristmasLights
Lincoln Christmas Market: Travel/Tours/England/Lincoln
Ideas for Christmas presents: Ideas/Gifts/Christmas
Events in the UK in December: Ideas/Events/December
The film "Love, Actually" (set at Christmas time in London): Britain/Films/LoveActually
Pictures from other traditional events in Britain: Ideas/Album

Home page: Home

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