Christmas in England
By: Maria Georgiou
Celebrating Christmas in England is much like celebrating it in any other Western country. Even though many of the cultures in England do not actually believe in what the holiday represents, everyone seems to take part in the giving and receiving of gifts, as a sign of friendship and goodwill toward others. With so many different cultures living so closely together, Christmas is the only time people tend to celebrate together.
Preparing for the big day
Throughout the month of December, people busy themselves preparing for the Christmas festivities. There are the mince pies and Christmas cakes to bake and decorate as well as the all-important Christmas pudding.
In England over the years many superstitions have surrounded this popular festive dessert. It is said puddings should be made by the 25th Sunday after Trinity, prepared with 13 ingredients to represent Christ and His Disciples, and that every member of the family take turns to stir the pudding with a wooden spoon from east to west, in honour of the Three Kings. A silver coin is always dropped into the pudding mixture before it is cooked. This is said to bring wealth, health and happiness to whomever is lucky enough to find it when the pudding is cut.
People decorate their homes and a tree, with baubles, tinsel and fairy lights, placing a star or an angel in pride of place, on the top of the tree. The decorating of Christmas trees, though primarily a German custom, has been widely popular in England since 1841 when Prince Albert had a Christmas tree decorated with candles, set up in Windsor Castle for his wife Queen Victoria and their children.
Children hang stockings on the fireplace or at the end of their beds so when Father Christmas pays a visit, they are stuffed full of goodies, but only if they have been good! Children also send letters to Father Christmas, which legend has it, if they are tossed in the fireplace, the smoke from them burning gets carried up the chimney directly to the man in the red suit! Advent Calendars help us count down to Christmas Day and people give Poinsetta plants as gifts because the general shape of the plant and the arrangement of leaves are seen as a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem, which led the wise men to the baby Jesus. The red coloured leaves symbolise the blood of Christ. The white leaves represent his purity.
In primary schools, the younger children re-enact the nativity story, dressed as Mary and Joseph, angels, wise men and the occasional sheep, watched by proud parents and relatives.
An English Christmas
The English have much to thank Charles Dickens for because we will be forever linked with the tale of A Christmas Carol. A truly wonderful story about the old miser suddenly realising the true spirit of Christmas, thanks to a few ghostly visions. This is a truly remarkable story and each and every Christmastime you'll find people glued to their television screens when it is on because it is a Christmas story that still has a lot of emphasis, especially today when Christmas has become so commercialised. One word of warning though, not ALL English people are as bad as Ebeneezer Scrooge!
Another very English tradition at Christmas is the family visit to see a Pantomime. The English 'panto' is based on traditional stories like Cinderella, Peter Pan and Puss in Boots and developed into the form we know today during the reign of Queen Victoria. It is a play of a fairy tale where the hero is played by a young woman, the comic characters are men dressed in outrageous drag, the bad guy is really, really bad and the cow is obviously two people dressed as a cow. The humour is topical (and FULL of double-entendres) and the play involves audience participation, (Oh No it Doesn't! Oh Yes it Does!!). Strange, I know, but Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without our pantos.
In the days leading up to Christmas, groups of carol singers holding candle lanterns, dressed in their hats and scarves to fight off the cold, go from door to door performing traditional Christmas songs for a small charitable donation to their cause. On Christmas Eve night, children leave out a glass of brandy and a mince pie for Santa, and a carrot and bowl of water for the reindeer.
On Christmas morning the first task of the day is to dive under the tree and open the huge pile of gifts that Father Christmas has left, making as much mess as you possibly can with all the wrapping paper! Then for many people it's off to church for the morning service to give thanks. Back home, Christmas dinner is usually had between 2 and 4 in the afternoon. The Christmas table is decorated with festive candles and crackers, and we always use the best dinner service at Christmas! Christmas is very much a time for families to be together, so everyone gathers for the Christmas meal. A traditional english Christmas dinner is roast turkey with all the trimmings, like stuffing and cranberry sauce, washed down with a little mulled wine. For dessert there's mince pies, Christmas cake, Christmas pudding served with brandy sauce and cream and even sherry trifle!
At 3pm on Christmas Day it is time to watch the Queen's speech to the Nation and Commonwealth. This is probably the only truly modern tradition that we have.
In 1922, Lord Reith, General Manager of the BBC, felt that the King, George V should use the powerful new medium of radio to speak to the nation as one family. Initially the King refused as he felt that radio was still too experimental to be used for a royal message. Lord Reith did not give up though, and asked the King again in 1932. By this time the BBC has begun its overseas service, and the King had the opportunity to talk to his subjects around the world. At 3:00pm on 25th December 1932, the King made the first broadcast live from Sandringham. Since then King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II have continued the tradition and in 1957 the broadcast moved to television.
Over the years the format has changed from a formal speech delivered live, to a pre-recorded Christmas message, to the current more relaxed broadcasts.
However, Christmas in England wouldn't be the same without the anticipation of opening the curtains on Christmas morning, in the hope of seeing a beautiful blanket of white snow covering everything in sight. We can but dream of our perfect white Christmas, until then "Merry Christmas to One and All!"