20 Bizarre British Christmas Traditions That Confuse The Rest of The World
All over the world, the festive season is full of zany traditions that have been passed on from generation to generation – and the UK is home to some of the wackiest Christmas traditions around.
From wearing paper crowns at dinner to queuing up in the cold to brace the Boxing Day sales, here are 20 of the weirdest festive traditions to come out of the UK.
20. Watching pantomimes starring Z-list actors
In the UK, Christmas simply isn’t Christmas without a trip to the theatre to watch a pantomime, or ‘panto.’
Because nothing screams ‘Christmas’ like sitting through a cheaply-made, hours-long and often intentionally trashy adaptation of a fairytale, right?
If this wasn’t weird enough, British pantos almost always star Z-list soap opera stars and children’s TV presenters.
With their camp costumes and over-the-top performances, pantomimes are a hallmark of the British festive season.
While booing the villain and shouting ‘he’s behind you!’ might seem a bit cringe at first if the concept of panto is alien to you, it’s a laugh once you get stuck in.
Even if panto is something you’ve grown up with, it’s a wacky tradition if you only take a step back and look at it completely objectively.
19. School nativity plays featuring random non-biblical characters
While some religious schools in the US also put on nativity plays at Christmastime, these plays are much more ubiquitous in the UK.
Nativity plays in the UK see British schoolchildren dress up as key characters from the nativity – with Jesus almost always an excessively-swaddled plastic doll.
While of course you’d have Mary, Joseph, the three shepherds and the three wise men, British nativity plays often feature unorthodox extra characters to ensure every child gets to take part.
One memorable scene in Love Actually sees Emma Thompson’s daughter proudly tell her mother that she’s been cast as ‘first lobster’ in her school’s performance.
We later see her in action as first lobster, alongside two other lobsters – as well as some octopi, penguins, and a random king donning Spider-Man face paint.
The scene does a pretty good job of capturing what nativity plays are like in British schools, as teachers think outside the box in an effort to include every child.
18. Going through the Argos catalogue page by page for the Christmas wishlist
Back in the day, British kids would scour the Argos catalogue when it came to deciding what to put on their wish lists for Father Christmas.
The Argos catalogue was perfect for all involved: it had virtually every toy a kid could want, while it was very easy for parents – or, rather, Father Christmas – to go and get them in store.
Perusing the Argos catalogue was an activity in and of itself, as kids would spend hours flicking through the toy sections.
While nowadays it’s arguably easier to scroll through Google or Amazon, nothing will ever replace the joy of getting your hands on the new Argos catalogue.
Although 2020 was the year Argos stopped producing their catalogues, that doesn’t mean today’s children will have to go without this Christmas.
The company actually brought out a 2020 Christmas gift guide so as not to deprive British kids of the joy of leafing through the catalogue before Christmas.
17. Christmas crackers
Christmas dinner in the UK just wouldn’t be the same without crackers and the paper hats and god-awful jokes that come with them.
Christmas crackers were first made in Victorian London in 1845 by a sweet maker called Tom Smith.
Smith began by putting jokes into the bon-bon sweets he was selling, but when this failed to drum up much excitement, he upped the ante by putting gunpowder into the mix.
Smith eventually dropped the sweets from the cracker and replaced them with a small gift.
To this day, traditional crackers usually come with a trinket, a paper crown and a painfully bad dad joke or rubbish riddle.
Ridiculous, pointless, yet completely and utterly necessary, we can’t think why Christmas crackers haven’t caught on across the pond in the US.
16. Watching the Queen talk to you from your TV
The first ever monarchical Christmas broadcast took place in 1932, when King George V addressed the country over the radio.
Since then, the reigning king or queen has taken it upon themselves to address the British people every year on Christmas Day.
Granted, it’s a little weird to rush over to the TV in the middle of eating your Christmas dinner to watch a dull speech, one which essentially just summarises the year’s news in the vaguest, most apolitical way possible.
The Queen even has to read the speech in amonotone voice so as not to show if she agrees or disagrees with any of the political events she mentions.
It’s fair to imagine that a rundown of the year’s news read in a deadpan voice sounds extremely, extremely boring.
But Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without listening to the Queen ramble on about what an eventful year she’s had.
15. Eating an orange that’s actually made of chocolate
Eating an orange that is actually made of chocolate may seem rather bizarre to anyone not acquainted with the Terry’s Chocolate Orange.
But anyone who has tasted a chocolate orange knows that they’re an essential – and delicious – part of Christmas.
Of course, Terry’s Chocolate Oranges are tasty all year round, but they’ve become strongly associated with Christmas in the UK over the years.
In fact, a Terry’s Chocolate Orange is estimated to be found in one in ten British stockings on Christmas morning.
Before the launch of the chocolate orange, Terry’s manufactured chocolate apples, which were sold between 1926 and 1954.
It soon became clear though that the chocolate orange, launched in 1932, was the more successful product – and unlike the discontinued chocolate apple, its popularity has endured to this day.
14. Setting your dessert on fire
Christmas pudding is a contentious subject, with some people preferring to sub out the rich cake for a Yule log.
Still, love it or loathe it, the sight of a flaming Christmas pudding conjures up warm, festive feelings in any true Brit.
For people in the UK, eating Christmas pudding – essentially a cake filled with fruit, suet and treacle – is only half the fun.
Setting it on fire is, arguably, the main event. Traditionally, brandy is poured over the pudding and ignited to give the impression that the pudding is on fire itself.
Christmas pudding is often served with custard or brandy butter to balance out the richness of the dessert itself.
It’s certainly an acquired taste, but it really hits the spot after a big Christmas dinner. Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it!
13. Getting ridiculously excited about an advert
It’s hard to explain why British people derive so much excitement from a department store’s Christmas TV advert.
But if you’re British, you’ll understand exactly the thrill of hearing that the John Lewis ad is out.
The John Lewis Christmas ad campaign is usually launched in mid-November and, sort of like Thanksgiving in the US, heralds the start of Christmas for Brits.
These ads from the high-end department store are always incredibly wholesome and heartwarming and usually preach the value of love and kindness.
For example, the 2018 ad worked chronologically backwards, charting the life of musician Elton John.
The ad saw Elton dazzle as a trailblazing 70s star; impressing college friends with his musical skills; and then ending with Elton as a toddler receiving a piano as a Christmas present – a gift that changed his life. We’re not crying, you are.
12. Pigs in blankets
Arguably the absolute best part of a British Christmas are pigs in blankets, aka little sausages wrapped in bacon.
Never mind seeing your family or receiving gifts – the highlight of the day has just got to be these festive treats.
Pigs in blankets are a relatively new tradition, with the first recorded mention of these delicious sausages dating back to 1957.
Across the pond, pigs in blankets do exist – but they comprise of sausages wrapped in pastry, not bacon.
American ‘pigs in blankets’ sound a lot closer to what us Brits call ‘sausage rolls’ – a delicacy in their own right.
While your average Brit will never shy away from the chance to chow down on a sausage roll, there’s nothing quite like real pigs in blankets on Christmas Day.
11. Getting bladdered on Mad Friday
In the UK, Mad Friday is the name given to the last Friday before Christmas. Why ‘mad’? Largely because of all the carnage that takes place that day.
It’s the most popular night for Christmas parties – and, consequently, one of the busiest nights of the year for the emergency services.
Brits are infamous for taking things a little far with drink, and on no other night is this more apparent than on Mad Friday.
Another thing non-Brits may find strange is the British refusal to wear a coat to go out, even if temperatures plummet below zero.
This is particularly common in the North of England, where revellers brave rain and even snow just to dodge a 50p cloakroom charge.
Perhaps this isn’t a tradition that us Brits should be particularly proud of, but it’s a big part of Christmas nevertheless.
10. Yorkshire puddings with Christmas dinner
Just like pigs in blankets, fluffy Yorkshire puddings are an essential part of a British Christmas dinner.
Despite the name, Yorkshire puddings are savoury, not sweet, and can act as a useful vessel for extra gravy.
This delicious side dish is super easy to create, too – they’re simply made with eggs, flour, milk, and water.
As you may have guessed, Yorkshire puddings were first made in Yorkshire. They became popular back in the 18th century.
Americans have their own version of Yorkshire puddings called ‘popovers.’ Unlike Yorkshire puddings, popovers can be served as a sweet or savoury dish.
While most Brits would consider it sacrilegious to eat a Yorkshire with whipped cream, you’d struggle to find a Christmas dinner in the UK which doesn’t feature this tasty treat.
9. Having a cringe song as the Christmas number 1
While it’s an impressive feat to get to the top of the charts at any time of year, nabbing the top spot on Christmas Day is an especially difficult task.
A few decades ago, a band like The Beatles or Queen might have feasibly topped the charts on Christmas Day, but that’s far less likely these days.
In recent years, the Christmas no. 1 has almost always been something gimmicky, political, or a cheesy single from the latest X Factor winner.
Famously, back in 2009 a successful internet campaign was launched to stop the X Factor winner taking the no. 1 spot for the fifth year in a row.
The campaign was backed by musicians including Dave Grohl and Paul McCartney and succeeded in supplanting Joe McElderry from the top spot, with Rage Against the Machine’s anarchist song Killing in the Name ending up at no. 1.
More recently the top spot has been taken by sillier songs such as LadBaby’s 2019 hit I Love Sausage Rolls.
8. Mince pies
If you’ve never seen or heard of a ‘mince pie’ before, you’d be forgiven for thinking that these were gross pastries filled with meat and fruit.
But these pies are not full of minced meat; instead, they’re full of mincemeat: a mixture of dried fruits and spices.
Mince pies are great alongside a good old cup of tea, mulled wine if you’re feeling particularly festive, or on their own after a big Christmas dinner.
Like Christmas pudding, they’re certainly an acquired taste and can be enjoyed with brandy butter or cream.
They’re undeniably a staple of a British Christmas, and have been around for hundreds of years now – since the 16th century, in fact.
So, although the name suggests otherwise, we can confirm that mince pies do not contain meat and are actually pretty tasty.
7. Watching people suffer on EastEnders
On Christmas Day in the UK, after you’ve gorged on turkey and guzzled down too much Prosecco, the only thing to do is plonk yourself in front of the TV for a good few hours.
Arguably, one of the highlights of the British Christmas TV schedule is the EastEnders Christmas special.
Even if you’re not a fan of the melodramatic soap set in London’s East End, it’s usually worth tuning in just to see what chaos is brewing in Albert Square.
Though all year round the show boasts some truly incredible storylines, the EastEnders Christmas special is always full of the most sensational and unlikely plots.
It’s not unusual for someone to be divorced, arrested, or even murdered at Christmas on the show. In a way, it’s sort of like modern-day Dickens?
If you’ve had a row with your family at Christmas it’s always worth tuning in just to get some perspective. At least your Christmas likely won’t be as bad as a Christmas on Albert Square.
6. Going to the pub on Christmas Eve
British people love the pub, so it only makes sense that we turn up at our locals in droves over the festive period.
Going to the pub on Christmas Eve in particular is a wholesome British festive tradition.
While Mad Friday is all about overdoing it, a Christmas Eve pub trip is usually a chance to have a few quiet drinks with your old friends before the big day.
With all of your school friends home for Christmas, December 24 is a great time to stage an impromptu reunion in your local pub.
With all that festive cheer it’s easy to go overboard, however, and more often than not revellers find themselves waking up on Christmas Day with a raging hangover.
But it’s all part and parcel of the British Christmas experience anyway, and nothing a hearty Christmas dinner can’t fix!
5. Christmas lights switch-ons by Z-list celebrities
Christmas lights switch-ons are a big deal in the UK, with these festive spectacles always drawing huge crowds.
Occasionally, a town’s lights might be turned on by a local hero of some kind, but usually the lights will be turned on by a minor celebrity.
The lights are usually turned on in November and are a sure sign that Christmas is on its way.
Two of the most famous lights switch-ons take place in London on Oxford Street and Regent Street and never fail to attract thousands of people.
Back in 2019, Britain’s Got Talent judge Amanda Holden turned on the Regent Street lights alongside her Heart Radio co-host Jamie Theakston.
With British winters being notoriously dark, gloomy, wet and cold, it’s no surprise that there’s so much hype over these festive lights.
4. Buying overpriced food at a Christmas market
Technically, Christmas markets are a German thing, but for some reason us Brits have stolen the tradition and made it our own.
Most major cities in the UK stage big Christmas markets that consistently draw crowds in their thousands.
London is home to one of the biggest markets, with Hyde Park transforming into the ‘Winter Wonderland’ every festive season.
Another popular market is Birmingham’s Frankfurt Christmas Market, which attracts millions of visitors each year.
The main attraction at these markets is usually food and drink, with stalls selling everything from hot dogs to mulled wine.
Naturally, it’s all massively overpriced, but as Christmas markets only come round once a year we’ll allow it.
3. Crying at Alan Rickman’s betrayal of Emma Thompson in Love Actually
According to a 2016 survey, Richard Curtis’ 2003 film Love Actually is the UK’s favourite Christmas film.
Watching the star-studded movie – which features a 17-year-old Keira Knightley and the late, great Alan Rickman – is, by now, pretty much a tradition for British families at Christmastime.
The film is, on the whole, full of heartwarming moments which serve to reminds us that love, actually, is all around.
But there’s one moment which manages to collectively rip out the hearts of Brits every year without fail.
The film sees Alan Rickman (does anyone actually know the characters’ names?) cheat on Emma Thompson with his office secretary, leaving poor Thompson heartbroken.
Every year Brits watch the film and hope in vain that this time, Mr. Bean won’t sell Rickman that stupid necklace, but every year we’re disappointed.
2. Swimming in the freezing cold sea
The idea of a festive swim is so bizarre that it (rightly) confuses a lot of Brits themselves, even though it’s supposed to be a national tradition.
The idea is simple: dress up in your best festive gear then head over to your nearest beach for a dip in the sea.
If Britain was in the Southern Hemisphere, this might not be too weird – but British waters are usually freezing in the height of summer, let alone in the dead of winter.
If you find yourself feeling groggy on Christmas morning after a night in the pub, this is certainly one way to sharpen up a bit.
This has been a tradition for more than a century-and-a-half now, with Brighton Swimming Club kicking things off back in 1860.
If you’re not keen on leaping into the freezing cold sea yourself this Christmas, never fear – you’ll often see coverage of Christmas swims on the news.
1. Boxing Day sales
Boxing Day: the day after Christmas. A day to be spent lounging around and eating turkey sandwiches, right?
Wrong. In the UK, Boxing Day every year sees shoppers turn up in their thousands, ready to bag a bargain in the Boxing Day sales.
Because why spend your precious holidays catching up on sleep and eating mince pies when you could queue outside Next at 6 am?
Back in 2018, British shoppers blew a whopping £8.8 million every minute in the post-Christmas sales frenzy.
As the US tradition of Black Friday has made its way over to us in the UK, it’s possible that the Boxing Day sales will become a smaller part of Christmas as time goes on.
But for now, the Boxing Day sales are still an important part of Christmas for a lot of people in the UK.