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.
19. School nativity plays featuring random non-biblical characters
- Credit: Alex Lecea via Flickr
- Nativity plays are a staple of British schools, featuring children dressed up as key characters from the birth of Jesus. While of course you have Mary, Joseph, the three shepherds and the three wise men, these school plays often feature unorthodox supporting characters to make sure every kid gets a role.
Love Actually features a memorable moment in which Emma Thompson’s daughter announces she’s playing ‘first lobster’ in her school’s performance, and in the eventual play we also see some octopi, penguins, and a random king in Spider-Man face paint. As many British families can testify, real Nativity plays are often like this.
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 popular catalogue-based superstore 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.
17. Christmas crackers
Christmas dinner in the UK just wouldn’t be the same without crackers, those colourful paper cylinders which two people pull at the dinner table in hopes of winning the goodies within. Yet it may surprise British readers that, while these are a festive staple in the UK, they’ve never really caught on internationally.
Christmas crackers were invented in 1845 by London sweet maker Tom Smith, who initially used them to sell his sweets and added a little gunpowder to create the signature ‘crack’ (or ‘bang’). Eventually dropped the sweets were replaced with a small gift, a paper crown and a terrible joke.
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, essentially summarising the year’s biggest news and voicing support for the British people in a formal, apolitical manner.
For millions of Brits, Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without listening to the Queen ramble on about what an eventful year she’s had – but with her sad passing in 2022, this honour will now pass to King Charles.
15. Eating an orange that’s actually made of chocolate
- Credit: Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons
Eating an orange that is actually made of chocolate may seem rather bizarre to anyone not acquainted with the Terry’s Chocolate Orange. But everyone who has tasted them – i.e. everyone in Britain – knows that they’re absolutely delicious, and an essential part of our Christmas indulgence.
Created in 1932 at the Terry’s Chocolate Works in York, England, the Chocolate Orange is a popular confectionary all year round, but they’ve become particularly associated with Christmas, reported to land in one in ten Christmas stockings every year.
14. Setting your dessert on fire
- Credit: Matito via Flickr
Christmas pudding is a contentious subject, with some people preferring to sub out the rich fruit pud for a chocolate Yule log. Still, love it or loathe it, the sight of a flaming Christmas pudding conjures up warm, festive feelings in any true Brit. 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. But even if you’re among those who don’t like eating it, that blue flame is always a delight to behold.
13. Getting ridiculously emotional over a TV commercial
It’s hard to explain why British people derive so much excitement from a TV commercial. But if you’re British, you’ll understand exactly the thrill of hearing that the John Lewis ad is out. The department store’s Christmas ad campaign is usually launched in mid-November and, sort of like Thanksgiving in the US, heralds the start of Christmas for Brits.
John Lewis Christmas ads are always incredibly wholesome, heartwarming and specifically designed to tug on the heartstrings, usually preaching the value of love and kindness. It’s easy to get cynical about this given it’s ultimately designed to get you to buy stuff, but only the hardest-hearted viewer won’t get just a little moved.
12. Pigs in blankets
- Credit: freefoodphotos via Free Images Live
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 their transatlantic cousins call ‘sausage rolls’ – a British delicacy in their own right, as proven by the queues outside every Gregg’s across the nation.
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. 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
- Credit: robbie jim via Wikimedia Commons
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: you can make them from the exact same batter used for pancakes.
As you may have guessed, Yorkshire puddings were first made in Yorkshire 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.
9. Having a cringe song as the Christmas number 1
Any artist would love to get a number one single any time of year, but a Christmas number one is especially coveted, as it all but guarantees the song will be back in circulation at Christmas for years to come. In the 80s and 90s, Cliff Richard was the king of Christmas single, with Mistletoe and Wine, Saviour’s Day and years later the fiercely divisive Millennium Prayer.
Unfortunately, by the 2000s most Christmas number one songs had nothing to do with the season, and tended from winners of TV’s The X Factor. Public annoyance at this led to the famed 2009 internet campaign which successfully made Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name Of the Christmas chart-topper instead.
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 rather than being full of minced meat, they contain mincemeat, which is actually a mixture of dried fruits and spices. (Generations of British children have been baffled by that one.)
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. They’re undeniably a staple of a British Christmas, and have been since as far back as the 16th century.
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 – and one of the highlights of the British Christmas TV schedule is usually the EastEnders Christmas special, which tends to see the already melodramatic soap opera go truly off the chain.
Even though the 25th of December is meant to be the happiest day of the year, the EastEnders Christmas Day special tends to centre on some monumental tragedy, often with some popular characters facing death and/or massive personal anguish. Go figure.
6. Going to the pub on Christmas Eve
- Credit: Lee Haywood via Flickr
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 tradition – but where 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.
Still, 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. Nothing a hair of the dog and a hearty Christmas dinner can’t fix!
5. Seeing Christmas lights switched on by Z-list celebrities
- Seeing the Christmas lights turned on is 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 celebrity. Two of the most famous of such events take place in London on Oxford Street and Regent Street, and never fail to attract thousands of people.
- Still, don’t expect Tom Cruise to show up: it tends to be the likes of Britain’s Got Talent judge Amanda Holden, who did the job in 2019 alongside her Heart Radio co-host Jamie Theakston and members of band The Script.
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
Writer-director Richard Curtis’ 2003 ensemble rom-com Love Actually quickly became a Christmas tradition, warming hearts with its many sweet displays of love. Alas, one storyline in there never fails to break our hearts: seeing a distraught Emma Thompson discover that her husband is cheating on her. Thanks to both that role and Hans Gruber in Die Hard, Alan Rickman really is the greatest Christmas villain of them all.
One 2016 survey, declared that Love Actually is the UK’s favourite Christmas film – although another Radio Times survey on Britain’s 20 favourite festive movies had a different number one.
2. Swimming in the freezing cold sea
- Credit: Roger Cornfoot via Wikimedia Commons
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 cold in the summer, let alone in the dead of winter.
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 (understandable), you can just watch coverage of Christmas swims on the news.
1. Boxing Day sales
- Credit: GoToVan via Flickr
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. However, 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.