Christmas is a huge celebration in England and most people continue to celebrate it in a traditional way. It is a time for families to come together, to rest from their job, to eat special food, to drink more than usual and to give each other presents. It is a magical time of year.
Throughout December people start preparing for Christmas. They buy cards and presents for their friends and relatives. The shops put up decorations and the shop windows have wonderful displays of goods in them. Often there is a theme which usually centres on Father Christmas and his reindeers. Many of the displays depict the Christmas scene as being snowy, although in reality it is rarely snowing in England at Christmas.
Food shops advertise and display special goods which are not commonly eaten throughout the year — Turkey, Plum Puddings, Rich Fruit Cakes, Marzipan Fruits and Nuts. Beautifully wrapped food hampers are a popular present to give at Christmas. Christmas music is played continuously in the shops.
Until about 50 years ago, people used to wait until the middle of December to decorate their house. In fact until about a hundred years ago this was only done on Christmas Eve. Nowadays it is much more common to decorate the house as soon as the month of December arrives!
Although people put up a huge variety of decorations, the centre piece is always a Christmas tree. This can be real or artificial and is decorated with colourful baubles, tinsel and lights. On the top of the tree is placed either an Angel (sometimes called a Christmas Fairy) or a Star. Crackers are placed in amongst the branches and presents are lain around the base of the tree.
Many of the English Christmas traditions which we celebrate, started during the reign of Queen Victoria. For example the first Christmas card was sent in 1843 and quickly became popular. Nowadays the Christmas card industry is worth a lot of money as millions of cards are sent each year. Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert is often credited with introducing the Christmas tree to Britain. However, it was actually Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III. She had a fir tree set up at Windsor Lodge for a children’s party in 1800. It had been common for that to happen in her native Germany. However, as it was in private, it was not something which was seen by the ordinary people so was not generally known about. Then in 1848, a picture of Queen Victoria’s family appeared in the newspaper. It showed the Queen, Prince Albert and their children sitting around a decorated Christmas tree. This was the first time that ordinary people would have seen a tree used in that way and the idea quickly became popular, which is why we think of it as a tradition introduced in Victorian times.
Charles Dickens, a Victorian author wrote a novel called "A Christmas Carol" in which he wrote about Christmas and how different it was for rich and poor people in England. The book became very popular and helped reinforce the idea of Christmas being a special holiday, with everyone eating a huge meal and being kind to each other.
Other decorations include hanging paper lanterns, streamers pinned from one corner of the ceiling to the other and china ornaments placed in windowsills. Recently many battery powered ornaments like singing "Father Christmases" have become popular.
Prior to Christmas day people post or hand deliver cards to their friends, relatives and neighbours. These are hung on strings in the house.
On the last Sunday before Christmas, most churches hold a Carol Service. This consists of Nine Readings from the Bible which tell the Christmas Story. The readings are called lessons. In between each reading the congregation sing a Carol. Carol services and concerts are also broadcast on the television and radio, so that everyone can have access to them even if they cannot leave their home. There is a service in many churches on Christmas morning as well.
Christmas Eve is usually a very busy time as people try to make as many preparations for Christmas Day as they can. Then at night children hang up their stockings (which nowadays usually mean placing them at the bottom of their bed) in readiness for “Father Christmas” to fill them overnight. It is very common now for children to leave a snack for Father Christmas downstairs on Christmas Eve. This usually consists of a glass of sherry (fortified wine) and a mince pie.
On Christmas morning, children and their parents wake up early to open presents. Sounds of excitement and happiness can be heard all over the house.
Christmas Dinner is usually eaten in the middle of the day rather than in the evening. Normally it consists of Roast Turkey, Roast potatoes, lots of vegetables, “pigs in blankets” and eaten with Cranberry and Bread Sauces as well as stuffing. Prior to starting the meal, people pull crackers. Inside of the cracker there is always a coloured paper hat which everyone wears whilst eating their meal. After the main course it is usual to eat Plum pudding (or Christmas pudding as it is now commonly called). In the olden days it was usual to pour brandy over and set fire to it before serving. Nowadays people usually just eat it with cream or custard.
At 3 o’clock most families gather around the television to listen to the Queen as she broadcasts her Christmas message to the Nation.
Christmas tea consists of sandwiches, trifle and iced fruit cake. For supper people eat turkey sandwiches. During the evening people relax after their day of overeating, and it is common for families to gather around the table and play a board game.
The day after Christmas Day is also a Public Holiday and is called Boxing Day. Usually this is a day when families relax after the pressures of the day before. Meals are less elaborate and frequently consist of “leftover turkey” in a variety of ways. In recent years however, shops have been allowed to open on Boxing Day and start their sales. It is becoming more common therefore for families to go shopping in order to get some bargains.
Boxing Day originated in Britain and is celebrated in many of the Commonwealth countries. It was so called for two reasons. Firstly, rich people would “box up” gifts to give to the poor on the day after Christmas. Secondly, in the days when people had servants, the servants would be given a special Christmas box (a present) on this day and then given the day off so that they could visit their families and take them a box of food.
On the 27th December it was usual for people to go back to work. However, the majority of people now have the complete week off from Christmas to New Year. Exceptions to this are if you work in a shop or restaurant.
New Year’s Day is also a Public Holiday in England and on New Year’s Eve the celebrations begin again. Parties are held and many people gather in Trafalgar Square in London to count down the last few seconds of the old year. Big Ben, the clock on Elizabeth Tower, then booms out the hour. This is broadcast on the television so that wherever you are in the country, you can see Big Ben striking twelve. This is followed by a huge firework display over the River Thames in London, to welcome in the New Year. Scotland celebrates New Year (or Hogmanay as it is called) in a much bigger way than in England.
Twelve days after Christmas, January 6th, is when Epiphany (the coming of the Wise Men) is celebrated. Superstition says that you shouldn’t have any decorations up after that time. So this signals the end of the Christmas Period in England.
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