English Christmas Traditions

Traditions are the foundation of memory.  What we do, year after year, what we look forward to and repeat and hold dear and celebrate, is what shapes how we remember our lives.

As parents, Matt and I have worked over the past decade-plus to create traditions, especially around celebrations like Christmas and birthdays, that define our family.  We want our kids to look forward to what they know is coming; we want them to rely on the fact that we will do certain things on certain days and in certain seasons and that those things will be done with love and excitement and joy. 

Anticipation and reassurance are wound up together in tradition.

Our family celebrates Christmas with a few unchanging traditions. Our Christmas calendar hangs in the kitchen and the children take turns adding ornaments every day.  This year, Matt couldn’t find it in our basement when we first got all the Christmas stuff out and we didn’t actually have it up until the first of December; as we decorated the rest of the house, all the kids asked where it was.  It was the most important decoration of all.

Every Christmas Eve we have a sibling gift exchange – one of my very favorite of all our traditions.  Each of the kids gets a gift for each of their siblings that they have to think of themselves (although Matt and I always provide advice and ideas). Some years, the kids have MADE the gifts, other years we’ve purchased them, but the beauty of it is how excited they always are to GIVE their siblings something they know they’ll love.  So excited, in fact, that it overshadows the fact that they’re also getting gifts.

We usually have some kind of Italian food on Christmas Eve – lasagna or baked ziti or something like that.  We watch White Christmas.  The kids all sleep in the same bedroom and wake up early and Matt and I make them wait on the stairs while we put the coffee on and get the camera ready.  I force them to take turns opening presents so they can see what other people are getting and also so the whole present opening isn’t over in 8 minutes flat.

But these are all traditions we’ve made as a family and they’re not the same for every other family – in America, it seems, Christmas traditions are more personal and less widespread.

In England, though, Christmas traditions are pretty set in stone; there are things that every one here just does. 

Advent calendars are huge – everyone has one it seems, kids and adults alike. I’ve seen some pretty amazing grown-up versions with make-up samples and wine and designer gifts in each little compartment. 

In England, Christmas dinner is unvarying: turkey, brussels sprouts, red cabbage, roasted potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, pigs in blankets (which in England is sausage wrapped in bacon, not bread).  I’ve yet to see a variation on it; it is simply Christmas dinner. 

Dessert is mince pie and Christmas pudding and a yule log.  You drink mulled wine and prosecco (although to be fair, in England, you always drink prosecco).

Christmas crackers adorn the table and everyone wears the paper crown they find inside for dinner.

Everyone goes to a pantomime in December – a spoof play that’s basically a comical version of a well-known story where the characters are all in drag and semi- (or completely) inappropriate jokes are sprinkled throughout the show.

People wear Christmas jumpers (sweaters) non-ironically.  Or at least somewhat non-ironically.

Boxing Day – the day after Christmas – is ALSO a holiday.  The tradition that day, in our village at least, is to go for a long walk, presumably to work off the vast amounts of food and drink from the previous day.  The walk, however, seems to end at a pub, so I’m not sure it’s intent is purely health-related.

Although we’ve only been here three years – incredible, actually, that this our third English Christmas – we’ve adopted some that I know will follow us home.

I’d love to find fun advent calendars for each of us and have a little gift celebration every day of the month!  Mince pies and mulled wine will forevermore be included in our Christmas Day feast.  Christmas crackers too.  The sweaters are something we never did in America, but I feel like they’ve got to be added to our traditions because my kids have barely taken theirs off this month they love them so much.  And the idea of going to a play or a show every year during the holidays seems like a really lovely way to celebrate this season.

Leaving England will be hard because we’ve loved living here so much.  Hopefully bringing some of these lovely English traditions home with us will make it a little easier.

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