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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.



When you’re far away from home and celebrating Christmas in a new country, traditions become more important than ever. 

Our tree here is trimmed (somewhat more safely than the above picture would suggest!).  We’ve decorated and purchased gifts and baked cookies.  We’re thick in the swing of Christmas, although it’s a different feeling than ever before.

There are some that we simply can’t do: we can’t make cookies with our old friends on Christmas Eve and deliver them to our local fire station.  We can’t spend Christmas Day at Matt’s parents with his cousins and their kids.  Although I think the kids are sad about those things, we’re working really hard to focus on all the FUN parts of Christmas in a new country.

Being in a new place makes the traditions we CAN still uphold even more precious; the familiar makes the holidays feel like home, no matter where we are.

Christmas Calendar

Our Christmas Calendar is the tradition that starts our holiday.  On December 1st, we begin “decorating” our little tree — each night, one of the children takes a tiny ornament from it’s little pocket and pins it on the tree.  The calendar was a gift from our dear friend’s mom, who made it by hand.  We love that calendar, and as the tree gets more and more full of ornaments, the kids get more and more excited.

We’ll also celebrate with Sibling Gifts on Christmas Eve.  There is an undercurrent of excitement in every hushed conversation between children and parents, as the kids plan just exactly the perfect thing to get for each brother and sister.  We’re almost ready for that, although we still need to make one last trip out to get the final few items.   I love the effort going into each decision and I really love the grand ideas; we did have to talk Quinn down from wanting to get Owen a horse.  Although he would certainly be excited, I don’t think we’re quite at that level of gift giving.  The thought was sweet though: there are few things on this Earth that would make Owen more excited.

And we’ll be sure to keep our more simple traditions: Italian food for dinner on Christmas Eve and my Mom’s Irish bread for breakfast on Christmas morning. 

Although they normally come visit us the day AFTER Christmas for a few days, this year my parents will be here for Christmas, so we have a new and exciting event to anticipate!  And we’re also trying out some new English Christmas traditions, a few of which I already think we’ll take home with us when we eventually return to the States.

abel and cole mince pies

The traditional English Christmas dessert is Mince Pies, and they are EVERYWHERE this time of year.  None of us had ever had them before, so a few weeks ago I ordered some so we could try them out in advance.  They are delicious!  Five out of six of us are BIG fans, but Gabe declined to try them.  I think the name throws him off; although we assured him there is no actual MEAT in the pies, he’s not completely confident that we’re correct about that. 

christmas crackers

Another big Christmas Day tradition here is Christmas Crackers.  The crackers are basically decorated paper tubes that have a joke, a party hat, and a prize inside.  They go at each place setting at the table when we sit down for Christmas dinner, then you and the person next to you each pull an end and the person who comes away with the larger half wins the prize inside.  We’re all about adding a competitive aspect to Christmas dinner here, so we’re definitely going to have these! 

It’s an interesting balance we’re trying to strike: upholding our old and much-loved traditions while embracing the new ones we’re learning about. 

What are your favorite holiday traditions?

Breaking Tradition

Christmas Morning 2014

It didn’t stop Christmas from coming—it came.  Somehow or other, it came just the same.

—How The Grinch Stole Christmas

Every year on Christmas Eve we get together with our good friends and their four children, and we make and decorate sugar cookies.  We have a big pasta dinner, then we deliver cookies to the firehouse down the road from us, to thank the firefighters there for all they do.

But this year, we didn’t do that.

Because on the 23rd, we found out that Matt has shingles.

Every year on Christmas Day, after we open gifts here at home and have a big breakfast, we get dressed and head to Matt’s parents’ house and celebrate with his whole family—his cousins and all their kids are there.  We have dinner, the kids play, and more gifts are given and opened.

But this year, we didn’t do that.

There are so many little ones at the Christmas Day party who haven’t had their chicken pox vaccine, including Matt’s cousin’s newest daughter, who is only 2 months old, that we couldn’t go and risk getting any of those little munchkins sick.

And poor Matt.  Shingles isn’t any fun.

It’s a strange decision to abandon your annual traditions.  It feels like disappointment before the missed occasion even arrives.

But we made the best of it.  Without the traditions we loved, it was a different Christmas.  But it was still Christmas.

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