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16 quirky British Christmas traditions Americans may have never heard of

16 quirky British Christmas traditions Americans may have never heard of
kid christmas morning stocking
Some British children hang Christmas stockings at the ends of their beds.Altrendo Images/Getty Images
  • Christmas traditions in America and the UK can vary greatly.

  • Every Christmas, Brits gather to watch pantomimes or meet their school friends at the pub.

  • They also eat Yorkshire puddings, mince pies, Christmas pudding, and Christmas cake.

Christmas in the United Kingdom differs slightly from celebrations in America and elsewhere around the world.

From what is traditionally served at a Christmas Day feast to festive activities and childhood traditions, Brits have their own unique and quirky ways of celebrating the holiday.

Here are 16 British Christmas traditions that might surprise you.

Pantomimes, or "pantos," are plays performed around Christmastime in the UK.

british pantomime
Pantomime dames playing the role of the Ugly Sisters in a production of Cinderella.Gideon Mendel/Corbis/Getty Images

Pantos are humorous, slapstick entertainment for the whole family, often featuring men dressed in drag. They are sometimes based on a famous fairy tale or story, like "Cinderella," "Peter Pan," or "The Wizard of Oz."

Pantomimes rely on specific tropes. For example, there's often a villain who will sneak up on the protagonist intermittently throughout the play. It's then the role of the audience to scream, "He's behind you!" to the main character while he or she struggles to figure out what's going on.

Yorkshire puddings are perfect with gravy, but people outside the UK may have never heard of them.

yorkshire pudding dinner
A traditional British roast dinner with Yorkshire puddings.Shutterstock

A traditional British roast dinner wouldn't be complete without Yorkshire puddings filled with Bisto or homemade gravy. Yorkshire puddings — not to be confused with sweet puddings — are made of eggs, flour, and milk or water.

After they're cooked in hot oil in the oven, they end up with a distinct hole in the middle. They closely resemble what Americans know as popovers.

While Yorkshire puddings are commonplace at Sunday dinners throughout the year, they're also eaten at Christmastime, though some argue they have no place on a Christmas plate.

Santa Claus is referred to as "Father Christmas."

Santa Claus
Santa Claus.Hasloo Group Production Studio/Shutterstock

While some do refer to old Saint Nick as Santa Claus in the UK, it is widely accepted that Father Christmas is his more traditionally British name.

"Santa Claus" is seen as an Americanism, and even the British National Trust said that "Santa Claus should be known as 'Father Christmas' in stately homes and historic buildings because the name is more British."

British children hang Christmas stockings at the ends of their bed.

kid christmas morning stocking
A child on Christmas morning.Altrendo Images/Getty Images

In America, Christmas stockings are hung by the fireplace with care. However, some British children hang their stockings at the ends of their beds for Father Christmas to fill up while they're sleeping.

Christmas Eve is a time for school-friend reunions.

christmas uk pub
Festive people drinking in a pub in Bath, England.Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Thanksgiving weekend is seen as an opportunity in the United States for students to reunite with friends from high school or middle school. In the UK, it's a tradition for school friends to come together on Christmas Eve, often at the local bar or pub.

Christmas pudding is a traditional British dessert popular during the holiday season.

christmas pudding
Christmas pudding.Shutterstock

A Christmas pudding is a dense fruit cake often made weeks or even months in advance. This time allows the dried fruit to soak up alcohol that's regularly poured onto the cake in the weeks before it's consumed.

On Christmas, the cake is set alight and then topped with a sauce of brandy butter or rum butter, cream, lemon cream, ice cream, custard, or sweetened béchamel. It is also sometimes sprinkled with caster or powdered sugar.

Another dessert of choice is Christmas cake, a rich fruit cake covered with marzipan and icing.

christmas fruit cake
Christmas cake.nelea33/Shutterstock

While fruit cake is certainly a polarizing dessert wherever you are, Brits seem to make it a little better with thick, sweet white icing. Oftentimes, Christmas cake also comes topped with festive holly decorations.

Mince pies are pastries filled with dried fruits and spices that are eaten at Christmas.

A board of mince pies.
Mince pies.Getty Images

The BBC reported that first-known mince-pie recipe dates back to an 1830s-era English cookbook. By the mid-17th century, people reportedly began associating the small pies with Christmas. At the time, they were traditionally filled with a mixture of pork, or another kind of meat, with sage and other spices. Nowadays, the pies are filled with dried fruits and powdered with sugar.

British Christmas desserts are often enjoyed with brandy butter.

A slice of Christmas pudding with a scoop of brandy butter on the side.
Christmas pudding and brandy butter.Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

The perfect accompaniment to Christmas pudding and mince pies, brandy butter consists of butter and sugar beaten together before brandy is added. Rum butter is an alternative.

The result is still butter-like in consistency, and it's served cold alongside desserts. Americans might know it as "hard sauce."

Brits say "Happy Christmas" instead of "Merry Christmas."

merry christmas
"Merry Christmas" lit-up sign.Johnnie Pakington/Getty Images

You might remember a scene from the first "Harry Potter" movie in which Ron says, "Happy Christmas, Harry!" While this may sound strange to an American, saying "Happy Christmas" is commonplace in the UK, as opposed to "Merry Christmas."

Christmas crackers are cardboard tubes wrapped in brightly colored paper and twisted at each end that two people pull for a fun surprise.

christmas cracker
Girl pulling a Christmas cracker at the dinner table.PeopleImages/Getty Images

Christmas crackers are often pulled at the start of the meal, and the paper hats found inside are worn throughout the meal. Also inside each cracker is a "banger," which makes a loud pop when the cracker is pulled, a joke, and a small prize.

The jokes are usually cheesy and festive. For example: "Why did Santa's helper go to the doctor? Because he had low elf esteem!"

Millions of British citizens watch the Queen or King's annual televised Christmas Day speech every year.

King Charles delivers his Christmas speech in 2022
King Charles III is seen during the recording of his first Christmas broadcast.Victoria Jones - Pool/Getty Images

Every year, families across the United Kingdom gather to watch the royal Christmas address, informally known as the Queen or King's speech.

The Telegraph reported that the first Christmas address was 251 words long, but Queen Elizabeth II later came to average 656 words in each speech. It is often one of the most-watched television programs on Christmas Day in the UK.

Christmas commercials are as talked-about as Super Bowl commercials are in the United States.

christmas tv
People watching TV with mugs.Hoxton/Sam Edwards/Getty Images

While Super Bowl commercials are highly scrutinized in the US, Brits pay just as close attention to Christmas commercials.

Not only is the John Lewis ad, or "advert," a Christmas tradition, but almost every supermarket and clothing brand tries to get in on the buzz with a talked-about Christmas commercial.

Brits also anticipate which song will become the annual "Christmas No. 1" single.

spice girls
The Spice Girls.Getty Images

The British "Christmas No. 1" has been a tradition for over half a century. Starting in 1952, the top song on the British singles chart has been a coveted spot every Christmas. Christmas No. 1 alumni include The Beatles, Queen, Ed Sheeran, and more.

While some Christmas No. 1s have indeed been Christmas songs — "Do They Know It's Christmas?" by Band Aid II in 1989, for example — they don't have to be.

School nativity plays are a popular tradition in UK primary schools.

nativity play school uk
Year one pupils from Kingsmead School perform in their annual Christmas nativity play.Gideon Mendel/In Pictures/Corbis/Getty Images

While religious elementary schools in the United States may put on nativity plays, they are arguably much more popular and part of the culture in Britain.

In the popular British Christmas movie "Love Actually," the characters even attend a Christmas nativity play.

Brits take advantage of after-Christmas sales on Boxing Day.

Boxing Day
Boxing Day sale signage at Selfridges department store in London.Getty

Boxing Day is typically called British Black Friday, but there are some differences between the holidays. Boxing Day, which is a public holiday in the UK, falls the day after Christmas and has a rich cultural history in Great Britain.

Originating in the mid-1600s, the day was traditionally a day off for servants. On this day, servants would receive a "Christmas Box," or gift, from their master. The servants would then return home on Boxing Day to give "Christmas Boxes" to their families.

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