From roasts to stockings, trees to carols, Christmas in Britain is filled with many weird and wonderful traditions. It is well documented that many of the traditions that we hold dearest are in fact relatively new additions – with the Christmas tree, originating from Germany, being a prime example, exemplifying the multicultural connections and inspirations of the modern-day Christmas. Where our Christmas comes from, and why we celebrate it the way that we do, are two questions that when answered can bring both an interesting aspect to our celebrations as well as highlighting the multiculturalism of Britain in the 21st century.
Unlike the festive classic, the arrival of Christmas crackers to Britain did not go off with a bang. During his 1840 visit to Paris, Tom Smith, a London sweet maker, discovered a French delicacy concealed within paper: the bonbon. Smith brought these back to London, sometimes hiding a phrase or riddle inside. The sweet failed to take off in Britain as they had done in France. Rumor has it that one night when Smith was sat listening to the crackles and pops of an open fire, he had the idea reproduce this pop into the opening of his sweet. He called his creation “Bangs of Expectations,” and thus the Christmas cracker was born. However, it is contested within the cracker community as to whether Smith was in fact the first cracker seller. Italian-born Gaudente Sparagnapane, also a London sweet maker at the time, tried to claim the title for his company as, “The oldest maker of Christmas crackers in the United Kingdom.” Whilst its origins are disputed within the cracker community, they are unified on its festiveness.
However, the role of the cracker has also evolved from its original purpose. Indeed, the original “Bangs of Expectations,” were not particularly festive at all. As a marketing ploy they began to cater to different audiences and themes – for bachelors, spinsters, coronations, actors, and even to the suffragettes. Whilst most other uses did eventually fizzle out, crackers are still made to this day to commemorate royal coronations.
It is undisputed that a roast dinner is a quintessential part of the British Christmas day as we know it, with the centerpiece of choice often being Turkey – in a 2015 survey by the Express – 87 per cent of Britons stated that Christmas would not be Christmas without a turkey on the table. But where does this tradition come from? The first British person to eat a turkey was Henry VIII in the sixteenth century. The species was introduced to the country by Yorkshire tradesman who had ‘acquired’ them from Native American traders. How did this bird, deemed a wildly exotic luxury, become the choice for the masses? The answer, as with many Christmas traditions is simple: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, where the newly reformed Scrooge sends a boy to buy the largest turkey available. Whilst Dickens did normalise the turkey, it was still wildly expensive and out of reach for the average family. It would not be until prices fell due to changes in industry with the introduction of new farming and freezing technology that the turkey would become the centerpiece of the British Christmas dinner. However, it seems the turkey tides are changing. A 2019 survey suggested that only 60 per cent of Brits were going to have a turkey for Christmas, with 10 per cent opting for a meat free alternative instead. Outside of Britain, Turkey is not always seen as a traditional Christmas meat, so perhaps the Christmas of the future will go one of two ways: vegetarian, as is seen by the increasing percentages of meat-free Christmas dinners, or taking inspiration from other countries’ Christmas dinners. Maybe before opting for the traditional turkey option consider the Scandinavian seafood platter or Portuguese codfish.
Carol singing, unlike many of the other Christmas traditions, declined in popularity in the nineteenth century. Caroling was a popular tradition in the Medieval period, linked heavily to the extinct tradition of wassailing. Wassailing was a pagan tradition in which a group of workers would go from one house to another singing carols and demanding a cup of wassail – a type of mulled cider. The tradition was one of merrymaking and improving relationships between workers of the land and landowners, who would normally provide the wassail. With the decline of the wassailing tradition, carols were on the edge of extinction, a notion that the middle classes were particularly concerned with. To address this natural decline, antiquarians began the quest of compiling and preserving Christmas carols. In contemporary Britain, the tradition of Christmas songs has snowballed into the new tradition of the Christmas Number One. Far removed from the religious caroling, present-day Christmas celebrators may look both to Christmas carols and gospel for religious Christmas songs.
As with many traditions, Christmas superstitions are mostly regional and often silly. Historians Sam Willis and James Daybell have, in recent years, examined the traditions and superstitions surrounding Christmas, many of which appear random and unsubstantiated. In 1950s Gloucester, a Christmas card with a robin on would have been considered bad luck, as robins were viewed as portents of impending familial death. Similarly, for some, holly symbolises death and requires a special disposal method if it enters the house. For others, however, it is considered a lucky token, a tradition that appears to date back to Celtic times, when the holly bush was protected by law. The plurality of these Christmas superstitions demonstrates that the label of tradition sanctifies and gives license for people to do what they want for their ‘Christmas traditions.’
For many, Christmas traditions do not have to possess a particular rationale, they could be as simple as Christmas pajamas, a snowman on top of the Christmas tree, or watching ‘Love Actually’ on Christmas Eve. Central to the importance of tradition, when it comes to something as personal as Christmas, is not the prestige, heritage, or even longevity, but rather its value to those that observe it. In a time of uncertainty, these Christmas traditions, no matter how insignificant or trivial they seem, provide a little bit of Christmas magic and welcomed normalcy.
Written by Sophie Whitehead
Forsyth, Mark. A Christmas Cornucopia: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Yuletide Traditions. London: Penguin Books, 2016.
Flanders, Judith. Christmas: A biography. London: Pen Macmillan, 2017.
Daybell, James; Willis, Sam. Histories of the unexpected: How everything has a history. London: Atlantic Books, 2018.
Miles, Clement A. Christmas In Ritual And Tradition, Christian And Pagan. London: T. Fisher. Unwin, 1912.