Before I moved to London, Christmas in England seemed to be a snowy affair. Children with rosy cheeks, woolly hats and gloves sang carols in the snow as robin red breast sat on a holly branch. I imagined lunch was a huge turkey dinner followed by steaming Christmas pudding.
Now I have experienced a few English festive seasons I know that it is not likely to snow, especially in London, and that the build up is just about important as Christmas Day itself.
Here are some favourite English Christmas traditions, old and new, and some tips on how you can get into the festive spirit in London.
English Christmas traditions in London
Christmas lights and decorations
As soon as the lights go up on Oxford Street in London the festive season has truly begun. London makes a huge effort to decorate with festive flair and you always feel a bit more jolly walking in the cold air when the lights are twinkling above.
Apart from the lights there are huge Christmas trees in many public spaces including one in Trafalgar Square gifted to Britain by the people of Norway each year.
Did you know? Christmas trees are a tradition brought to England by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband from his native Germany in 1848.
I love the festive atmosphere at Somerset House, Bond Street and Covent Garden where there is an enormous tree and an amazing statue of Santa’s favourite reindeer – Rudolph.
The English do Christmas carols wonderfully and somehow they feel even more festive when the air is crisp and your cheeks are rosy. Some of my favourites are ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’. You can hear carols performed all over London – in stately homes and palaces – including Hampton Court Palace – by buskers on street corners, in Trafalgar Square and in local church halls.
There is no better place in London to hear carols than at St Paul’s Cathedral where the choir has been singing for over nine centuries. We went to the family service last year and experienced the carols in this remarkable building for ourselves. It was an amazing experience.
Shopping in London at Christmas time
Wherever you are, gifts and Christmas go hand in hand. Even if you are not a big shopper it is hard not get caught up in the festive spirit shopping in London. The stores make such an effort with their decorations and window displays and you sense not participating is a bit scrooge-like and breaking with a long standing tradition.
Fortnum & Mason is a favourite Christmas shopping destination for decorations, luxurious Christmas crackers and traditional English treats like rose and violet creams or a traditional Christmas pudding.
Close to Fortnums there are several Victorian era shopping arcades. The Burlington Arcade is the longest and most grand of these. Browse the beautiful boutiques and shops full of custom and artisan goods and choose a special perfume for a loved one – or a cheeky gift for yourself – from Penhaligon’s perfumery one of my favourite London stores.
I always stop by Liberty to admire their window displays, buy some baubles for the tree at their Christmas shop and watch their in house florist make the most beautiful Christmas wreaths. Selfridges has amazing Christmas windows and a fun Christmas vibe too.
Even though I have no ice skating skills whatsoever I love attempting to skate and watching others take a turn around the rink. People always smile and laugh when they are ice skating for some reason. I think it brings out the true spirit of Christmas.
You can skate at some of London’s most iconic locations including the Tower of London, Somerset House, the Natural History Museum and Hampton Court Palace.
Pantomime is a peculiar English tradition that appears at Christmas time. A pantomime is a family theatre show usually based on a traditional fairy story like Cinderella but with a twist. Each show is a combination of slapstick comedy, songs and jokes and involves serious audience participation. Once you get into the spirit of pantomime they are lots of fun. “Oh no they aren’t!”.. “oh yes they are!”. Here is a list of pantomimes on in London.
Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park
For the last 10 years Hyde Park has been transformed into Winter Wonderland – a festive playground of rides, ice skating, a Christmas market and more. This modern tradition is a favourite with Londoners with millions visiting each year so it pays to book your favourite attractions early. Entry is free but there are charges for the attractions.
Visit Kew Gardens for another magical Christmas experience. A mile long path is lit up with sparkling lights and laser beams.
The English have enthusiastically embraced the concept of continental style Christmas Markets with their cute little wooden huts and stalls selling gingerbread, crafts and mulled wine. The South Bank of the Thames has a lovely market favourite with our family due to its beautiful carousel. There is also a market outside the Tate Modern so you can do a market hop as you stroll along the river. If you are in central London there is a new market at Leicester Square.
We also like the festive market at Duke of York Square in Chelsea where you find a lovely Santa’s grotto. This is a magical experience for children at the cost of a donation to charity. Our children were awestruck by the jolly fellow.
We enjoyed the Christmas market in Winchester in grounds of its famous Cathedral. Winchester is an easy day trip from London.
Christmas clothing – jumpers, socks, ties
Every year the English public goes into a frenzy deliberately buying up the ugliest woollen jumpers (sweaters) you have ever seen. This tradition also applies to socks and ties. If you think you can participate tastefully in this tradition, think again. Points are taken off for subtlety.
If you would like to participate in one of my least favourite English Christmas traditions then click through these delightful images and you can buy one for yourself.
Of course you must wear your ugly jumper to work, Christmas parties and on the big day itself.
The ghosts of Christmas past
Fancy a historical journey to Christmases past? Several museums around London provide a window into eras gone by with special displays at Christmas time. The most detailed of these is at the museum of the home – the Geffrye Museum – where you can explore the traditions ofo Christmas over 400 years in their period themed rooms.
By Man vyi (own photo) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
At Hampton Court Palace visitors take part in Tudor style Christmas celebrations while Kensington Palace looks to the Victorian era for inspiration.
Christmas food traditions
I will never forget my first Christmas in London. On my way home from my temp job I would walk past vendors selling roast chestnuts and there was mulled wine for Friday night drinks. I had never tasted those flavours before and they will remind me always of Christmas in London.
A proper Christmas dinner “with all the trimmings” in England is a roasted turkey served with vegetables including roast potatoes, carrots and parsnips. You may also be offered brussels sprouts and peas as well as cranberry and bread sauce. Another popular side dish is sausages wrapped in bacon. My husband tells me this is a tradition we will be adopting in out family.
Main course is followed by Christmas pudding – a rich dessert made from mixed dry fruit – served with brandy custard or sauce. Another popular sweet food tradition is trifle – a layered dessert made with cake, custard and jelly. If you have any room left you might like to try a mince pie – minced dry fruit mixture covered in pastry.
This enormous dinner is one of the most important meals for British people as I found out when compiling a post about food expats around the world miss most. Of course food always tastes better when shared with family and friends.
If you are looking for a seasonal snack, Londoners go mad for the annual Christmas sandwich at British fast food favourite Pret a Manger. Basically a full Christmas dinner in a sandwich, they even make a vegetarian version.
A traditional Christmas Day in England
After all the excitement of the build up to Christmas, I think the day itself is a fairly low key affair in England. Families might go to church then gather for a late turkey dinner with all the trimmings followed by Christmas pudding.
Before eating it is traditional to pull Christmas crackers with the person sitting next to you. A cracker is a cardboard tube covered in paper with sweets, a toy and a really bad joke inside. The tradition began in the 19th century and the name cracker comes from the sound made when the cracker is pulled apart.
After dinner families play board games and watch television including the annual Queen’s Speech. The annual broadcast by the reigning monarch was a tradition started by the Queen’s father King George V in 1932 when he read a speech composed by poet Rudyard Kipling.
Watch the Queen’s 2015 speech below
For those more interested in popular TV series, many of them like Downton Abbey (sadly no longer with us!) make an extra long Christmas special.
The day after Christmas Day is known as Boxing Day. A public holiday, the day has its roots in the traditional giving of alms or donations to the poor collected over Christmas. In Victorian times servants of the wealthy were given time off to visit their families on this day. They were usually presented with a box from their employer. These days the day is spent visiting friends and family and relaxing before New Years Eve and returning to work.
What is your favourite English Christmas tradition?
Being Australian, I associate Christmas with warm weather, seafood feasts and long holidays at the beach. But we have also adopted many English traditions like Christmas trees, Boxing Day, crackers and carols as part of our heritage. A favourite tradition is the carols, those special tunes are present at Christmases wherever we are.
However you celebrate, it’s usually a happy time of year spent with family and friends. So have yourself a merry little Christmas wherever you are and don’t forget your ugly Christmas jumper if you are visiting England during the festive season.
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