English Christmas traditions and how to celebrate them in London

English Christmas traditions and how to celebrate them in LondonThis article may contain compensated links. Please read disclaimer for more info

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 decorations at Covent garden

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. 

Christmas tree at Somerset House iceskating

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.

Christmas Carols

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.

Festive flair in London at Christmas

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.

Christmas windows at Liberty of London

I’m still coveting those pink boots from Liberty!

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.

Related  Tips for shopping in London - Oxford Street and Regent Street area

Christmas fun

Ice skating at the Natural History Museum

Ice skating

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.

Ice skating at Somerset House

Pantomime

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.

Christmas markets

English Christmas traditions - Christmas markets

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.

Santa's grotto at Duke of York 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.

Christmas tree London 2012 03
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.

Christmas dinner with all the trimmings

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.

English Christmas traditions and how to celebrate in London

 


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.


Linking up this post with Faraway Files and City Tripping


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links and as always all opinions are my own. Please review my disclosure page for more information on my affiliate policy.

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42 Comments

  1. bavariansojourn
    23rd November 2016 / 11:46 AM

    I think the Bavarian’s do Christmas very well, but I think we Brits also do a good job. There’s a really lovely atmosphere at that time of year, that is hard to beat! 🙂 #citytripping

  2. 23rd November 2016 / 4:17 PM

    I didn’t know about the Geffrye Museum – looks like my cup of tea! I think a turkey & stuffing dinner is my favourite tradition, nothing else really matches up for me.

  3. Clare Thomson
    23rd November 2016 / 8:02 PM

    Really enjoyed reading about the English Christmas traditions from the point of view of an Australian! The pantomime is such a British tradition – we usually go between Christmas and New Year. We really go overboard on the Christmas lunch – turkey, bacon, sausages and everyone has to have at least a couple of Brussels sprouts even if you don’t like them. Boxing Day in the countryside is also associated with the Boxing Day Hunt when the riders all have a pre-Hunt sherry and mince pie before the ride. I love seeing the window displays at Fortnum’s and Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without one of their boxes of rose and violet creams in my stocking! #FarawayFiles

    • 24th November 2016 / 9:56 PM

      Fortnums is divine! I love everything about it – especially the rose and violet creams! Feeling festive yet Clare?

  4. 23rd November 2016 / 9:49 PM

    Ha – the jumper bit made me howl, they are so wrong aren’t they! All these seasonal things made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, you’ve definitely captured the spirit of a British xmas! We like to go for a long walk on Boxing Day, that’s one of our traditions, either that or a boxing day dash somewhere (which inevitably involves stripping off and cold water!) #citytripping

    • 24th November 2016 / 9:59 PM

      The jumpers are very wrong. I knew all about them from my first time living here but my husband came home from work and said – “What the eff is this all about. I’m not doing it!” He manages a lot of people so he does look like a total scrooge not participating. Need to hear more about the Boxing Day dash! Yikes!

      • 24th November 2016 / 10:00 PM

        Ha!!! I don’t blame him, although I am rather partial to a great fairisle. #ihavetaste 😉

  5. 23rd November 2016 / 10:03 PM

    This was really fun to read – looking back at ourselves through your eyes. Sausages in bacon are perfectly normal… although pantomimes are a bit peculiar, I admit, and I can’t stand sprouts. I don’t even have a Christmas jumper, although I come close to buying one every year 🙂 Pretty spot on, and it’s made me feel very festive, even with a month yet to go. I think I need some ice skating, to wander around a Christmas market and then to listen to some carols. And a mince pie. Thanks for linking up with #citytripping

    • 30th November 2016 / 3:25 PM

      My local cafe put the carols on today. Tinsel me up!

  6. 24th November 2016 / 8:40 AM

    Those are some awesome Christmas traditions! We also do the ugly sweater competition in the States, but sometimes I think its going out of style! I’ve always wanted to have an ugly sweater party but haven’t had one yet! #FarawayFiles

  7. 24th November 2016 / 9:59 AM

    beautiful post! I love the Xmas jumpers and the mince pies:) #farawayfiles

  8. 24th November 2016 / 11:23 AM

    Loved this look at ‘our’ Christmas from new eyes. I wander why we go in for Pantomime in such a big way? #FarawayFiles

  9. 24th November 2016 / 11:51 AM

    Your husband’s right – of course you need pigs in blankets (sausages wrapped in bacon)! This post made me laugh. I hadn’t anticipated you incuding Christmas jumpers! But you’re right, they’re such a big thing these days. I need to get mine sorted 🙂 #FarawayFiles

    • 30th November 2016 / 3:26 PM

      Photos please Nell! I need to see that jumper 🙂

  10. 24th November 2016 / 12:00 PM

    All these things make up such a great Christmas. Even after living in 8 other countries and having left UK pretty much in 1986 I still like British Christmases the best! That’s not to say I don’t love it elsewhere, but I do love the special things like carol singing, crackers, THE meal, and even ugly jumpers! I appreciate the way Brits can laugh at themselves and not take life too seriously which is something that doesn’t happen much in France! (Can you imagine French in Christmas jumpers? Err, no, I didn’t think so!) #farawayfiles

    • 24th November 2016 / 9:54 PM

      I would actually like to see a French Christmas jumper party. Maybe you can start a trend Phoebe. I do think the food is better in France though having been to my sister-in-laws place in the Jura. All – the – fromage! Yum

  11. 24th November 2016 / 1:39 PM

    Once in Royal David’s City is my favorite Christmas carol. Unfortunately, we don’t hear it often in the States, except for at church. And you gotta love the ugly sweater contest. #FarawayFiles

  12. 24th November 2016 / 3:49 PM

    I am English so I am used to all of these traditions, carol singing is my favourite, I love to belt out a high-pitched out-of-tune squeak at a carols by candlelight concert, oh, and the pigs in blankets (the name for bacon around sausages) is my favourite part of the christmas day lunch! I find it fascinating hearing what other people think of native traditions and I had to laugh at your thoughts on pantomime, I forgot that it’s not something done the world over … crackers it most certainly is 🙂 I spent a Christmas on the Gold Coast which had some of the English traditions – apart from the weather – you had sunshine and, as you have now figured for yourself, we just have rain lol. Thank you for helping me get into the Christmas spirt, I’m going to put on one of my dreadfully ugly Christmas jumpers now and sing Christmas songs 🙂 🙂 #FarawayFiles

    • 24th November 2016 / 9:53 PM

      I think I need to see a video of that sing-a-long. Christmas on the Goldy would be very different to our Christmas in Melbourne too I expect. I love hearing everyone’s traditions. Let’s get festive!

  13. 24th November 2016 / 4:08 PM

    I Love the pink boots!! I love the holiday decorations in London at Christmas time, they’re some of the most amazing I’ve seen and seeing this post makes me want to be there this year! I saw photos of Carnaby Street the other day and it looks amazing! #farawayfiles

    • 24th November 2016 / 9:51 PM

      hee hee – the pink boots are haunting me!

      • 24th November 2016 / 10:26 PM

        You’d better do get them!!

  14. aandj8804
    24th November 2016 / 4:38 PM

    I didn’t know the queen did a yearly speech. How interesting. I actually watched the youtube video you shared of 2015’s. It’s awesome that she shares history and good tidings with her people. I wonder if the tradition will continue when she dies and which royal figure will continue it? #FarawayFiles

    • 24th November 2016 / 9:51 PM

      I am sure the speech will be expected by whoever is the next monarch Mandy. Though I think it would be a very big shock when she does go. Glad you enjoyed it. I thought my North American readers would find it interesting.

  15. 24th November 2016 / 8:56 PM

    Such a great list. I’m visiting London this Christmas and this gave me some great pointers. Thank you! #farawayfiles

    • 24th November 2016 / 9:50 PM

      Oh great! Glad you found it useful Upeksha. Do reach out if you have any questions. Enjoy your trip!

  16. 24th November 2016 / 9:44 PM

    This made my heart happy Katie! Lol. I was getting more and more excited as I was reading this. I’ve added a lot more now in my Christmas bucket list. 🙂

    • 24th November 2016 / 9:49 PM

      Have you seen the Christmas tree at St James’ and the angels down the street there? Gorgeous. I’ll be in full Christmas mode next week. Look out! x

  17. Kat
    25th November 2016 / 8:23 AM

    After reading your post, I’m starting to feel the Christmas mood now 🙂 Although Christmas in Malaysia is not exactly like Christmas in the West, we do get the commercial effects of Christmas with the decorations, lights, gifts and more gifts, parties and shopping mall sale. We may not have the freezing winter and snow but we have the tropical rains and cloudy skies. I celebrate Christmas too because my maternal side of the family is Catholic, thus we do have our family Christmas Eve dinner with relatives – we feast on a combination of Malaysian and Western dishes 🙂 #farawayfiles

    • 30th November 2016 / 3:27 PM

      Kat I am sure a Malaysian Christmas dinner is delicious! What is your favourite Malaysian Christmas dish?

  18. jphowze
    25th November 2016 / 8:55 AM

    I love this post. You’ve really captured all the great Christmas traditions in London. It’s also a good reminder that I need to get myself and the family to the Geffrye Museum! x #FarawayFiles

  19. 25th November 2016 / 2:31 PM

    As an expat Christmas is the worst time of year. I miss all of these traditions – also mulled wine and baileys in the pub #farawayfiles

  20. 25th November 2016 / 5:01 PM

    I have to admit I don’t really do Christmas and would happily slink off to somewhere non festive if I didn’t have family who do DO Christmas! That said I love hearing Christmas carols and you can’t beat a decent pud with brandy butter … or Calvados butter as I now make in France! #farawayfiles

  21. tracycollins2016
    25th November 2016 / 5:25 PM

    A great post – so many of these things I don’t even think about anymore though I used to miss them when I lived abroad! We are moving to Australia next year – what traditions can we expect over there? I have lived in the southern hemisphere before and although i did enjoy Christmas on the beach it was never the same so i tried to be back in the UK at Christmas as much as possible – South Africa is a little closer than Australia though so don’t anticipate returning for a while!

    I love the Christmas jumper thing lol it is such fun – I am a teacher and its great to see who can get the tackiest!!

    One thing we do here which when I loved on the Continent they didn’t do is open presents on Christmas day itself – there they were opened on Christmas Eve. To be a little adventurous I do a box for everyone with new pyjamas, a mug, sweets and hot chocolate and a few little surprises to be opened on Christmas Eve.

    We are heading to London next month and I am like a kid—I can’t wait to see all the lights!!!

  22. 25th November 2016 / 9:27 PM

    Ooh I’m feeling all Christmassy now listening to Hark! The Herald Angels Sing! I would LOVE to spend a Christmas in the northern hemisphere – being from NZ Christmas is always a summertime celebration. But I just don’t think NZ and Aus do Christmas like the British. Here in Fiji there are a few decorations but not much. Maybe next year I need to try and figure out how to get some northern European Christmas feels going on!

  23. 26th November 2016 / 8:28 AM

    It is funny reading about our Christmas traditions from a different viewpoint. And even funnier that the Christmas jumper has made it into the list of traditions! I’m not a huge fan of the commercial side of Christmas but the one thing I do enjoy is going to buy the tree (and attempting to get in the car!). #farawayfiles

  24. 26th November 2016 / 3:18 PM

    Wow! I had no idea there were so many things going on in London this time of the year. Pantomines sound awesome. 🙂 Love this! #farawayfiles

  25. 26th November 2016 / 10:07 PM

    London looks magical during the holidays! I wish I could experience it for myself!!

  26. 27th November 2016 / 1:28 PM

    I love the Christmas Season. It can be below zero temperatures and I will still love it , becasue it’s Christmas (though by Boxing Day I am so over the cold!) I’m not a major fan of the shopping aspec of Christmas but I love walking around the markets and seeing all the decorations around the city 🙂 lovely post #farawayfiles

  27. 28th November 2016 / 9:30 AM

    Katy, you’ve made me feel so nostalgic for all things English at Christmas-time. I spent 3 years in the UK, and loved the build up to Christmas. I think because most of the carols are all snow-themed, and about getting cosy with loved ones, the Christmas spirit seems so much more traditional and exciting when “the weather outside is frightful”… I really loved the shopping experience, in the cold dark (sometimes snowy) afternoons, ducking in and out of sparkly stores with carolers and christmas songs playing. It’s so lovely!

    Just so you don’t feel too homesick for Melbourne, the Myer windows are beautiful this year. x
    #FarawayFiles

    • 30th November 2016 / 3:28 PM

      Ooh I might have to drop by on Christmas Eve. We arrive on 23rd! See you soon Melbs! x

  28. 3rd December 2016 / 4:01 PM

    I have never understood those Christmas sweaters 🙂 #farawayfiles

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