The origins of Christmas traditions in the UK

Celebrations during the winter months can be said to originate from prehistoric celebrations around the midwinter solstice on December 21st, the shortest day of the year. Today, Christmas is celebrated on December 25th in many countries worldwide and there are many traditions we cherish that have been shaped by centuries of changing beliefs, politics, technology, taste and commerce. In this blog, we explore some Christmas traditions from across the UK and their origins.

Why do we eat turkey at Christmas?

Although turkeys aren’t native to the UK (or even Turkey), they have been eaten in Britain for hundreds of years. There is documentation of turkeys being imported into the UK in the early 16th century, and Henry VIII was apparently the first British monarch to enjoy turkey on Christmas day. However, it took over 400 years for the turkey to go from a speciality, luxury item to the most popular festive centrepiece across the UK.

For much of British history, food eaten at Christmas was very similar to food eaten at other feasts and celebrations. Medieval monks would celebrate by spending money on rare and expensive spices, to add to their pies, fish and offal.

Before the arrival of turkey, boar was a particularly popular option. Stuffed boar’s heads were served as a Christmas centrepiece in England from the medieval period right up until Tudor times. In the medieval period, pottage – a thick stew – would be served in a “trencher” in wealthy households on special occasions, including Christmas. A trencher was a hollowed-out loaf of stale bread which would be filled with pottage or other meaty stews.

Why do we have Christmas trees?

In the UK, the Christmas tree was first introduced in 1800 by the wife of King George III, Queen Charlotte, who brought the tradition from her native Germany, where it was a common custom to have a Christmas Yew tree in your home. She requested a Yew tree be brought to Queen’s Lodge in Windsor, which she decorated herself.

Today, every home contains a Christmas tree (or two), dressed in tinsel, baubles and the like, ready to house the presents underneath, a tradition that has definitely stood the test of time.

Boxing Day

Boxing Day got its name when Queen Victoria ruled in the 1800s. The name comes from a time when the rich used to box up gifts to give to the poor.

Boxing Day was traditionally a day off for servants and a day when they received a special Christmas box from their masters. The servants would go home on Boxing Day to give the Christmas boxes to their families.

The Welsh tradition of Mari Llwyd

The first written record of the Mari Lwyd is in J. Evans’ book from 1800, A Tour through Part of North Wales, although the tradition is best known for its practice in Glamorgan and Gwent. The tradition involves a horse figure carried from door to door by wassail-singing groups during the Christmas season.

Traditionally, Mari is carried around between Christmas Day and Twelfth Night, dressed with festive lights and decorations. When the group arrives at a house, they sing Welsh language songs or wassails or more traditionally indulge in a ritual called pwnco: an exchange of rude rhymes with the person who lives there. If the Mari and her gang get entry, the household is said to have good luck for the year.

Why Christmas was once banned in Scotland

Before the Reformation in 1560, Christmas in Scotland had been a religious feasting day. Then, as Roman Catholicism and its values were disregarded, the Scottish Parliament passed a law in 1640 that made celebrating ‘Yule vacations’ illegal. The baking of Yule bread was even a criminal act!

After Charles II was restored to the throne, celebrating Christmas in Scotland did not become a standard practice for a long time – it wasn’t until 1958 that 25 December became a Scottish public holiday. This is why Scottish traditions like Hogmanay and New Year celebrations became so important.

Today, some traditions are still prominent, including the ‘first-footer’, a special name given to the first person to arrive on Christmas Day (this tradition is now more commonly associated with New Year’s Day). To bless their guests, first-footers come with gifts such as coal, whisky, salt and bread. Black buns are also a popular first-footing gift – they’re made with raisins, currants, almonds, citrus peel, allspice, ginger and cinnamon, and topped with pastry.

What are your Christmas traditions? Why not take this opportunity to learn about your family traditions and find out what Christmas was like for the older members of your family.

Learning about the life of those you love and preserving their legacy is at the core of what we do at My Story Told. We create a lasting document, a family heirloom that can be passed down so that generations can learn about your personal and family history. We help you tell your story, your way.

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The autobiographical genre has always involved stories from people with a variety of backgrounds, including political figures, historical figures, entertainment stars and sportspeople. Whether you are reading about a success story within business, or the life story of your favourite athlete, autobiographies allow the reader to share the experiences with the writer and hear it from their own personal perspective.

In this blog, we take a look at some upcoming and new autobiographical releases for readers of a variety of interests to enjoy.

Spare by Prince Harry The Duke of Sussex

A long-awaited account of the life of Prince Harry, The Duke of Sussex, is set to be released in January 2023 and is now available to pre-order. With its raw, unflinching honesty, Spare is a landmark publication full of insight, revelation, self-examination, and hard-won wisdom about the eternal power of love over grief.

As the inner workings of the Royal Family are not usually known to the public, this book gives readers the chance to understand how The Duke of Sussex has had to navigate life’s ups and downs, whilst being a serving monarch to the United Kingdom.

Never Finished: Unshackle Your Mind and Win the War Within by David Goggins

Described by Goggins as “not a self-help book, it’s a wakeup call”, “Never Finished: Unshackle Your Mind and Win the War Within” is Goggins’ second release following “Can’t Hurt Me” – published in 2018.

Goggins rose to fame after telling his story of unrivalled dedication in becoming a US Navy Seal, shedding 50kg in three months in order to be accepted into the program. His second release focuses more on anecdotes and life lessons in this raw, revealing, unflinching memoir. It offers the reader a blueprint they can use to climb from the bottom into a whole new stratosphere that once seemed unattainable.

Finding Hildasay: How one man walked the UK’s coastline and found hope and happiness by Christian Lewis

Christian Lewis made an impulsive decision to set himself a challenge – walk the entire coastline of the UK. He then left with just £10 in his pocket and two days’ worth of food. Little did he know just how long it would take, and the encounters that lay ahead that would turn his life around.

While undertaking the challenge, he navigated the West Coast, Northern Ireland, the hard-rock cliffs of Scotland and the perimeters of the Scottish Islands – where he spent three months on an uninhabited island called Hildasay. Finding Hildasay is a brutal and beautiful true story of depression, survival and the meaning of home.

Fat Dogs and Welsh Estates by Beth Haslam

Beth Haslam was brought up on a country estate in Wales. Deep in the countryside, her childhood was spent either on horseback, helping the gamekeepers raise pheasants, or out sailing.

A raw take on growing up on a farm estate, Fat Dogs and Welsh Estates gives readers insight into life in North Wales. Petulant ponies, neurotic sheepdogs and rabbits with razor-sharp teeth, this account also tells of sailing the treacherous Menai Strait Swellies, and the ghost-filled castle she called home.

Share Your Story

There are many reasons that people choose to share their life story. Whether you are writing an autobiography or memoir, perhaps you’ve lived the kind of life that’s inspired people, or maybe you’d love for your family and future generations to be able to read about your life in your own words.

If reading any of these brilliant autobiographies gets you thinking about writing your own life story, get in touch and we can help you tell your story, your way.