Blog Article

The origins of Christmas traditions in the UK

The origins of Christmas traditions in the UK

Date: 13th December 2022

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.

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