I saw a comparison on Facebook the other day about the differences between Christmas in the UK and Christmas in the USA and I had to disagree with most of what they were saying was true to an English Christmas! It may have been true a long time ago but growing up in the 90s and 00’s, it didn’t ring true to me. Today I’m reminiscing about the Christmas traditions I had growing up (*hint* there was no Elf On The Shelf or computers and smart phones!)
Childhood Christmas Memories
(90s Christmas UK)
Leading up to Christmas
First things first, correcting the video I saw. Father Christmas does not dress in green in the UK. Traditionally yes he did, if you’ve ever watched A Christmas Carol, one of the spirits is dressed in green for this reason. Coca cola brought in the colour change and we adopted it too. Father Christmas has always been red in my nearly 30 years of life!
Christmas is Christmas. Not a holiday. A holiday is when you go on ‘vacation’. There’s no ‘Happy Holidays’…It’s Happy/Merry Christmas.
The video also mentioned that Brits sent our letters to Santa by burning them in a fireplace. Again something I had never done because a lot of houses don’t even have real fireplaces anymore. We wrote and sent them in the post too. However, I was always concerned that how could Father Christmas come if we didn’t have a chimney for him to come down…he did in fact have a magic key 😉
Instead of magical moving elves, leading up to Christmas we’d have an advent calendar, starting on the 1st December and going right up until Christmas Eve. Most commonly, they’d have little doors with either a chocolate or just a picture behind the door. (I carried this tradition on when I moved to the USA…you can buy the chocolate advent calendars in Aldi).
We also had a wall calendar with little pockets with a sweet in each one, we’d share this one as a family, taking it in turns to have the treat in the pocket. There was then a 3rd that just me and my sister would take turns with, it was a tiny tree and each day you’d open a drawer that held a miniature tree decoration.
As far as I’m aware, we never had St Nick that would bring early Christmas Presents? If it did exist, it was something we didn’t do in our house and I never heard any of my friends talk about it?
When I was younger, my Dad used to COVER the front of our house in Christmas Lights. There’d be some houses that were done up really well around the town and we’d go and see them. Because my birthday is on Dec 3rd, I used to get the special job of ‘grand switch on’ on the first night! One year we even went up to London to see my favourite band switch on the Regent Street Christmas Lights in London. (Samuel L Jackson was there too for my American readers 😉 )
The tree would often go up a week or so after the outside lights. My Mum calls our tree a ‘memory tree’, there’s no rhyme, reason or special design, it’s just jam packed full of ornaments collected or made over the years (including a whole bunch of travel themed decorations!). We’d then have ‘tree chocolates’ hanging on the branches (again, I have them on my American tree) and Christmas crackers would be stuffed between the branches (a paper tube with a banger, joke, hat and gift inside).
Nativities & Christmas at school
When we were in Junior (Elementary) school, we’d put on a school Nativity play for the parents. Now I didn’t go to a religious school, it was just something that was always done either in the school hall or at the church in town. It was the story of Mary and Joseph so there’d be a Mary, a Joseph, a plastic baby that was often held by its ankles and 3 million sheep, stars and shepherds because no kid could be left out!!
Sometimes we’d sing more modern Christmas songs like ‘When Santa Got Stuck Up the Chimney’ and other times the more traditional carols…’We 3 Kings’ was always one of my favourites.
A Santa float would drive around various estates in the town. Santa would wave at all the kids and volunteers would go door to door and collect money for a local charity. Win win!
I always used to take a packed lunch to school but the one day a year I’d have hot school lunch was Christmas Dinner day. All the tables would be pushed into rows, with table cloths, they’d play Christmas music and we’d all get cheap Christmas Crackers with really useless toys inside, but it was tradition!
Christmas Eve Prep
On Christmas Eve, Mum would always make Christmas snacks, such as mince pies (fruit in pastry) and sausage rolls (sausage meat in flaky pastry). She stopped making them in the end because we used to be so full up from the actual Christmas dinner, we’d never actually eat them!
We’d also get special treats at Christmas. We used to be able to pick a couple of different flavours of fizz/pop/soda from the supermarket (cherry-ade, lime-ade etc) and we’d also have a basket of nuts in shells such as walnuts, almonds, brazil nuts (pain in the butt to crack!!!), hazelnuts that you had to open with a nut cracker! There’d also be tins and boxes of chocolates, Quality Street, Roses, After Eight mints and more recently Celebrations and Miniature Heroes.
Before bed (of course ‘early’!), at the bottom of the stairs, we’d leave out: slices of carrots for the reindeers, a glass of milk and a mince pie for Father Christmas.
As we got older we’d have ‘family party night’, which consisted of buying a whole bunch of party finger food (garlic bread, popcorn chicken, mini sausage rolls, mini desserts etc) and sit on the floor and have a picnic dinner, then play board games such as Cludeo or Monopoly!
UK Christmas Day Traditions
Of course me and my Sister were terrible, we’d wake up ridiculously early, think 5am ish, because we were so excited (I now only wake up that early if a flight is involved!). I used to judge how ‘early’ it was by kicking at the bottom of my bed, if it felt as if there was a heavy weight, then I knew that Santa had been as my stocking was there and full up!
6am was usually the target time for when we’d be allowed to go into our parents room with our stockings! We’d sit on their bed and open the gifts that Father Christmas had bought us. A difference in the USA is that Santa will bring big gifts, whereas Father Christmas only brought the stuff that would fit in the stocking, often small things such as socks, toiletries, stickers, notepads, books etc. There would often be a satsuma in there too. I remember I went off satsumas for a while and in my letter I’d write that I’d like an apple instead!
Before we could go downstairs and even see our pile of presents from family and friends, we’d have to get completely dressed and ready, because face it, we’d probably have never done it otherwise! When we were small we used to dress in our ‘good clothes’ but again as we got older we’d just wear whatever!
While we were doing this, Mum would go downstairs and turn the turkey on so it would be cooked in time to be eaten around early afternoon…we probably done her a favour getting up that early! We’d sit on the top stair and wait!
She’d then be downstairs ready to capture our faces as we walked downstairs and saw all of our gifts for the first time! The amount of times she’d be filming us and then Dad would follow down after us and fart was unreal!! Mum would be like ‘I can only get their first reactions once!!! It’s not like I can film it again without you making noises!!!’ HILARIOUS.
When we were younger, our presents would already be set out in piles, my pile was always on the left, my Sister’s on the right! As we got older and the presents got smaller, they would all be under the tree and then we’d divide them out between us all. Mum would write down what we received as we opened them so we’d be able to write personalised thank you notes after Christmas!
Me and my Sis would arrange the presents around us like a den and we’d sit in the middle. We had a weird challenge to see who would be the last person to open all their presents so for ages there would be one lonely present left until one of us caved!
Childhood toys always involved cable ties, batteries, screw drivers and putting things together! As we got older it usually included frustrations for electronics not behaving how we wanted them too!
We’d often get films or CDs as presents so during the morning we’d watch/listen to them or watch a Christmas film that was already on TV!
Christmas Day Dinner
Christmas dinner would happen around 1.30pm. Our grandparents would often come for dinner and to watch us play with our presents! Unlike in the USA, we have turkey as our main meat for Christmas Day dinner…well until I became a ‘turkeytarian’ (don’t ask!), I don’t eat turkey anymore so I’d have the slices of bacon that were laid across the top of the turkey and roasted in the oven!
There’d also be pigs in blankets (little sausages wrapped in bacon), stuffing, yorkshire puddings (flour, eggs, milk…like pancake batter, roasted in the oven), vegetables and roast potatoes. It was also the only time the dining room table would have a table cloth on it!
As mentioned above, we’d also have Christmas crackers, you pull them apart with another person and inside is a paper crown, a gift and a joke (the jokes are always really bad!). We’d then wear the hats throughout dinner! As we got older we would have 4 boxes filled with loose change, you’d randomly pick a box and get to keep the contents! Sometimes the heavier ones didn’t always mean the most money, it could have just been filled with 5ps!
For dessert it’s traditional to have Christmas pudding, a really heavy fruit cake where you’d pour brandy over the top and set it on fire! Not all of us liked it, so there’d often be a small Christmas pudding and then a gateau of some sort and pouring cream! When we were old enough we had a glass of fizzy wine or Bucks Fizz (fizzy wine and orange juice)…bear in mind, the drinking age in the UK is a lot lower than the USA!
The Queen’s Speech
Dinner would finish up just in time for the Queen’s Speech that is on around 3pm. My Nanna always used to make sure we were completely silent while it was on…can you imagine how hard that would have been for kids that just wanted to play with toys! The Queen would basically just sum up what had been happening during the year and give a message on how the country always sticks together through thick and thin!
Because of the early start and then the huge dinner and then all the snacks and chocolates and sweets, by late afternoon we’d all end up falling asleep on the sofa! Waking up just in time to watch some more Christmas TV!
Boxing Day doesn’t exist in the USA, in the UK it acts like another ‘holiday day’! Boxing Day would often be spent round my Granny’s house, seeing my Cousins and Aunts and Uncles. I remember eating a parsnip thinking it was a roast potato (it looked the same) and being scarred for life!
We’d also end up eating cold turkey sandwiches for the next week because there’d always be leftovers!
You can see how I’ve tried to carry on some of the traditions in my post: How To Have a British Christmas in the USA
What were some of your Christmas traditions like growing up?!