Why Brits Wear Paper Crowns on Christmas — and Other Strange Holiday Traditions
People celebrate December 25 differently around the world, and most countries have some odd Christmas traditions that puzzle Americans. The British, however, might have a lock of some of the strangest Christmas customs you’ve heard about.
What matters the most at holiday time is that you’re with people you love and that you enjoy yourself, no matter what you do to mark the occasion. Find out what people across the pond like to do on Christmas — you might learn some strange things you probably never knew.
1. They eat mince meat pies
The mince pie became popular in 13th century Britain to use the ingredients crusading knights brought home from faraway lands, according to the website BuzzFeed. The pies contained nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, dried fruit, suet — and minced meat. Was it savory or sweet or just an awful combination?
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Puritans essentially banned Christmas, and the pies disappeared for a while. When they made their comeback, they were more sweet than savory, and typically appeared as bite-size treats.
Next: Wassup with wassail?
2. They drink wassail
Americans typically think eggnog when they dream of holiday drinks, but the Brits think wassail. Wassail is a spicy, mulled wine or cider that door-to-door carolers used to take with them on their rounds. The word means “be well” in Anglo-Saxon, and the drink ensured everyone was well — at least right after they drank it. Although “Wassail” used to be a New Year’s greeting, the English must have gotten tired of waiting, so today they start drinking it at Christmas.
Next: This ain’t your grandma’s chocolate pudding.
3. They must have a Christmas pudding
A British Christmas pudding is very different from what Americans know as pudding. The dish dates back to the medieval era, according to BuzzFeed, and it resembles a fruitcake, only it’s even spicier and soaked in brandy, and it traditionally has coins hidden inside it. At the end of Christmas dinner, Brits set the pudding on fire and eat it — at least they wait until the fire dies down. In medieval times, you were to make the pudding on the 25th Sunday after Trinity. It had to contain 13 ingredients, which represented Jesus and his apostles.
Next: The No. 1 strangest British Christmas tradition
4. They wear paper crowns at dinner
Christmas crackers consist of three cardboard tubes connected by colored foil — and they’re on the dinner table in England, right next to the cutlery. The tradition works like this: You turn to your neighbor, offer him or her one end of the cracker, and you both pull. The tubes make a small cracking noise — and out comes a prize, typically a small, plastic toy or an awful pun joke on a piece of paper. The most important thing in the tubes, however, is the paper crown you must don.
Tom Smith, a Victorian confectioner, was struck by how the French wrapped their candy in colored tissue paper, according to the website Mental Floss. He tried to replicate that in England, but sales were dismal. As he sat by a crackling fire one even, he came up with the idea of opening something that “cracks.” Once he put the tiny explosives in the new packaging, sales took off.
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5. They have Father Christmas, not Saint Nick
Brits don’t acknowledge Santa Clause. Instead, they call their version of Saint Nick Father Christmas. Although today both charaters are considered the same “person,” their origins are quite different, according to BuzzFeed. The idea of Santa Claus likely comes from the 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” and Father Christmas first came on the scene as the Saxon King Winter, a figure that provided a milder winter climate for the English if they were nice to him. He morphed into Father Christmas by the 1600s. Father Christmas lives in Lapland, Finland, and the Claus family lives in the North Pole.
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6. They don’t say Merry Christmas
You won’t hear many Brits say Merry Christmas. Instead, you’ll hear them wish each other “Happy Christmas” or a shortened version of that, “Happy Crimbo.” Americans used to say Happy Christmas, according to Country Living, but started using “merry” because Charles Dickens popularized it in “A Christmas Carol.” The Queen of England, however, did not adopt the phrase — and because the royal family did not, most of England followed suit.
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7. They love pantomime on Christmas
British pantomime, aka panto, is musical comedy, and it’s very popular. According to The British Players website, it incorporates “song, dance, buffoonery, slapstick, in-jokes, audience participation, and mild innuendo.” Although seeing panto is a Christmas activity, the story lines don’t involve the holiday — they are typically based on children’s stories. A young woman usually takes the leading male role and an older woman or man dressed in drag plays the leading “boy” part. The Brits love to participate, and players encourage them to join in and boo the bad guy — and cheer on the hero.
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8. They celebrate the day after Christmas
In England, December 26 is Boxing Day, a public holiday — and a day that’s kind of like the American Black Friday. On this day, the English usually hit the post-Christmas sales, according to The Telegraph. December 26 also signals the feast day of Saint Stephen, a day on which horse racing and fox hunting are traditional activities. The exact origin of the holiday’s name is a mystery, but many think it goes back to the Victorian-era church tradition of leaving a box out for parishioners to put in their donations.
Next: Quiet, everyone, the Queen is speaking.
9. They don’t miss the Queen’s Christmas broadcast
George V, Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, began broadcasting a Christmas message in 1932. It has since become a British institution, according to Express. At 3 p.m. on Christmas day you’d be hard-pressed to find a Brit not tuned in to listen to the Queen discuss the previous year’s events and deliver a message of English unity. The contents of the speech are highly confidential and guarded carefully until the Queen makes her broadcast.
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