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The Festive Season: English Traditions, Words and Customs

Christmas is finally here! At Spen Languages we are putting our English language exercise books away, and our feet up for a well-earned break with a mince pie and a mug of mulled wine, listening to some carols around the Christmas tree. Tomorrow we might eat some turkey and if we’re lucky, we might be allowed to make a wish on the wishbone. But why are we doing these things?

As in any country, the English take their traditions for granted, so we took a little look through history to discover how our traditions started, where the words come from and how

our festivities came about.

In this blog we will look at Christmas traditions that you will have experienced so far, with a follow up next week explaining the coming traditions and celebrations we observe over the New Year.


Advent is a solemn Christian tradition and marks the run up to Christmas, starting at the beginning of December. Like many British traditions, the origins of the way we mark advent actually come from a completely different place and time altogether. Way back when, in protestant Germany, families used to make a chalk mark for every day of advent, from 1st December all the way up to Christmas Eve.

Manufacturers soon caught on that this tradition could be widely commercialised, and over time every family graduated from chalk marks to beautiful Christmas scenes with numbered doors from 1 to 24 or 25, with well-known Christmas symbols or characters behind each one. These days, Christmas symbols have been replaced by chocolate, which is of course, in December, perfectly acceptable to eat before breakfast. Spen Languages is NOT complaining!

Many people also burn advent candles with marks from 1 to 24, burning a small amount each day so that the candle reaches its end on Christmas.

From the beginning of Advent (and sometimes before), we decorate our houses with holly, ivy, mistletoe, candles, and of course, Christmas trees. The reasons for all of these decorations come from time-honoured beliefs that often date back many centuries.

The Holly & The Ivy

These native English plants are the subject of many a Christmas carol. Holly was believed to have magic powers that would protect us from the demons, ghosts and werewolves that were a genuine fear, and believed to be especially active at Christmas time, in medieval times. Unmarried women would tie sprigs of the spiky holly to the end of their beds to guard against these supernatural predators.


This gentle plant is hung in many an English home to this day. “Kissing under the mistletoe” is the Christmas dream for many a love struck teenager, but few of them will know that the tradition of practising goodwill and union in the presence of mistletoe dates all the way back to a time before Christianity.

Mistletoe used to be believed to have magical healing properties, and was sacred to the pagans that inhabited the British Isles before Christianity arrived. Druids used it in sacrifices to their gods, and may even have been part of druidic wedding ceremonies. People have hung mistletoe in their houses at yuletide, and later Christmas, ever since, and offers shelter and protection to all who enter.

The tradition of kissing is supposed to come from a Norse myth, which amongst other things dictates that for each kiss that happens under the mistletoe, one white berry must be removed. Teenagers countrywide will be dismayed to learn that according to the myth, once all the berries are gone, no more kissing!

Christmas Trees

The bringing of evergreens (Christmas Trees) into the house at Christmas is yet another tradition that the English have borrowed from Germany. The first person to do it is supposed to be Martin Luther, who brought in a fir tree and decorated it with candles to show the children how the stars looked glimmering at night in the forest.

This only became popular in Victorian England, when Victoria’s German husband Albert brought the tradition here. Of course, we now use fairy lights which much reduces the risk of fire, and add to them with baubles, tinsel and chocolate biblical characters.

Winter Solstice, or Yule

Yule is a pagan celebration, taken from the times where British people worshipped ancient Celtic gods, and marks midwinter. From the Winter solstice (usually falling from 20th to 23rd December) onwards, the days start to get longer and lighter. For pagans, this marks the beginning of the climb towards Spring, and is a time of fresh starts and clean slates. Often, just as with Christmas, pagans exchange gifts, and eat and drink together to mark the turning of the season.

The word yule has origins in Old English, Norse, and Anglo-Saxon, which all had similar sounding words for the Winter Solstice. For more information on old Winter Solstice words and traditions, click here.

Christmas Eve

The UK is less concerned with Christmas Eve than many other European countries, choosing to dedicate our main celebration to Christmas Day itself. For most Britons, it is a day for last-minute Christmas shopping, manically cleaning the house in anticipation of the arrival of many a guest and family member, wrapping presents, getting the turkey, and finally collapsing, usually much later than expected, in front of a fire, glass of mulled wine and mince pie in hand.

Of course, children don’t see it that way and spend most of the day wondering whether they’ve been good enough to receive all the presents they requested from Father Christmas, or Santa.

Santa Claus, St Nicholas & Christmas Stockings

The original St Nicholas, the patron saint of children, merchants, medicine, scholars and mariners, was supposed to have been a real-life bishop living in the 4th Century BC in Myra, Turkey. The tradition of children receiving gifts in stockings is supposed to come from his delivery of a dowry to the enamoured daughters of a good but poor man who could not afford to marry them to their beloved fiancées. On Christmas Eve, the daughters had all hung their drenched stockings to dry by the fire. Knowing of the man’s difficulties, his snuck up to the chimney in the dead of night and dropped enough gold coins down the chimney to provide dowries to each of the girls. They fell into the stockings, which the man found and ran into the night to find his mystery benefactor, but all he heard was the clip-clopping of St Nicholas’s horses as he rode away.

The legend grew and spread, with children who had acted kindly and obediently being rewarded at Christmas with a stocking full of presents. In England these are left on the bed while the children sleep and opened first thing on Christmas morning.

St. Nicolas, who then became Santa Claus (more commonly known in the UK as Father Christmas), only first gained his white-trimmed red coat and hat in 1931 because of Coca Cola advertising.

Christmas Day

This is the big one for most English families. Kids waking up at the crack of dawn, carols, turkey, tinsel, family games and fights, a roaring fire, and the exchange of many, many presents casts a wonderful (but often slightly stressful) glow over the day. The British have many time-honoured traditions on Christmas Day, the most prolific of which we’ll go through:

Christmas Service

Although there are a dwindling number of practicing Christians in England, many families still go to church on Christmas morning to sing carols and hear the story of Christmas. There is often a nativity play performed by the most junior members of the congregation, which makes everyone melt slightly!

The Turkey (or Goose)

Christmas is coming; the goose is getting fat. Please put a penny in the old man’s hat. If you don’t have a penny, a ha’penny* will do; if you don’t have a ha’penny, God bless you.

(*Ha'penny is a shortening of "half penny"; one of the smallest measures of old British currency.)

The above Victorian saying shows how goose and turkey has long been a part of Christmas culture in the UK. This has to go in the oven hours before it is eaten, and is verily served with a banquet of vegetables, Yorkshire puddings, pigs in blankets, cauliflower cheese, gravy and much wine.

The tradition of eating turkey at Christmas became a tradition in the 16th century, when Spanish merchants began to import them from America. Henry VIII is believed to have been the first monarch to eat turkey at Christmas, but Edward VII was the one to popularise it.

The Wishbone

The wishbone is taken from the carcass of the turkey, and given to two family members (usually the two youngest children). The wishbone is a V shape, so the children each hook their little finger around one arm of the V, and pull against one another until the bone snaps. Whoever gets the biggest part of the wishbone gets to make a wish.

Christmas Crackers

These have been used at British Christmas time to bring some colour and fun to the dinner table since 1847, when they were invented by Tom Smith. The aptly named crackers are rolls of brightly coloured cardboard with twists on each that hold within them a thin, small explosive that pops when they’re pulled, a paper hat, a small gift and a corny joke. The best, cleanest fun you can have around a dinner table!

The Queen’s Speech

This is seriously observed amongst the more senior generations, and usually involved gathering round the television to hear the Queen’s commentary on the past year, and her plans for the following year.

If you spent Christmas in the UK this year, let us know which of these traditions you observed! What did you notice about how the British celebrate that stands out for you? If you went home, how do you do things differently?

We’d love to hear from you with our stories, so get in touch, but for now…

A Merry Christmas to All, and to All a Good Night!

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