Christmas is Britain's most popular holiday and is characterized by traditions which date back hundreds of years. Many Christmas customs which originated in Britain have been adopted in the United States.
The first ever Christmas card was posted in England in the 1840s, and the practice soon became an established part of the build-up to Christmas. Over a billion Christmas cards are now sent every year in the United Kingdom, many of them sold in aid of charities.
Christmas decorations in general have even earlier origins. Holly, ivy and mistletoe are associated with rituals going back beyond the Dark Ages. (The custom of kissing beneath a sprig of mistletoe is derived from an ancient pagan tradition.) The Christmas tree was popularised by Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, who introduced one to the Royal Household in 1840. Since 1947, the country of Norway has presented Britain annually with a large Christmas tree which stands in Trafalgar Square in commemoration of Anglo-Norwegian cooperation during the Second World War.
Popular among children at Christmas time are pantomimes: song and dance dramatisations of well-known fairy tales which encourage audience participation.
Carols are often sung on Christmas Eve by groups of singers to their neighbours, and children hang a stocking on the fireplace or at the foot of their bed for Santa Claus (also named Father Christmas) to fill. Presents for the family are placed beneath the Christmas tree.
Christmas Day sees the opening of presents and many families attend Christmas services at church. Christmas dinner consists traditionally of a roast turkey, goose or chicken with stuffing and roast potatoes. This is followed by mince pies and Christmas pudding flaming with brandy, which might contain coins or lucky charms for children. (The pudding is usually prepared weeks beforehand and is customarily stirred by each member of the family as a wish is made.) Later in the day, a Christmas cake may be served - a rich baked fruit cake with marzipan, icing and sugar frosting.
The pulling of Christmas crackers often accompanies food on Christmas Day. Invented by a London baker in 1846, a cracker is a brightly coloured paper tube, twisted at both ends, which contains a party hat, riddle and toy or other trinket. When it is pulled by two people it gives out a crack as its contents are dispersed.
Another traditional feature of Christmas afternoon is the Queen's Christmas Message to the nation, broadcast on radio and television.
The day after Christmas is known in Britain as Boxing Day, which takes its name from a former custom of giving a Christmas Box - a gift of money or food inside a box - to the deliverymen and tradespeople who called regularly during the year. This tradition survives in the custom of tipping the milkman, postman, dustmen and other callers of good service at Christmas time.
MISTLETOE, considered sacred by the British Druids, was believed to have many miraculous powers. Among the Romans, it was symbol of peace, and, it was said that when enemies met under it, they discarded their arms and declared a truce. From this comes our custom of kissing under the mistletoe. England was the first country to use it during the Christmas season.
Trifle: The Great British Pudding
(Olde English Trifle)
1 pint milk
1/2 vanilla pod
2 eggs, plus 2 egg yolks
2 tbsp. caster (fine) sugar
1 Victoria sandwich cake (see recipe)
6 oz. raspberry or strawberry jam
4 oz. medium sherry
10 oz. Devonshire Cream
1 1/2 oz. flaked almonds, toasted and
2 oz. glaze cherries to decorate.
Scald the milk with the vanilla pod. Cover the pan and leave to infuse for 20 minutes. Beat together the eggs, egg yolks and sugar and strain on the milk. Cook over a gentle heat, without boiling, stirring all the time until the custard thickens slightly. Pour into a bowl; lightly sprinkle the surface with sugar and cool.
Spread the sponge cake with jam, cut up and place in a 3 1/2 pint shallow serving dish with the macaroons. Spoon over the sherry and leave for 2 hours. Pour over the cold custard.
Whip the cream until softly stiff. Top the custard with half the fresh cream. Pour the remaining cream on top and decorate with the almonds and cherries.
This dates back to the late 19th century. Although Christmas puddings should be made well in advance, it is possible to make this pudding on Christmas Eve with very successful results.
8 oz currants
8 oz. sultanas
8 oz. stoned raisins
8 oz. Barbados sugar
4 oz. grated beef suet
4 oz. fresh breadcrumbs
4 oz. ground almonds
4 oz. blanched almonds, chopped
4 oz. mixed candied peel
6 oz. cooking apple, peeled and finely chopped
8 oz. plain flour
Finely grated rind of 1 lemon
Finely grated rind of 1 orange
2 tbsp. lemon juice
3 fl. oz. stout
4 eggs, beaten
1/2 oz. ground mixed spice
1/4 tsp. grated nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
Pinch of salt
5 tbsp. brandy
Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl with 2 tbsp. of the brandy. Pour the mixture into a greased 3 1/2 pint pudding basin and cover with a double layer of greased, greaseproof paper or aluminum foil--pleated in the middle to allow for expansion. Tie string under the rim and across the top to make a handle. Place a trivet in the base of a large saucepan. Lower the pudding into the saucepan and fill with enough boiling water to come two-thirds of the way up the sides of the basin. Pour in more boiling water if necessary.
When the Pudding is cooked, pour the remaining brandy over the surface and re-cover. To reheat, boil gently for 3-4 hours.
To serve, decorate with a sprig of holly and flambé at the table with warmed brandy, if desired. Can also be served with Brandy Butter or delicious Devonshire Cream.
6 oz butter
6 oz. caster (fine) sugar
3 eggs beaten
6 oz. self-raising flour
2 tbsp. jam
Caster (fine) sugar to dredge
Butter two 7-inch sandwich tins and line the base of each with a round of buttered greaseproof paper.
Beat the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs a little at a time, beating well after each addition. Fold in half the flour, using a metal spoon, then fold in the rest
Place half the mixture in each tin and level with a knife. Bake in the oven at 375 degrees for about 20 minutes, until they are well risen, firm to the touch, and beginning to shrink away from the sides of the tins. Turn out and cool on a wire rack.