Wherever you live, if you celebrate Christmas, many of your holiday traditions were passed down from Great Britain. Whether you send Christmas cards, eat a roast-turkey feast or even just have a Christmas tree, you can thank Victorian England. Considering the spread of the British Empire during that era, it's no surprise that many customs and traditions stemming from the UK expanded and took root across the globe.
Many of the most fun and frivolous aspects of the Christmas holiday date back to the reign of Queen Victoria. Although evergreen boughs represented winter life in Europe since Roman times and German-born Queen Charlotte started the British tradition of the Christmas tree in 1800, it wasn't until the 1840s that Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, popularized the tradition.
The first Christmas card was sent in the 1840s as well, and the re-popularization of carols also happened during this time period — Oliver Cromwell had banned them in the 1600s for what he saw as their lack of reverence for the holiness of the day. Victorian England lives on as the "era of Christmas" for many, helped along when Charles Dickens published "A Christmas Carol" in 1843. And it doesn't hurt that this was also the time gift giving became the norm for the season!
For modern Britons, though, Christmas starts in the kitchen. Most particularly, it starts with the Christmas pudding. Nothing at all like a butterscotch pudding you get in a plastic cup, a Christmas pudding is much closer to the oft-maligned fruitcake. British Christmas starts here because a pudding gets made weeks in advance, with each member of the family stirring the dough once as they make wishes. The advance preparation isn't so it can be as stale as possible but rather so it has time to soak in all the alcohol it needs to be brought out and lit on fire come Christmas dinner!
Other treats, like mince pies and the aforementioned fruitcake, are also prepared in advance and enjoyed over the season. Even Santa (or rather, Father Christmas) delights in mince pies and sherry on Christmas Eve in the UK, not cookies and milk as he does in North America.
As the big day approaches, British children put on nativity plays at school and write letters to Father Christmas as families send loads of Christmas cards (700 million are sent in the UK each year!).
Before you know it, Christmas Eve arrives and it's time to hang the stockings, attend midnight mass, listen to carolers on your doorstep and then try your hardest to sleep through the night. By Christmas morning, most families are up and opening gifts.
The Christmas feast with all the trimmings is served in the afternoon. After breaking open treat-filled bright paper Christmas crackers — also invented during the Victorian era in London — families tuck into the traditional Christmas goose or turkey. While goose is a longtime Christmas staple, dating back to Celtic times, turkey came from North America and joined the Christmas menu in the 1600s. The meal doesn't end till the Christmas pudding, also known as plum pudding or figgy pudding, is brought out from the kitchen, doused in brandy, and set aflame.
The Queen's Speech is one UK Christmas tradition that doesn't predate the modern era. Each year, a recording of the Queen is broadcast on UK television, radio and Internet channels on Christmas Day and re-aired throughout the Commonwealth (in Canada it is shown on the CBC). The tradition began in 1932 with King George V airing a radio broadcast and has continued ever since, with television added in 1957. This year, for the first time ever, the Queen may be broadcast on TV in 3D. The speech airs in the afternoon, and for many families it is a cherished tradition, with everyone gathering round to listen to the Queen before they sit down to their dinner.
The tradition of celebrating Boxing Day has also been passed down from Mother England. Most Canadians view Boxing Day as a time to get out and shop for the best deals of the year, but few are aware of the holiday's origins. Dating back to medieval times, this is another tradition that didn't become really popular until Victorian England. Whether it was priests emptying the alms boxes and giving gifts to the poor or wealthy Brits sharing their indulgent Christmas feasts with their servants, the day was originally meant to be a time to give back to tradesmen, servants and friends. While still a public holiday in the UK, it has lost some of its original significance there as well.
Great Britain, and Queen Victoria's reign in particular, have influenced the Christmas holiday more than almost anything else. So as you sit down to your feast or tear open your gifts, or even as you pass by a group of singers in the mall belting out Christmas Carols, think fondly of the origins of those traditions we've cheerfully adopted as our own.
By Leigh Bryant
Top: Victorian England exported many Christmas traditions, including trading gifts and decorating trees. (Photo by Britain on View/Visit Britain)
Right: Mulled wine and mince pies are traditional winter treats in Britain. (Photo by Pawel Libera/Visit Britain)
Left: Christmas pudding is often served with a brandy or custard sauce. (Photo by Britain on View/Visit Britain)