Welcome to part 2 of my beginners guide to a very British Christmas. Click here to read part 1.
- Putting the tree up
In Britain, we call decorating your home for Christmas ‘putting the tree up’ and the date on which you decorate is hotly debated. Traditionalists favour the 12 days rule, whereby you decorate your home 12 days before Christmas and you take it all down 12 days after Christmas.
One thing you must remember when celebrating Christmas in Britain is to never, EVER, under any circumstances, decorate your house before 1st December. The shops can do it, but homes cannot. It’s just not on. If you do, then you’ll be ridiculed and forever known as “that eejit in the street with his decorations up in November”. Nothing thrills us Brits more than to pass by someone’s home, get a glimpse of decorations inside and spend the subsequent weeks loudly criticising them to whomever will listen to us. You’ve been warned.
- School Nativity
You’ll be hard pushed to find a British primary school who doesn’t put on their own production of the nativity. School children play all the characters (but Baby J is just a creepy plastic doll) and the teacher who’s a dab hand on the piano will bang out the tunes. Parents, grandparents and begrudged siblings all turn out to coo over their kids and suffer their high pitched singing.
Back in my day, costumes were hand made: a tea towel on your head, your old bathrobe and a tatty pair of sandals was your standard costume. We also spent weeks making paper masks in class for every manner of animal found in a stable (I fondly played an Ox wearing such a mask back in Primary 1).
Watching Love Actually and Nativity I have the suspicion nativity plays have lost their quaint handmade appeal and gotten much more a LOT more serious. But don’t worry, you don’t actually need to attend one of these unless you know a child starring in one. I don’t recommend attending a nativity otherwise.
While we Brits long for a White Christmas you have to remember we also love to complain about the weather. This yearning for snow is so we feel Christmassy in a Dickension kind of way but also so we have something to moan about, because when Britain has snow at Christmas, the country grinds to a halt. There’s never enough salt for the roads, schools heating systems shut down and there’s the constant threat of ‘black ice’ on the roads.
Given that Scotland is on the same latitude as Alaska you’d think we’d be prepared for the eventualities of bad weather. We aren’t and what’s even more ridiculous is the temperatures at which our country grinds to a halt over.
Temperatures in Alaska can drop to -27C and I bet they don’t even bat an eyelid. Britain’s thermometer hits -3C and all hell breaks loose.
In Britain, Christmas stockings are traditionally hung at the end of our beds. Which when you think about it, British children used to go to bed on Christmas Eve knowing a large, bearded stranger in a red suit would be creeping into their bedroom to leave gifts.
In recent years we’ve adopted the less creepy custom of hanging our stockings over the fireplace. Or in lieu of a fireplace, a bookcase/windowsill/nailed into a wall (tick as appropriate).
It’s also tradition for us Brits to receive a Clementine in our stockings, although in recent years this has been replaced with less Puritan-feeling Terry’s Chocolate Orange. If you’ve been bad, you received a lump of coal and this was what your parents threatened you with from October – December.
To make matters even weirder, back in the day (even when I was a kid) kids didn’t have fancy Christmas stockings, we just used an old sock of our Dad’s.
- Midnight Mass
Midnight mass is a Catholic church service held on Christmas Eve. Non-Catholic versions are called the Watchnight Service where you have all the good bits of midnight mass (carols, candles, Christmas spirit) but with none of the overt religious paraphernalia. Some churches even serve mulled wine & mince pies.
Growing up a Catholic there were the few occasions were I attended Midnight Mass with my Mum and being young, and therefore blissfully naive about the whole organised religion thing, I considered it massive fun. I’d got to stay up late, go out into the fresh snow in the dark, see some of my pals from School, sing Christmas carols and nab a selection box from Santa at the end.
Children who attend, on account of getting home after midnight, are sometimes allowed to open 1 present from under the tree (note: this present is always chosen by their parents and is coincidentally, pyjamas).
- Selection Boxes
A Christmas selection box is a selection of chocolate bars presented in a large plastic tray with cellophane wrapping. These can vary in size and in the selection of chocolate and in my eyes, they are an absolute necessity over Christmas. Cadbury’s Heroes or a tin of Quality Street may try to take it place but a selection box is ubiquitous, particularly on Christmas morning.
Some families have Christmas breakfast traditions: they make pancakes, cinnamon buns or Eggs Benedict and all sit down together as a family. My childhood Christmas mornings on the other hand were spent in my PJs, opening presents, surrounded by piles of wrapping paper and powering through several selection boxes at 8am, with my younger brother hot on my heels. A tradition I’m certainly keeping when I have kids.
- Christmas Telly
By this I refer to the British television viewing schedule over the Christmas period.
From 1st December Christmas begins to infiltrate our televisions. We have the Christmas adverts where every supermarket and retailer in the land will try to outdo one another (but John Lewis’ always bags the top prize). Then the Christmas movies begin to creep in, slowly at first but eventually your Sky+ is chock full of Love Actually, Elf, Santa Claus the Movie. British Christmas TV shows are exceedingly top notch, stuff to look out for are: Father Ted, The Snowman, The Gruffalo, Father Christmas and Gavin & Stacey. Every year I watch the same shows and every I love them a little more.
Back in the 90s, the most exciting part of any teenagers Christmas, asides from the bottle of Tommy Hilfiger perfume in her stocking, was the Top of the Pops Christmas special. This was where the Christmas No. 1 spot would be announced (an important moment in any teens life during the 90s) but of course, it was screened precisely when we used to sit down for our Christmas lunch , thus creating many a
screaming match heated discussion over the years.
Nowadays it’s the Downton Abbey Christmas special which is on at the convenient time of 8.45pm. At that time, us Brit’s are on the sofa, wearing a wonky paper crown, with a drink in our hand, we’ve probably just finished a family game of Trivial Pursuit and we’re hankering for some ‘nibblies’. So nothing gets in the way.