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, decorating your home for Christmas is called “putting the tree up” and the debate on which you do this is hotly debated among us. Traditionalists favour the 12 Days rule whereby you decorate your home 12 days before Christmas (13th December) and take it all down again 12 days after Christmas (6th January). Others (myself included) like to jump into the season headfirst, and deck the halls on the 1st December. Cause if you’re cracking open the Advent Calender on this date, you may as well get the tinsel out too.
However, the one thing you must remember when celebrating Christmas in Britain is to never, EVER, under any circumstances, decorate your home before 1st December. The shops and towns can do it, but you cannot. If you do, you will be ridiculed (behind your back of course, we are British after all). Nothing thrills us Brits more than to pass by someones home in November, get a glimpse of the decorations inside, and spend the subsequent weeks loudly telling people about that “eejit in our street with his decks up”. You have been warned.
The School Nativity
You’ll be hard pushed to find a British primary school who doesn’t put on their own production of the nativity play in December, but the format is always the same. Kids will play the characters (although Baby J will just be a plastic, slightly creepy looking, doll) and that one teacher whose a dab hand on the piano will bang out the tunes. Parents and Grandparents will all turn out to coo over their kids and suffer the mind-numbing tuneless singing.
Now back in my day the costumes were handmade: a tea towel on your head, your old bathrobe, and a tatty pair of sandals and you’re a shepherd; tinsel round a coat hanger and you’re a fairy; bunch of sweets glued onto a paper crown and your a Wise Man. Nowadays nativity appear to have lost their quaint appeal and gotten a lot more serious, and costumes are no longer handmade but shop-bought. But don’t worry, you don’t actually need to attend one of these unless you have a child starring in one.
One thing you need to understand about us Brits, is we’re sickeningly nostalgic and we long for a Dickension-style white Christmas. But equally, we also love to complain about the weather so when it does snow, we love moaning about it. This is even more pronounced because when it snows in Britain, the whole bleeding country grinds to a halt. You’d think, given that we’re on the same latitude as Moscow and Alaska, we’d be able to deal with this kinda weather? Well we’re not. There’s never enough salt for the road, school heating systems shut down meaning parents have to take time off work, and the threat of “black ice” on the roads is a frightening prospect for us all. And all this over an inch of snow and a temperature of -3C
It’s tradition in Britain to hang your stocking, on Christmas Eve, at the end of you’re bed. Which worked great during Victorian times when we had those big brass beds to hang stuff from. Which meant that British kids used to go to bed on Christmas Eve in the full and accepting knowledge that a bearded stranger would be creeping into their bedroom in the middle of the night.
In recent years, we’ve adopted the somewhat less creepy custom from our American cousins, of hanging our stockings over the fireplace. In lieu of a fireplace, these can also be hung from a bookcase or nailed into a wall. We’ve also upgraded to fancy dedicated Christmas stockings rather than just resorting to an old hill walking sock belonging to your Dad.
What is placed in these stockings can vary. Traditionally it would have been a Clementine which in recent years this has been replaced with less Puritanical-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. Nowadays you can find anything from chocolate coins and sweets, to computer games and beauty products, in there. And the value of the contents of a stocking can match that of your actual Christmas presents.
In the UK, midnight mass is a Catholic church service held on Christmas Eve, and despite the name, can be held anytime from 8pm to midnight. The Protestant version is typically called the Watchnight Service, so has all the good bits of midnight mass (carols, candles, Christmas spirit) but with none of the overt religious paraphernalia. Some churches, mainly the Protestant ones in my experience, even serve mulled wine & mince pies. So if you do fancy attending a service, pick wisely.
Growing up a Catholic and attending Catholic schools, going to mass was just par for the course and something I just suffered in silence. But attending Midnight Mass was massive fun in comparison. I’d get 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. On account of getting home after midnight, I was also allowed to open 1 present from under the tree. However this present was always picked out by my Mother and always contained Pyjamas.
Selection Boxes are a mixture of chocolate bars presented in a large plastic tray with cellophane wrapping. In my opinion, these are are an absolute ubiquitous part of a British Christmas, particularly Christmas morning.
If you want to have a truly British Christmas, then your Christmas morning should involve opening presents in your pyjamas (conveniently the ones you opened the night before after attending Midnight Mass), surrounded by piles of wrapping paper, and eating several selection boxes no matter how early it is or whether you’ve had a proper breakfast. Today is not the day that British parents worry about their kids dental health or whether they eat a nutritious meal.
By this I refer to the British television viewing schedule over the Christmas period, which let me tell you right now, is gold.
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 traditionally 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 etc. British Christmas TV shows are exceedingly top notch, stuff. Every year I watch the same shows and every I love them a little more.
The telly should be on all Christmas morning, so you have the classic cartoons of The Snowman and Father Christmas to open your presents to. Mid-morning to early afternoon, you might even squeeze in a movie. But remember this is mostly for background entertainment, the family will be too busy arguing, cooking, playing with toys etc. to fully pay attention. Telly goes off during lunch, but the Queen’s Speech around 3pm will typically get a look in. Around 7pm is when 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 or Monopoly and hankering for some ‘nibblies’. This is the perfect time for something classic like Its a Wonderful Life or Home Alone: an easy storyline and something you can doze off too.