British Christmas Traditions and Where They Come From

British Christmas Traditions and Where They Come From

2020 isn’t the first time Christmas in the UK has been cancelled – in the 1600s, the new puritan government that took control of the country after the English Civil War tried to ban the unseemly, Pagan celebrations the population indulged in. The English were not at all impressed, paying as little attention to the ban as they could get away with and celebrating in secret, and within 11 years, the country had restored the monarch and returned to celebration.

Apart from this enforced break, the British have been celebrating Christmas for a thousand years, and before that celebrated the Pagan festival of Yule to mark the winter solstice – so they have a lot of interesting traditions. From older Roman influences to Victorian inventions, everything comes from somewhere.

Christmas Trees

Pagans and Romans used to decorate with evergreen branches at their festivals, but foliage didn’t become associated with Christmas until 16th century Germany. The practice arrived in the UK in the 19th century when Queen Victoria and her family were pictured standing in front of a Christmas tree, likely suggested by her German husband. Everything she did was fashionable, so the practice quickly caught on.

a black and white photograph of a victorian family standing in front of a lightly decorated christmas tree
four mince pies. one has been cut in half to show the mincemeat filling

Mince Pies

Everyone new to the UK is confused by this sweet treat – and for good reason. Until the mid 1800s, mince pie recipes actually did contain meat, and the name has simply stuck. Fragrantly spiced pies filled with meats like mutton, goose, and beef tongue, flavoured with saffron, orange peel, ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon were popular across the ancient world and were eaten in medieval England on rare special occasions. When sugar became more widely available, the pies started to become sweeter and sweeter, until Eliza Acton created the first mince pie recipe not including meat in 1845.


Christmas crackers were invented in 1847 by British Confectioner Tom Smith, who began by slipping messages into the wrappers of his sweets like fortune cookies, adding the snap for a touch of excitement.  He eventually left out the sweet itself in favour of a small trinket, and the evolution of the Christmas cracker was completed by his son who added the hat, gifts, and a variety of different designs to stand out from the copies from other manufacturers.

a red christmas cracker on a plate on a table set ready for christmas dinner
a bundle of mistletoe hanging in front of an open door


The Vikings had several myths about mistletoe and considered it very powerful, using it as a charm that bestowed life, fertility, and protection from evil. Pre-Christian Rome would kiss under the mistletoe in their Saturnalia celebrations. In Victorian times, men would have to pluck a berry from the mistletoe plant before they could claim a kiss, with one berry meaning one kiss – but women who refused were said to be unlikely to get married the next year!


Many of the minority communities in the UK are Christian themselves, and for those that aren’t, the national bank holiday makes the festive season a perfect opportunity to spend some time with their family and loved ones. Some non-Christians who work in service professions or in medicine will also kindly offer to take on the Christmas shifts so their colleagues who will be celebrating can spend the time with their families. 

Your relationship with your family is very important in Islam, so lots of Muslim families gather to enjoy a meal together, and many wholeheartedly enjoy Christmas as a secular holiday. Jesus even features in the Quran!

Jewish families also love to gather on the Christmas bank holiday, but as Hannukah often overlaps with Christmas they regularly find themselves celebrating on the 25th anyway. Buddhists respect Jesus as a preacher of peace, love, and kindness, and consider his teachings very compatible with those of the Buddha. Hindu families, too, love spending the Christmas period together. 

No one community shares an opinion about celebrating Christmas. Some enjoy it, while others simply seize the opportunity for shared time away from work and school. Many religious non-Christians might actually spend the holidays volunteering for a charity. Whether someone considers Christmas to be secularised enough for them to celebrate or not, it’s a personal choice!

Happy Holidays!

Thank you all for a productive year, and here's to the next one!