In Britain, Christmas is very clearly Christmas. It’s not that we don’t recognize other religious festivals, it’s just that most Brits were raised to celebrate the birth of a particularly famous baby to his virginal mother. In Britain, we also have Father Christmas, not Santa Claus. The first time I mentioned Father Christmas in the States, I was greeted with puzzled looks. It’s been Santa ever since.
Saying “Merry Christmas” in the US is a hazardous enterprise, accompanied by guilt that you’re offending some people. “Happy Holidays!” is the refrain of choice. But that doesn’t mean much to a Brit.
The best way to describe the significance of Christmas Day in Britain is to compare it to Thanksgiving. Christmas is family time. Family members come together from near and far, schools are out for two weeks or more, and the sense of celebration is palpable. In the US, because families traveled to be together for Thanksgiving, Christmas isn’t quite as big of a family deal, although obviously a huge gift deal, because of Santa Claus.
Christmas is traditionally when Brits eat turkey, although any other meat can be central to the table. In our family, my adventurous mother rotated between turkey, goose, duck, venison, pheasant, beef and lamb, so there was always something different and potentially exotic each year. However the sides were always the same: mashed potatoes, roast potatoes, carrots, green beans, peas, my mother’s signature onion sauce (which was to die for) and lashings and lashings of gravy.
Traditional desserts include mince pies and Christmas pudding, as well as fruitcake, if someone brings one and forces you to eat it. Not being a fan of mince pies or anything containing copious amounts of dried fruit (even doused in rum sauce), I never partake of those particular delicacies. While others eat gooey alcohol-sodden fruit, I happily refill my plate with meat, potatoes and gravy.
Then there are Christmas crackers: a very British custom that endures to this day. A cracker is basically a hollow tube wrapped in paper that you pull apart to hear the loud crack and eagerly await the contents to spill from the inside. In general you’ll get a paper hat, a joke and some kind of trinket, which may or may not fall apart the first time you pick it up. No matter, the point of crackers is really the hat. You must wear the paper hat throughout the meal.
Nothing is more of an equalizer than a brightly colored paper hat. No matter how young, how old, how elegantly dressed, how rich or how poor, everyone looks silly, and that’s the point. Yes, I realize this is British humor. Even the Queen and the rest of the royal family wear paper hats on Christmas Day, trust me.
Speaking of the Queen, there’s another tradition – the Queen’s speech. Every Christmas Day at three pm, the Queen appears on TV to speak to her loyal subjects. It’s a review of the year gone by, and one must turn the television on to watch, whether or not one has finished one’s Christmas dinner. Fifteen minutes later, basking in the glow of royal best wishes and toasting the monarch’s good health, one can return to all the food, while still wearing the paper hat of course.
Christmas Day is followed by Boxing Day. Boxing Day was traditionally when the rich rewarded their servants with money or gifts for their service throughout the year. In modern times, it’s still common in Britain for bin men (trash collectors), postmen, milkmen (if they still exist) and others who provide a service to your home throughout the year, to pop by and be given a tip.
Another theory points to the fact that the servants of the rich had to work on Christmas Day to prepare and serve their masters all that food and drink, therefore the day they were able to see their own families was December 26. As a gesture of thanks, upstairs would give downstairs boxes of gifts to take to their families. Think Downton Abbey and you’ll get the picture.
So, as a Brit, Christmas is special to me in the same way that Thanksgiving is special to Americans. I get to see my family, we eat copious amounts of food, drink copious amounts of wine, and, I always have crackers to hand, so that everyone around the table: British or American, looks equally silly.