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As we approach the festive season in the UK, we thought you might be interested to find out a little about how we celebrate Christmas in the UK. 

Article by the British Boarding School Network




Christmas Crackers have been a part of the traditional British Christmas table decoration since 1847, when Tom Smith (a Victorian confectioner) invented the cracker. During a visit to Paris in 1840, he noticed how the French wrapped sweets in coloured tissue paper and decided to try selling a similar product in Britain. After little success, inspiration hit him one evening sitting by the fireplace when the crackling sounds caused by the fire led him to imagine opening the sweets with a bang.

After finding the perfect mix of chemicals for his explosive new packaging, their popularity grew and grew.

In it’s most simple form a cracker is a small cardboard tube covered in a brightly coloured twist of paper. When the cracker is ‘pulled’ by two people, each holding one end of the twisted paper, the friction creates a small explosive ‘pop’ produced by a narrow strip of chemically impregnated paper. Inside the cracker there is usually a tissue paper hat, a slip of paper with a very corny joke on it (e.g. What does Santa call his blind reindeer? No-eye-deer! What do you get if you cross a sheep with a kangaroo? - A woolly jumper!) and a very small plastic trinket. The family will pull each other’s crackers before the meal starts, this often involves crossing arms and pulling two crackers at once. The person who gets the ‘big end’ keeps the trinket. The paper hats are donned, and the jokes read out, accompanied by moans and groans at how awful they are. Then, and only then, can the meal begin.




Mince pies have been a part of British cuisine since the 13th century, when the Crusaders returned home with exciting new ingredients from their travels such as cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon. They were quickly added to pies with dried fruit, suet and minced meat. Meat had disappeared from the recipe by Victorian times, although beef suet is often still included. Traditionally, the pies had 13 ingredients representing Christ and the Apostles, and were formed in a large oval shape to represent the manger. (Although some believe that this applied to Christmas puddings too).

If you’d like to make some mince pies yourself this Christmas, here’s my recipe. Combine all the following ingredients in an ovenproof bowl.

450g diced Bramley Cooking apples; 50g flaked almonds; 4 teaspoons of mixed spice; 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon; half a freshly grated nutmeg; 225g shredded suet; 350g dried apricots (finely chopped); 125g currants; 125g raisins; 250g sultanas; 225g whole mixed candied peel (finely chopped); 100g glacé cherries (finely chopped); 350g soft dark brown sugar; zest and juice of 2 oranges and 2 lemons.

Mix together thoroughly, cover the bowl with a clean cloth and leave in a cool place overnight or for 12 hours, so that the flavours have a chance to mingle and develop. Then place foil over the bowl and put into a pre-heated oven (225°F or 110°C) for 3 hours. Then remove the bowl from the oven and don’t be alarmed by the way it looks as it will be swimming in fat - this is how it should look.

As the mincemeat cools, stir it from time to time; the fat will coagulate and, instead of it being in tiny shreds (as it began), it will encase all the other ingredients. When the mincemeat is quite cold, stir well again and add the about 6 tablespoons of good quality brandy.

To make the pastry, rub 120g cold, diced butter into 250g plain flour (I don’t add sugar as the mincemeat is so sweet, but you could add 50g icing sugar at this stage) together with your fingertips until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.

Stir in a pinch of salt, then add 2-3 tbsp water as required to make a firm dough. Knead the dough briefly and gently on a floured surface and roll out. Using a round cutter (to fit your pie tray), cut out the bases and place them into your individual pie trays. Spoon the mincemeat into each pastry cases.

Re-roll out the pastry to cut the lids (I use a star shaped cutter) and press them on top of the mincemeat filled bases. Bake the mince pies for 15-20 mins until golden brown. Leave to cool before releasing them from their trays and dust with a little more icing sugar, add a little edible gold spray and enjoy!

The pies can then be placed in clear gift bags or glass jars, decorated with festive ribbons and given as Christmas presents.




A classic festive dish dating back to medieval times, the Christmas pudding is a heavily spiced, boiled fruit pudding that is doused in brandy, and briefly set on fire.

Traditionally, coins are hidden inside as an extra gift. Also known as plum or figgy pudding, this Christmas staple possibly has its roots as far back as the Middle Ages in a wheat-based pottage known as frumenty. By the mid 17th century, it was thicker and had developed into a dessert with the addition of eggs, dried fruit and alcohol. In Victorian times plum pudding was a Christmas favourite. It is traditionally made a week before Advent.




If you like theatrical productions of popular fairy tales with a cast made up of minor celebrities and men dressed as women, then the pantomime may be for you. It is a type of musical comedy that is popular in the UK over the Christmas season. Pantomime has to be experienced to be fully appreciated, so if you are visiting the UK in December or January book yourself some tickets!




26 December is Boxing Day. The origins of the name Boxing Day are dubious. It is either named after the Church of England’s practice of breaking open donation boxes to distribute among the poor, or as reference to the aristocracy distributing boxes full of presents to the poor on the day after Christmas.




The Christmas broadcast by the reigning monarch has been an almost yearly event in one form or another since 1932. Originally starting as a radio broadcast by George V, the broadcast evolved and in 1957 Queen Elizabeth II delivered the first broadcast televised live to the nation. Since 1959, the broadcast has been faithfully beamed into homes across the country at 3pm on Christmas Day. The subject matter tends to be similar every year: a reflection on the events of the previous 365 days and an over all message of togetherness.




Hundreds of British swimmers get into the festive spirit with a bracing Christmas swim, often in Fancy Dress. The Peter Pan Swim takes place on the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park and dates back to 1864, when the author of the children’s classic, J M Barrie presented the Peter Pan Cup. Dozens of men and women swim the 100 yards in temperatures just above freezing and spectators are welcome on the banks. Only members of the Serpentine Swimming Club may take part in the race. On Brighton beach, more than 700 spectators gather on Christmas morning to watch 100 or so brave souls plunge into the icy surf for up to 15 minutes off the South Coast. The Christmas morning swim has been an annual event for the Brighton Swimming club since 1895. Sandy Bay in Porthcawl, South Wales, is the venue for another Christmas Day swim (started in 1964) where over 1,000 people brave the icy waters.




Wherever you’re celebrating this year, chances are your New Year revelry will include singing Auld Lang Syne when the clock strikes midnight, but it will be an absolute certainty if you are in Scotland. Penned by Scottish writer Robert Burns in 1788, the lyrics were put to a traditional tune after Burns’ death and quickly became an international anthem. While there are many interpretations of the lyrics, it’s widely considered to be a song of reunion and reconciliation, encouraging us to reflect on times past and move forward together.




If you are celebrating New Year in Scotland, don’t forget about the first-footing tradition. This is the belief that the first person to enter the home on New Year’s Day will be the bringer of good luck for the coming year. Although it sounds like a simple tradition, there are actually lots of rules to follow! The first-footer must not be in the house at the stroke of midnight, and you’ll also need to consider who the first-footer will be. Traditionally, tall, dark-haired men are said to be the luckiest, while females and fair-haired men are believed to be unlucky in some areas of the UK. The first-footer is expected to bring a gift too, like a coin for financial prosperity, bread for food, salt for flavour, coal for warmth or a drink for cheer.




New Year in Wales is celebrated with Calennig, a tradition that takes place on New Year’s Day. Calennig literally translates to ‘the first day of the month’, deriving from the Latin word ‘kalends’. The English word ‘Calendar’ also has its root in this word. In the past, children would call from door-to-door bearing good wishes for the household for the year ahead. They would sing songs and carry apples, skewered with sprigs of evergreen and cloves. In return, they would receive a Calennig, or a New Year’s gift. This would usually be money or food. This tradition is still followed in some areas of Wales where children visit family members before midday to deliver good wishes for the year ahead.



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