British Billy's Merry Christmas

  • Published
  • By British Billy
  • 48th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
As you spend your Christmas in the U.K., no doubt you will want reminders of Christmases at home to make you feel festive, but why not add to that yuletide glow with some good old British traditions as well?

In England, Christmas as we know it might well have disappeared in 1647 when Oliver Cromwell, cancelled it: no parties, no fun, and no days off work. Oliver Cromwell was an English soldier and statesman who helped make England a republic and then ruled as Lord Protector from 1653 to 1658. Cromwell's Puritanism was offended by bacchanalian revelry. Each year, town criers went through the land ordering that "Christmas and all other superstitious festivals" should not be celebrated.

However, the British festive spirit could not be suppressed, and families quietly continued many Christmas traditions at home until the Victorians changed the face of Christmas forever. We have Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, to thank for popularising the Christmas tree.

In 1841, he erected a tree in Windsor Castle following a German tradition. Fir trees have been decorated at Christmas time in Germany since the 8th century.

Christmas crackers

Have you discovered what a British Christmas cracker is yet? You don't eat them - well, not unless you have very odd tastes. Christmas crackers were a simple idea, which has become an integral part of traditional British Christmas revelry since their invention in 1847 by Tom Smith. A cracker is a small cardboard tube covered in brightly coloured paper. When the cracker is 'pulled' by two people, each holding one end of the paper, the friction creates a small explosive 'pop' produced by a narrow strip of chemically impregnated paper (the 'banger'). Out of the cardboard tube tumbles a bright paper hat, a small gift, a balloon and a motto or joke. The hat is a like a cheap paper crown and however grand you are, you are expected to wear it throughout Christmas dinner. I am quite sure the Queen observes this tradition.

Please note - don't try shipping these home to the U.S. , due to the small amount of explosives in the 'banger' of the cracker.

Mince pies and Christmas pudding

Food, of course, is central to Christmas celebrations, and nothing is more traditional than the humble mince pie. Mince pies were originally filled with meat, such as lamb but the modern mince pie is filled with a tasty combination of dried fruit, apple, suet, spices, sugar and brandy which we call 'mincemeat'. It is said they were first made in an oval shape to represent the manger that Jesus slept in as a baby, the top representing his swaddling clothes.

All British children know that mince pies are Father Christmas' favourite snack and on Christmas Eve, children in the U.K. often leave out mince pies with brandy or some similar drink for Father Christmas and a carrot for the reindeer. Reindeer, of course, find it very difficult to eat mince pies. It's the hoofs.

Of course, after the main course of turkey or goose with all the trimmings, it is traditional for a flaming Christmas pudding to be carried triumphantly to the table. Christmas pudding is a rich, dark pudding made with suet, dried fruit and spices and laced with brandy with a sprig of holly stuck on the top.

Lunch on Christmas Day is followed by the Queen's Christmas message on television and radio at 3 p.m., a tradition started by her grandfather, King George V by radio broadcast in 1932. 

As a loyal subject, I shall be paying close attention to our monarch as she imparts her seasonal greetings to us all. There will be just time for a quick trot around my own little kingdom in the back garden, and then I shall return for a hard-earned nap in front of the fire.

Merry Christmas!