This year will be the twelfth Christmas I spend in Minnesota. When I married my wife, in January 2006, I promised her parents that I would make sure that no matter what, she would be with them every Christmas. So every year since then, despite my own increasing inability to travel well, and my dislike of new places and situations, and even when doing it has meant major sacrifices (some years, including this one, the trip has cost 5-10% of our total annual income) I’ve spent a week around Christmas (usually roughly the twentieth through the twenty-seventh of December) in the US.
This is, for a British person, a very, very, weird experience — and, as social media has become more popular, I’ve seen a lot of Americans having a similarly weird experience, albeit in a diluted form. Every year on Twitter I’ll see USians boggling at concepts like “Christmas pudding” and so on.
Because popular media tends to suggest that everyone has Christmas the same way as everyone else — the signifiers, things like Santa and so on, are pretty much universal in Western cultures, and certainly in English-speaking ones, and so the idea that people’s experience of Christmas is very different is something that people really find difficult to comprehend. This leads, every year, to a certain amount of cross-cultural misunderstanding, and this post is an attempt to fix it.
So here, for my USian readers, I’ll explain a little about what is expected in a British Christmas but which is completely unknown to at least the Midwestern family I spend this time with every year. Some of you may know of some of these things, of course, but all of them were greeted with blank stares by my in-laws in much the same way as if I’d said “Don’t you have slug-sniffing day over here? Where the day after Christmas you have to sniff a slug before lunchtime?”
(That one is not a real thing, to be clear). The stuff I’m talking about below is, more or less, part of the normative British Christmas. Not everyone experiences everything in this list (I often missed some part of it or other one year or another) but if a typical British person was asked to list “stuff that happens at Christmas” most of these things would be on it.
For British readers, I can’t really do the same for US Christmas, simply because the US is a vast country and has more local traditions than you might expect, and I’ve no idea how Christmases in New York or Mississippi or Utah compare to those in Minnesota (I’m reliably informed that the idea of having “Snickers salad” — a confection of chocolate, peanuts, and whipped cream — on the same plate as the savoury aspects of your Christmas dinner is a local rather than a national idiosyncrasy). But if you try to imagine Christmas without all the things I mention here, you might get some idea of how profound the difference is. Because Christmas in the US is so different that my British friends might be forgiven for asking “do they know it’s Christmas time at all?”
For my British readers, just think about this… there’s an entire continent full of people who manage to discover when Christmas is… without a man from Wolverhampton with huge comedy sideburns screaming “IT’S CHRISTMAAAAAAS!” at full volume!
Plenty of stuff is the same, of course — both countries have Christmas presents, annoying right-wing media complaints about a “war on Christmas”, and so on, but there are some big differences.
To start with, there’s the music. I have a whole hypothesis about how the two countries’ Christmas traditions are rooted in different aspects of Boomer nostalgia — in the US, for fifties childhoods of the early Boomers, and in the UK for the 70s teenagerhood of the later ones. I’m not going to go into all the ways that’s true here, but this is certainly a big part of it.
In the US, on Christmas-based digital radio stations and in shops (at least those which Midwestern farmers in their late sixties tend to visit), the music you hear tends to fall into two broad categories — music from, roughly, the end of World War II through to 1964 (the cut-off point seems to be Phil Spector’s Christmas Album) and then almost nothing until the mid-nineties and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You”, after which there are a handful of more recent efforts.
In the UK, though, Christmas music lasts from 1973 through 1985 or so. You will hear other music, but often in commercials that are designed for multiple markets, or on the soundtracks of US films. There’s a Christmas songs royalty calculator online which I suspect is fairly inaccurate in its royalty calculations, but what it does do rather well is list the songs that, for British people at least, define Christmas:
“Last Christmas” by Wham!
“Fairytale Of New York” by The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl (this one is the accepted “best Christmas song ever” for people who want to have the same accepted contrarian opinion as everyone else, as it means that a song with the lyrics “you’re an old slut on junk lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed/You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot, happy Christmas your arse I pray God it’s our last” gets played on the radio and in the supermarkets. It’s also a rather wonderful song, despite being the curmudgeon’s choice.
“Merry Xmas Everybody” by Slade (a loud, thuggish, glam band)
“Merry Christmas Everyone” by Shakin’ Stevens (Shakin’ Stevens is not something that can be explained in mere words, as language itself cannot encompass the sheer strangeness of this early-80s Elvis impersonator becoming a teen heartthrob)
“Stop The Cavalry” by Jona Lewie
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid
“I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” by Wizzard (a glam rock band imitating Spector’s sound)
and “Mistletoe & Wine” by Cliff Richard (a performer who in the 50s was “Britain’s answer to Elvis”, but who later became an evangelical Christian and more like “Britain’s answer to Pat Boone”).
Those are the core Christmas music experience for most people over here.
You also regularly get John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s Christmas songs (which I believe are fairly well-played in the US), “Lonely This Christmas” by Mud (which, being an Elvis pastiche performed by a glam rock band, seems to tick every box for British Christmas music), “Mary’s Boy Child” by Boney M (a Belgian disco act, from the same man who later created Milli Vanilli, covering a Harry Belafonte song), and quite a few songs which have nothing to do with Christmas at all but which became big hits around Christmas and so have stuck — “Stay Another Day” by East 17, “Pipes of Peace” by McCartney, “The Power of Love” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood — seem to make resurgences on the radio every December.
Christmas is a time of glam rock, in the UK. The two videos below pretty much sum up the true sound of Christmas, over here at least.
Watch those, and you have already experienced British Christmas.
There’s also a running competition every year for which song will be “Christmas number one” — this is far more important in the UK than the US. In the past this was because Christmas was the biggest time for singles being purchased, as Christmas presents, and more recently it’s because the TV singing competition The X Factor is usually timed so that the winner’s single can be released in time for Christmas, with the expectation of them getting to number one (which has led to Internet-based campaigns to get other songs to number one instead). Often, pre-X Factor, the Christmas number one would be some sort of embarrassing novelty single.
Then there’s the matter of what period Christmas covers. This has been changing over the years in the UK as commercialisation pushes the Christmas period to cover more and more time, but it’s still unexceptional to wait until Christmas Eve itself before putting up a Christmas tree, if you have one. But while in the US all the Christmassy stuff seems to stop after Christmas day itself, in the UK Boxing Day (the day after Christmas) and New Year’s Day are both public holidays, so the vast majority of workplaces tend to close down completely or only run a skeleton staff for the last week of the year.
Then there’s the food. Over here, we don’t have “Christmas cookies” as they exist in the US, or the sweet pies like pecan pie that are popular at least in Minnesota, as Christmas food. For sweet food, at Christmas, there are three major choices, all of which are variants on a theme of dried fruit, suet, and alcohol:
Mince pies are small pies that fit in your hand, made of sweet shortcrust pastry, containing a thick black gooey mixture of raisins, orange peel, sugar, suet, nutmeg, and brandy (the precise ingredients can vary, but that’s the general gist).
Christmas cake is a heavy, stodgy, dark fruit cake containing cherries and raisins (and sometimes other fruit) and usually almonds, soaked in brandy, and usually coated with marzipan and icing (frosting).
Christmas pudding doesn’t refer to “pudding” in the way people in the US mean it — in the UK, the word basically has two meanings. Pudding can mean either any dessert at all (so you might have a cake or ice cream for your pudding) or it can mean something containing suet or other fats (so black pudding is a type of suety blood sausage, while steak and kidney pudding is steak and kidney, in gravy, encased in a suet pastry). Christmas pudding encompasses both of those — it’s a very heavy, stodgy, dessert made from dried fruit and breadcrumbs held together with suet and treacle, soaked in brandy. It’s steamed, and then more brandy is poured onto it and set alight before you eat it.
I realise that my descriptions of these three things make them sound very similar, but these are three very different Christmas foodstuffs, and it’s perfectly normal — almost obligatory in fact — to have all three on Christmas day.
Christmas dinner is also a far more formalised meal. Unless someone states differently or has specific dietary requirements such as being vegetarian, it’s expected that everyone’s Christmas dinner will have only minor variants on a basic theme — “Christmas dinner” is a specific meal. It will always have roast turkey, roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts (sometimes but not always cooked with chestnuts), and gravy. (Brussels sprouts are pretty much *the* canonical Christmas food over here). It will almost always have pigs in blankets (not the same food as the US food of the same name, these are chippolata sausages wrapped in bacon), and at least one kind of root vegetable either roasted or mashed (carrots and parsnips are popular, as are turnips/swedes (which are, roughly, USian turnips and rutabagas, though which word is used for which vegetable is a whole other can of worms)). There will be various kinds of stuffing, cranberry sauce, and often mashed potato. Other non-sprout brassica like cauliflower or cabbage also sometimes turn up. If you were to serve anything that varied significantly from this, it would not be recognised as “Christmas dinner” by most British people.
Other Christmassy food that I’ve not encountered in a USian Christmas context would include selection boxes (boxes containing a variety of chocolate bars), and cheese boards containing strongly flavoured cheeses like stilton and speciality cheeses with dried fruit in them. But generally the themes of Christmas food in Britain are turkey, dried fruit, suet, alcohol, root vegetables, nuts, and brassica. Heavy, stodgy, winter food, and nothing else.
It is also traditional to pull crackers at dinner. Crackers are cardboard tubes (like those found inside toilet rolls) wrapped in coloured paper, with a thin cardboard strip containing a small explosive charge like a cap from a cap gun running through them. Two people take one end of the cracker each, and pull it apart, making a bang. Inside the cracker are, usually, a ridiculous coloured-tissue-paper crown, a useless inexpensive plastic toy, and a slip of paper containing a terrible joke along the lines of “What says Oh-Oh-Oh? Santa walking backwards”. You’re expected to wear the paper crown.
And finally there’s Christmas TV. Now here, my experience may differ in large part just because of time — the time I started going to the US for Christmas more or less coincides with the absolute explosion of TV channels in the UK, so it might be that what I’m stating here no longer applies in the same way. But this bit definitely applies to British Christmases from the early 80s through to 2005.
The first thing to note is that many of the traditional US Christmas TV staples are unknown over here. We didn’t have the Rankin-Bass specials at all, and A Charlie Brown Christmas is not a Christmas perennial in the same way (it’s been shown over here, but it’s never had anything like the same level of cultural resonance). I’d literally never heard of A Christmas Story before going over to the US, and It’s A Wonderful Life is regarded as a classic now, but that’s been a relatively recent development, and it hasn’t been a perennial staple of Christmas TV (I have friends in their late thirties and forties who only saw it for the first time when they went to cinema showings of it with me in the last few years).
What we do have instead is… well, lots of repeats. Again, UK Christmas seems to centre in the 1970s, and so we have repeats of classic sitcoms and variety shows from that decade filling up the schedules (the comedy double-act Morecambe and Wise did Christmas specials almost every year in the 70s, one of which was one of the highest-rated TV shows in British history, and compilations of sketches from these usually appear). It’s also traditional on Christmas day itself that there be a Bond film and either The Sound of Music or The Wizard of Oz on TV.
And sitcoms which aren’t in the middle of a regular run will often do hour-long one-off specials for Christmas, which get repeated year after year. These are often the only time of the year that an otherwise-cancelled but beloved series will return, and they can get massive ratings. There are also usually extended editions of one or both of the two major soap operas, Eastenders and Coronation Street, and every year there’s a one-off special edition of Top of the Pops (a chart countdown show that was shown regularly between 1964 and 2008) looking at the hits of the year.
There’s also the Queen’s Speech. This has… something of the same cultural importance to the UK that the State of the Union address does to the US, though it’s very different in tone — the Queen talking about the year gone and the year coming up — and is much more widely watched. This is broadcast simultaneously on multiple channels, and the tradition is that everyone watches it (though I never have, and know relatively few people who actually do). Since the mid-90s, Channel 4 (which back then was an “alternative” channel with a remit to produce minority programming, though nowadays it’s mostly reality TV dross) has also put out an “Alternative Christmas Message” broadcast simultaneously with the Queen’s — this started out as an “Alternative Queen’s Speech” by Quentin Crisp (a famously effeminate writer who was perceived when alive as a gay man, though a recent posthumous volume of autobiography says that Crisp was actually a trans woman who didn’t come across the concept until the last years of her life and so never came out publicly), playing on the double meaning of the word “queen”, but has continued ever since.
Anyway, that should provide enough information that, if you’re an American who is baffled by your British friends on social media, you might not be quite so baffled. And a merry slug-sniffing day to one and all!
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True. Also the Father Ted Christmas special, which started out as a “normal” sitcom Christmas special back in 1996, but has been repeated every year since, as far as I can recall, because it’s just too good not to (even if it does sag a bit towards the end).
I’d like to hear “Fairy Tale of New York” more often in the States. Especially, Christy Moore’s version. . .https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FwXBtmRTsFs
I would sacrifice the incessant playing of “Last Christmas” on every pop station on the radio for the joy of hearing the Pogues in a supermarket. I’d also sacrifice the incessant playing of “Last Christmas” for a punch in the gut. That song gets played a lot in the States.
“Fairy Tale of New York” is played in supermarkets and on the radio *more* than “Last Christmas” over here, though both are played a lot… it’s charted in the top twenty every Christmas since 2005, and has been publicly played more than any other Christmas song this century, according to the music licensing body. It’s probably as well known over here as White Christmas, at this point.
You know that tweet that was going round a few days ago: what is the most trivial hill you will die on?
TURKEY IS NOT BRITISH.
You didn’t mention Panto! Panto is the one Stupid British Tradition I really enjoy.
Last year I was at the Bristol Hippodrome with about 5 children of relatives of friends to see Torville and Dean being the Fairy Godparents in Cinderella, and what should come booming over the pre-curtain medley of Christmas songs than “YOU SCUMBAG YOU MAGGOT YOU CHEAP LOUSY FAGGOT”. No-one batted an eyelid.
Oh God yes. I’ve no idea how one would explain that to USians.
I saw a proper village panto in a tiny little Somerset town! It was marvellous, I went around all the next day recognizing people in shops and congratulating them. Felt like I was doing anthropological research!
It’s wonderful to know that however much the world changes, pie-in-the-face routines, “If I were not upon this stage…” and Who’s On First? remain incredibly funny.
“I came through the forbidden forest!”
“Did you find the gypsy’s camp?”
“No, as a matter of fact, I found them rather butch.”
“I’d like to buy a goldfish.”
“Certainly. Would you like an aquarium?”
“I don’t really care which star-sign he is..”
In Ireland, there are only slight differences, i.e. St. Stephen’s Day not Boxing Day. As illustrated in Father Ted, Irish Christmases aren’t that different from British Christmases. We have mince pies, selection boxes, crackers, same dinner – though ham is as common as turkey, the same songs, apart from Fairytale of New York and a few songs by Irish puppet Dustin the Turkey, not much Irish Christmas songs – Joe Dolan never had a big Xmas hit.
TV is slightly different. If you live in Northern Ireland or the southeast, you’ll get BBC and ITV, but if you grew more rural, in Two-Channel land, where only RTE was available, it’ll be a little more confusing. Yes, RTE showed among a diet of old US stuff, a lot of British TV, shows like Blankety Blank, Wogan, Generation Game, dramas, sitcoms, , but there were some shows not shown (Doctor Who never got shown, but every other British SF from Space 1999 to T-Bag and Sapphire and Steel, Blake’s 7, the BBC Sunday Classics, Worzel Gummidge did, possibly due to due to cheapness, after budget cuts in the 1980s – RTE buying British shows through Canada – where Who was sparingly shown). The Two Ronnies had a brief run on RTE, as did Morecambe and Wise, but with the majority already watching BBC, there wasn’t much audience. As for homegrown TV, the films are the same, but there is perhaps one addition – Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which as beloved as it is in the UK, I don’t get the impression it’s as heavily hyped there as it is here. UK TV premiere – Jan 1 1977, so perhaps, but in Ireland, RTE just reran it and reran it.
Then, there is the Late Late Toy Show, which initially began in the mid-70s as Gay Byrne and his researchers rounding up the years’ best Christmas toys to recommend, but by 1981, became this huge variety showcase, a mix of toy demonstrations and sub-Langford child brats singing, usually from the Billie Barry Kids, a sort of Irish equivalent of Sylvia Young, loud-mouthed Dublin kids singing Bugsy Malone numbers or Annie numbers. When Ryan Tubridy took over in the late 2000s, it became increasingly over-hyped, now is the most-watched show of the year in Irish TV, usually so we can take the piss out of it, now there’s always going to be a celebrity guest to wow a kid (one year it’ll be Ed Sheeran, the next a local ageing female weather announcer to wow some rural spoddy kid in a flower-pot hat), and there’ll always be an “eccentric” James Harries-type who’ll become the pick of future TV nostalgia shows.
It’s stopped now, but there used to be a an Aladdin stage show in the Disney California Adventure park that was just like a 21st Century “amazing stage effects” panto. Here’s one of the many videos of it I plucked off YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iagPDqOtaKE The Frozen show that I think took it place might be very similar.
You might find this interesting, too. I really need to get out and see one of these someday http://www.americanpanto.com/
Thinking about it, there’s probably a huge bit of social history research to be done around the Queen’s Speech. I can recall my grandmother being insistent that Christmas dinner (and we’ll leave the lunch/dinner argument for later…) had to start promptly at 1pm, so it would be finished in time to watch the Queen at 3pm, and I’ve known others for whom stopping everything for the Queen is part of the Christmas Day rhythm.
Also, one thing I know surprises people from outside the UK is how much everything shuts down over Christmas – not just how much is closed on the day itself but how many non-retail businesses will be effectively closed for that week up to New Year.