Despite having moved back to California in 2015, the traditions of a British Christmas have stuck with me since my year living in London. Holiday customs vary all over the world, and the UK is no exception. Here are five of my favorite traditions I picked up while abroad that I love incorporating into my American holiday season. I guess I’m still an expat at heart.
This Advent staple originated in the middle ages in Germany (where it is referred to as “Christkindlmarkt”), but is now a tradition in various European countries. In London alone, there are at least 15 (if not more) to choose from, including Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. Chances are that your city has something similar, even if it goes by a different name or is only open for a limited time. To have a Christmas Market experience, look for a street market, fair, light display, or something of that nature that focuses on the holidays. They should sell food and showcase booths or Christmas decorations. Make sure you go when it’s cold out to really embrace this old tradition in all it’s shivering glory. (Drink some hot chocolate to stay warm!)
If there was one piece of heritage I was looking forward to while living in London, it was crackers. I’d seen these in movies and on TV, but wasn’t certain if it was an old-fashioned tradition that had faded with time (after all, it started back during the Victorian Era and was originally called a Cosaque). Luckily, it’s still alive and well, and easy to incorporate into your own Christmas no matter where you live. These crackers aren’t thin, crispy wafers you eat—they’re little cardboard tubes filled with goodies and wrapped in festive paper. You take one end, give the other end to a friend, and pull! It opens with a bang, revealing its treasures. Typically Christmas crackers are filled with a paper crown, a small toy or some candy, and a bad joke or piece of trivia on a small piece of paper. You can make your own following a tutorial, or purchase them online. And depending on where you live in the US, you might even be able to find them at stores like Target.
This is exactly what it says on the tin. Remember that scene in Doctor Who when Eleven and Clara open a Christmas cracker, and then wear crowns made of thin tissue paper? It happened with Ten, too. At any rate, paper crowns are an integral ingredient in Christmas crackers that you must then wear while eating Christmas dinner and opening your gifts. You can create your own paper crowns following a tutorial like this one. Some people believe that this odd tradition traces back to the Roman festival of Saturnalia, while others think that it may have originated from ancient Twelfth Night celebrations, where someone was appointed to be king or queen for the evening to oversee the wassailing. I couldn’t find any concrete evidence for either of these claims, but there is a lot written about wassailing itself—which brings us to our next British Christmas tradition.
You might have heard this word in the Christmas song “Here We Come A-wassailing,” which is also sometimes called “Here We Come A-Christmasing” or “Here We Come A-caroling.” Wassailing has a long history, beginning around the year 600. According to Ellen Castelow in an article for Historic UK, the gist of wassailing is that at “beginning of each year, the lord of the manor would greet the assembled multitude with the toast waes hael, meaning ‘be well’ or ‘be in good health’.” Then everyone would drink up, cheering the toast and greeting their neighbors. The drink itself was typically a warmed ale, wine, or cider that had been mixed with spices and honey. The tradition evolved to include going from house to house to share the wassail drink, and singing along the way which—you guessed it—led to what we now know as Christmas caroling. To make your own wassail, check out this sweet and spicy mulled cider recipe. It goes perfectly with Christmas dinner!
Terry’s Chocolate Orange
What British Christmas would be complete without a Chocolate Orange? You can purchase this weird candy at any time of the year, but their marketing is heaviest around the holidays. As a result, it’s often included in stockings or as part of dessert post-Christmas-dinner. So what is it, exactly? It’s not chocolate-covered slices of real orange, as I thought it would be before actually eating one—it’s an orange-shaped segmented ball made of chocolate that has been mixed with orange oil. It’s a bit of an acquired taste, so I’d recommend getting just one to try. It has 20 pieces total, so it’s easy to share with your family and friends. Terry’s now delivers worldwide, and you can get your own at stores like Walmart or online at Amazon.