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Let’s face it, for so many of us last Christmas was a write off and with another tough year almost behind us the upcoming festive period takes on even more significance as a time to count our blessings and raise our collective spirits.
We don’t need reminding that December 2020 was a month of dashed hopes, cancelled plans, lonely turkey dinners and present opening over Zoom with family viewed through a screen.
The good news is that Christmas is back on this year and we get the opportunity to make up for precious missed time with family and friends. Let’s make it brighter, more fabulously sociable and with extra meaning.
If last year taught us one thing, it’s that nothing compares to holding our loved ones and seeing their faces light up touched by the magic of it all.
Let the commercial takeover of Christmas pale into insignificance, for this time of year is all about love and celebrating the creative melting pot of traditions that bind us together. It’s true that most traditions are not about material wealth at all, but about doing things as a family, a community, a country and a world nation.
Family rituals passed down from generation to generation give us a deep sense of identity and belonging. Afterall the Christmas spirit comes from traditions that help us celebrate joy, love, and goodwill to mankind. It’s a time to pass on cultural, social, or religious heritage and connect young and old.
Coined ‘the most wonderful time of the year’, for many of us our memories are anchored to Christmastime – there’s nothing quite like pouring over old photograph albums of Christmases gone by to mark the passage of time. Tapping into these memories is part of the excitement build up as we plan to cherish new moments to save into our memory banks.
For children it’s even more magical; suddenly everything is lit up, there is sparkle and glitter and sweet treats all around them and memories made now will last a lifetime.
Harking back to our own childhood Christmases, we can relate to the newness of it all again through the eyes of the youngest members of the family. It gives us permission to be childlike, to play, be silly and revel in the moment.
Do you remember stirring your own Grandma’s secret recipe Christmas Cake mixture or leaving out a mince pie for Father Christmas?
Perhaps you recall gathering around your first ever black and white TV tuned in for the Queen’s speech, knocking door-to-door carol singing, or making paper-chain Christmas decorations.
Here’s a look at some of the nation’s favourite traditions, new and old. Kick back, reminisce and wrap yourself in the feel good memories of Christmas that you can pass down…
If there’s one thing that is the absolute paramount of tradition at Christmas time it’s the food. Christmas is the time where everyone brings out their family classics; Nan’s homemade trifle, Dad’s mulled wine, the endless supply of Quality Street and of course the all important Christmas dinner.
Beautifully roasted turkey, with rich gravy, pigs in blankets, Brussels sprouts, parsnips, roast potatoes, bread sauce and Yorkshire puddings… it’s enough to make your mouth water just thinking about it.
Finish this off with a traditional flaming Christmas pudding smothered in custard or brandy sauce and you are in Christmas heaven. As is customary everyone digs in and is then in a food coma, watching telly until it’s time for supper.
Apart from the all important Christmas day dinner, another common Christmas tradition and a great way to get the family all together, is to host a Christmas biscuit decorating day. This can be done in the run up before Christmas and is a fantastic traditional baking activity for families with young children.
The host bakes a large batch of simple sugar cookies, cut into all sorts of Christmassy shapes (think hearts, stars, candy canes, baubles, etc). Family then gathers around the table with endless cups of tea, various bowls of coloured icing, sprinkles, piping bags and all manner of biscuit decorating paraphernalia.
Creative mess ensues – especially for children, as well as bragging rights over the best decorated biscuits. Guests take their biscuits home or share with neighbours, school friends or work places.
Homely, nostalgic, not to mention delicious, quality family time.
Just like our favourite dishes take inspiration from cultures far and wide (pigs in blankets are thought to have originated from Czechoslovakia), so do many of our Christmas traditions.
Did you know, for instance, that the real St. Nicholas lived in Turkey, he was bishop of the Turkish town of Myra in the early 4th century. It was the Dutch who first made him into a Christmas gift-giver and Dutch settlers introduced him to America where his name eventually became the familiar Santa Claus.
The celebration of Christmas itself started in Rome and many of our festive holiday traditions began in Germany, including decorating trees, whilst kissing under the mistletoe comes from Celtic legend and the abbreviation Xmas comes from the Greek letter X short for Christ.
Delve deeper and you’ll find a multitude of traditions are intertwined with others from across the globe and they continue to evolve over time as new rituals emerge and are shared. Take for example Elf on the Shelf, which first arrived in the UK in 2013, having exploded in popularity in its native US in 2005.
When did gifting become so big?
According to the Bank of England, the average UK household spends £740 more in December than at any other month and spending in November has crept up too, fueled by ‘discount’ shopping events such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday tempting us to buy earlier.
The way we buy things is also changing as online shopping has almost doubled over the past five years.
Present buying makes up the bulk of expenses for the festive season, with the average person spending £408 on gifts according to YouGov.
The ‘must-have’ gifts have dominated Christmas shopping in recent years, but this year may have to be different as global supply chain challenges mean some deliveries just won’t reach UK shores in time.
Panicked parents were reportedly phoning toy shops as early as September in tears in their bid to get ahead of the curve and beat any last-minute rush.
When it comes to knowing what toys children will ask Santa for this Christmas Hamleys has it covered; the famous London toy store issued its top picks for 2021 back in October featuring timeless favourites Lego and Barbie.
Decorating the house for Christmas seems to be one of those love-it-or-hate-it activities. There are those that thrive off it and seek to make their decorations more elaborate and over the top year on year and others who are perfectly happy with a token or alternative Christmas tree, or even no decorations at all.
Decorating at Christmas can be an activity richly steeped in nostalgia and tradition. There may be traditional handmade childhood ornaments that are brought out each year, you may make your own Christmas wreath or Christmas crackers, or perhaps you purchase a new tree decoration each Christmas to reflect the year gone by.
One common Christmas activity that has tradition written all over it, the absolute foundation of Christmas decorating, is the ritual of choosing the Christmas tree.
Opting for a real Christmas tree is commonplace in the UK with many local councils offering a free collection service in the weeks following Christmas to ensure they are disposed of and recycled in the most sustainable way possible.
It is common for those who were raised in a family who opted for a real Christmas tree to continue this tradition in their own households.
For most, the unique smell of the freshly cut tree is incredibly nostalgic and transports them back to their own youth where the smell would coincide with the impending excitement of Christmas.
As well as decorating the interior of your house for Christmas, there’s always the option to branch out and string up a few (or several) Christmas lights on the outside of your home.
This leads to a popular community tradition of driving around the neighbourhood and admiring the Christmas lights adorning your neighbors’ homes.
There’s inevitably one house in every village and town that goes a little bit over the top each year and creates a wonderfully heart-warming, colourful spectacle for the enjoyment of passersby.
An evening Christmas light drive or ‘Christmas light hunt’ can be a wonderful activity for families with young children but like many Christmas traditions, is also entertainment for all ages. It highlights the wonderful community spirit of the festive season and spreads immense joy through the simple act of decoration.
Ah, the humble advent calendar. A staple of Christmas tradition and conveyed in a wide variety of different ways.
There’s the cheap and cheerful Disney or superhero themed calendars with a different image and chocolate hiding behind each cardboard door, the increasingly common luxury beauty, beer or cheese advent calendars where a unique variety is offered each night, right through to handmade family heirloom advent calendars, passed down from generation to generation.
The history of the advent calendar is thought to have started in Germany in the late 19th century where Lutherans would draw chalk marks on their doors from December 1st until the 24th, counting up to the day celebrating the birth of Christ.
Nowadays, they are used all around the world to mark the passing of each day during the month of December with a little treat, building the excitement as Christmas draws closer.
One example of a homemade advent calendar that caught our eye involves a fabric wall hanging depicting a simple green felt Christmas tree adorned with Velcro dots. Below the tree are 25 numbered pockets, in random order.
Each pocket contains a small chocolate (naturally) and a small felt Christmas decoration or bauble, with pocket number 25 containing a golden star.
Each night the correct pocket is located and a decoration added to the Velcro dots of the tree until finally, come Christmas day the star is placed atop a fully adorned, felt Christmas tree.
It is not difficult to see how popular such a calendar would be with children as well as the childhood nostalgia it will invoke when passed down to one’s own offspring. It’s simple family traditions such as these that are truly what Christmas is all about.
A lot of families have certain Christmas Eve traditions. Whether this be attending midnight mass or a similar religious ceremony, eating a special meal (even if it’s a takeaway), watching a Christmas film, dressing in matching festive pajamas, reading a Christmas story or opening a singular present, Christmas Eve is often a night of tradition and celebration.
Who doesn’t leave out a drink and snack for Santa Claus? Whilst the snack is typically mince pies or biscuits, the drink has been known to range from a glass of milk, to a bottle of dark beer or tipple of sherry or brandy. It’s also commonplace to supply a carrot or two for Santa’s reindeer and accompany the offered snacks with a note to Santa.
A truly beautiful tradition for children who enjoy seeing the wonder of the empty glass, biscuit crumbs, half-munched vegetables and answered note in the morning (be sure to disguise your handwriting!), the leaving out of snacks also invokes the heartwarming festive spirit of giving, and sharing what you have with others.
The beauty of Christmas Day is that whilst we share the celebration with so many people at home and overseas, each family has their own unique quirks that give the day extra significance to them.
That does mean, however, that when families come together through marriage or circumstance compromises invariably have to be made and new adaptations configured to honour what makes Christmas special for each of us. Ha! That’s sometimes easier said than done and, for some, differences can trigger the ‘traditional family quarrel’!
Christmas morning typically is ruled by the children dashing downstairs to open their presents from Santa, then there’s the all-important Christmas lunch with family gathered around the extended table with mismatched chairs to squeeze everyone in, all digested watching the Queen’s speech, playing with the kids’ new toys, the annual Christmas walk/cycle to show off the new bikes, before more bingeing on chocolate in front of the telly watching film after film.
And breathe…sleep, snore.
The day after. When all the gifts are packed up and put in the car for the long drive home, the detritus from visitors is tidied away and you crack open the 4 pack of socks from Auntie Jane and give yourself a spritz with a new body spray from Mum.
Contrary to popular belief, Boxing Day is not so-named for the Christmas decorations being taken down and returned to their boxes.
Referred to as Saint Stephen’s Day in Christian tradition, Boxing Day has long been associated with charity. Beginning in the Middle Ages, it was the day when the alms box, a church collection box for the poor, was traditionally opened and the contents distributed. It is this ritual that gives us the ‘box’ in Boxing Day.
Whilst this still occurs, it is also popular nowadays for many people to spend their Boxing Day volunteering in places such as soup kitchens, charity settings or shelters.
In complete contrast to the benevolent, charitable traditions of Boxing Day, in recent years Boxing Day has begun to mark the beginning of significantly discounted sales at retail stores. One of the biggest shopping days of the year in the UK, December 26th is a day where many people shake off their food coma and venture out to bag themselves a post-Christmas bargain.
Sport, specifically football, also features heavily on Boxing Day; matches between top league teams rewarding those in the stands and on the sofa at home with some thrilling sporting competition and atmosphere.
Christmas dinner leftovers and a cold beer in front of the telly in your new slippers is a Boxing Day tradition for many families, sure to be upheld this year with the likes of Liverpool vs Leeds and Aston Villa vs Chelsea on the line-up.
Looking back, you might get nostalgic, but the best part is that it’s never too late to begin a new tradition or carry on an old one.
Take the delight, for example, of sitting with your grandchildren on Christmas Eve tracking Santa’s journey online from the North Pole to deliver his presents – it’s the best way to get them into bed with squeals of ‘quick, he’s nearly here’!
What do you remember about Christmas from when you were little?
Which traditions have you passed onto to your family from your own childhood or have you introduced any new ones in recent years?
We’d love to hear your stories.