Here in the UK, we like to get a jump on Christmas by kicking off the celebrations before the big day. Christmas Eve is a big deal, here. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I prefer it to Christmas Day. Let me share with you some of our Christmas Eve traditions in the UK and you can see for yourself.
It’s Pantomime Time (Oh No It Isn’t!)
Held in theaters large and small throughout the UK, Pantomime is a slapstick comedy musical that has long been a favorite family activity for Christmas Eve. The shows are loosely based on a fairy story or folk tale, such as Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, or Puss in Boots, but there’s always a topical twist to the plot. Typically, a woman plays the male lead character. The pantomime dame, or two Ugly Sisters if it’s Cinderella, is always a man in drag. Oh and there’s a pantomime horse too, a role (and a costume) shared by two people.
One of the reasons panto is still so popular is that it’s a participatory experience. We’ll hiss or boo at the villains, cheer our heroes, and sympathize with anyone down on their luck with a big “awww”. Certain phrases will trigger a reaction from the audience. When a character asserts something to be true, for instance “he’s behind you”, the audience will yell the required “Oh no he isn’t!” The response comes back “Oh yes he is!” and after some back and forth, the production will eventually continue.
This year, with COVID restrictions affecting theatres, they’ve had to get a little creative so we can still enjoy our annual tradition. Some shows are performing outside in city squares or as drive-ins. Others have moved online. The BBC will be broadcasting Cinderella, starring Olivia Colman and Helena Bonham-Carter. Meanwhile, national treasure Peter Duncan, who once fronted popular kids show Blue Peter, has written, directed, and performed Jack and the Beanstalk in his own back garden. The production will be screened at cinemas.
A Visit To The Pub
Christmas Eve is officially a workday and not a public holiday, but the message hasn’t got through to everyone. While key workers perform their shifts as normal, it’s not quite the same for office-based staff. Generally speaking, very little work is done but plenty of Christmas food is consumed – chocolate and mince pies are the treats of choice as the cake isn’t supposed to be cut until Christmas Day. By lunchtime, everyone has had enough sugar and decamps to the pub.
A social afternoon follows, and participants only depart if they still need to finish their Christmas shopping or if they’re likely to miss the last train, which can be as early as mid-afternoon. Of course, pubs within walking distance to home are just as popular and the celebrations continue there until late in the evening.
The Christingle Service and Midnight Mass
Christmas draws in many Brits who wouldn’t usually go to church. In the afternoon, most Anglican churches hold a family Christingle service. It’s actually a German custom, begun by the Moravians in the middle of the 18th century. It didn’t come to the UK until 1968, and even then it was introduced as a fundraiser for the Children’s Society.
During the Christingle, the vicar gives each child an orange, symbolizing God’s Earth. In it we push four cocktail sticks for the four seasons; on each are threaded sweets to represent the fruit of the earth. Around the orange is a red ribbon, embodying God’s sacrifice, and on top a candle, for Jesus, the light of the world. As the candles are lit, churchwardens across the country descend into meltdown in case the ancient timbers of their historic churches accidentally catch alight. All are welcome, officially, but no one really wants to see the fire brigade.
We merrily sing child-friendly carols like Little Donkey, and a nativity play is performed. That’s also the case at the Midnight Mass service, timed to start not long after the pubs close for the evening, which has sometimes created a bit of a headache for urban vicars. Throughout the rest of the year, we don’t call our church services “mass” – that’s for Catholics – but Christmas Eve’s gathering is the exception. Regulars will take Holy Communion, but visitors receive a blessing.
Prepping for Santa
Technology – not to mention social media – has had an impact and these days on Christmas Eve we also track how far Santa has got on his journey via the Norad Santa Tracker. This recent adoption of a North American invention doesn’t bother us in the slightest. In fact, we have a long history of pinching customs from others if we like the look of them. European traditions are fair game in this respect. On the continent, many countries have their feast and open presents on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. Doing the same got the Royal seal of approval as far back as Queen Victoria, who wholeheartedly embraced European customs after her marriage to Prince Albert.
Hanging stockings at the foot of the bed has been a British tradition for a long time, though it began with St. Nicholas, which makes it a European custom as well. In Britain, we happily exchange Christmas cards that depict the stockings beside the fireplace. However, in most UK households, they hang in the kids’ bedrooms, not least because that might improve your chances of getting the children to sleep earlier – Santa can’t come if the kids are still awake. Yes, here in the UK, we do expect Santa to bring the presents into the living room and then pop upstairs to fill the stockings as well. Tough job.
Traditionally, a satsuma and some gold-wrapped chocolate coins are placed in the toe of the stocking, and then a series of little parcels would fill the rest. Today, parents invest in fancy stockings bought specially for the occasion. When I was a kid, a spare pillowcase was used instead; you could say we lucked out, as it was far bigger than any stocking could have been.
Father Christmas and his reindeer need to eat and drink, so we place some of their favorite food on the hearth. Traditionally, we give the reindeer a carrot and a glass of milk, both of which can be covertly recycled in the following day’s Christmas dinner. We leave out a mince pie for Father Christmas (check out this recipe from Bake Off’s Paul Hollywood). Grab some British mincemeat from Robertson’s, the brand that supplies the Queen, if you don’t want to make it yourself.
And finally, there should also be a glass of sherry: no need for Santa to worry about a DUI as Rudolph’s in charge. According to a YouGov survey, these days, more children leave out a glass of beer than that old-fashioned sherry because Santa’s drinking habits have changed. All together now:
“Oh no they haven’t! Oh yes they have!”
Happy Christmas everyone!
Top photo by Jamie Davies