Head to the UK this festive season for a Christmas full of tradition and quirky charm.
The UK is a melting-pot of multiculturalism and Christmas is usually a time that brings people of all backgrounds together to celebrate the joy of the festive season. Indeed, many of the most beloved UK Christmas traditions have their roots in other cultures, from the German Christmas tree introduced by Prince Albert, to the Greek-inspired act of kissing under the mistletoe. This holiday season, celebrate the UK’s incredible diversity and take part in some of its most beloved Christmas traditions.
For many families in the UK, Christmas Day wouldn’t be complete without a jaunt in the Great Outdoors. Whether the walk is a tour around the neighbourhood or an excursion into the countryside, getting some fresh air, and in the process burning off the turkey dinner, has become a cherished activity. Whitby is family beach walk heaven while the South Downs are London’s closest national park, just over an hour away by train. The 3km hike on the Lancashire-Cumbria border along Arnside Knott offers dazzling views over Morecambe Bay, while the 6km trek along the White Cliffs of Dover provides great views and sea air.
Every city and many of the UK's towns light up their streets at Christmas, with celebrities doing the famous lighting up as early as the first week of November. London's Oxford, Regent and Carnaby Streets are the most popular, but don't miss Covent Garden and Marylebone High Street for classy illuminations. Sparkly sojourns around the UK include George Street in Edinburgh, Victoria Gardens in Leeds, all around central Norwich, starting with fireworks at the City Hall in mid-November, as well as Deansgate in Manchester. Rubbing noses up against the cold, frosty windows of glamorous department stores is also a tradition that goes back generations. The most famous window displays are Liberty, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols, Fortnum & Mason and Harrods in London.
A bit like Marmite, pantomimes straddle the love-hate divide in equal measure. For many Britons, Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without a bit of panto. For others though, the thought of watching amateur theatre, often with a B-list celebrity headlining, is more yawn than yuletide. While the art of pantomime might be inspired by commedia dell'arte, the panto that you see today is mostly for a younger audience and the plays tend to be based on fairytales. With a good dose of slapstick and audience participation thrown in, pantomime is a Christmas must - oh yes it is, oh no it isn’t. The most traditional ones are at London's Palladium (but Hackney Empire is the real local go-to), Birmingham or Bristol's Hippodromes, the Opera House in Manchester, Theatre Royal in Nottingham, King's Theatre in Edinburgh, Liverpool Empire and Cardiff's New Theatre.
Like pine trees and mistletoe, there are some things that have come to define Christmas. For people in the UK, mince pies do just that. Long before being filled with dried fruit and spices as we’re used to today though, mince pies were savoury and filled with minced meat. Said to have originated when Crusaders brought back spices from the Middle East, mince pies have evolved considerably since the Middle Ages, even being banned by Puritans who claimed the treats inspired too much Christmas revelry. Today though, past the Puritans and moved on from minced meat, nothing brings more holiday joy than these tasty treats.
While mince pies are likely snacked on throughout the festive season, Christmas Pudding is a treat typically enjoyed on Christmas Day itself. Stodgy and fruity, the traditional pud takes hours to make and weeks until it’s ready for the big day, being steamed, hung, and even set on fire, as part of its many cooking processes. Dating back to the medieval ages, this traditional British dessert remains an essential part of any UK Christmas dinner to this day. Whether eaten during the Queen’s speech, a Doctor Who special or over a game of charades, there’s always room at the end of the meal for a piece of pud.
On Christmas Day all over the UK, families congregate around their dining tables to enjoy a traditional roast turkey lunch with all the trimmings – and all, no matter what age, can be found wearing colourful paper crowns. These hats are included, along with a joke and a toy, in traditional Christmas crackers, a staple of any UK Christmas celebration. These tube-shaped packages date back to Victorian times, when a London sweet maker, Tom Smith, was inspired by Parisian bon-bons wrapped in twisted colourful paper. He decided to make his own, placing a motto inside each one and eventually adding a small fuse that makes the “cracking sound,” inspired by his crackling fireplace.
While not a Christmas tradition, Hogmanay is an important Scottish New Year’s celebration that dates back to the Vikings throwing wild parties in honour of the winter solstice. No other nation does New Year’s revelries quite as big or as passionately as Scotland. Head to Edinburgh to ring in 2020 where there will be three days of festivities: a torchlit procession on 30 December, a city-wide party on the 31st, and finally the Loony Dook, an annual splash in the River Forth at South Queensferry on New Year’s Day.
Image credits top to bottom: Beach huts in the snow iStock ©CBCK-Christine, South Downs National Park in English countryside iStock ©Matt_Gibson, Christmas Lights in Covent Garden, London iStock ©Alphotgraphic, Mince pies and crackers iStock ©Sam Edwards, Edinburgh fireworks at dusk from Calton Hill iStock ©georgeclerk
Best outdoor activities in London
Whether you are looking for alternative things to do in London with families or just seeking some solo time in the city, here are top tips for enjoying a greener side to London.
Trains to Italy's ski slopes
The French and Swiss Alps may monopolise the winter limelight, but a ski holiday to the Italian Alps is an off-piste option for a wonderful winter getaway.