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British Christmas traditions explored

Posted 12/17/2007   Updated 12/17/2007 Email story   Print story


from the RAF Mildenhall Community Relations Adviser's Office
100th Air Refueling Wing

12/17/2007 - RAF MILDENHALL, England -- Many of our Christmas traditions have grown out of earlier rites, practiced long before Christianity ever reached these shores. The earlier date of Christmas Day, Dec. 21, signaled the start of the winter equinox, and is the shortest day of the year. It was dark and cold.

Pagan sun worshippers used to keep huge fires alight on this day, in an attempt to revive the failing strength of the sun god. As the winter receded and the days gradually lengthened again, the worshippers knew they'd once more survived their annual struggle against the forces of cold and darkness.

By medieval times Christmas had evolved to be the biggest celebration of the year, and was celebrated for 12 whole days. Life was hard then. Poverty was rife, and highwaymen and robbers flourished, so the laws governing hospitality were strict. Any traveler entering a house with the spirit of goodwill had the right to shelter, and to the protection of his host, plus whatever food could be spared. Many travelers took good care to present themselves at the gates of a substantial castle on Christmas Eve. They would then be entitled to shelter, protection, and lavish food and drink for 12 days.

Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe
Those three plants are used as Christmas decorations. All three plants are green and bear fruit in the middle of winter. Holly and ivy were used by the Romans during Saturnalia which is the feast at which Romans honored their temple of the god Saturn.

The ancient druids regarded mistletoe as a magical plant and are said to have harvested it with a golden sickle. It is not surprising that mistletoe was regarded as special - unlike most plants it does not grow out of the earth. Mistletoe can also feature in the New Year tradition of Burning the Bush - the bush is a globe, made usually of hawthorn, but sometimes also of mistletoe, which is burned in the fields.

Today mistletoe has a special place in British Christmas celebrations. You hang up a branch in the house. Although many people just demand a celebratory kiss under the mistletoe, you are meant to pick one berry for each kiss, these berries are not edible.

Santa Claus
Christmas without the well-known figure of Santa Claus is very hard to imagine. He's actually St. Nicholas, patron saint of children, called Santa Claus by Scandinavians. It was they who carried the name with them to the New World.

Christmas Crackers
If this is your first year in the U.K., you'll probably be introduced to crackers. They're brightly decorated cardboard tubes containing a small explosive strip, a paper hat, a riddle and a small gift. Normally, they're placed on the dinner table beside the knife. As two people pull an end each, the cracker separates with a bang. The winner is the one who is left holding the biggest portion.

Yes you must wear your paper hat no matter how silly you feel!

Boxing Day
In the United Kingdom, practically everything closes down on Christmas Day. It's a family day, spent at home with friends and relatives. Unlike the rest of Europe, our children open their presents on Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve. In the U.K., the day after Christmas Day is also a holiday and is called Boxing Day.

On this day, the church poor-boxes or almsboxes were opened and the contents distributed among the poor. Nowadays Christmas boxes or money is given to tradesmen who deliver to your home such as postmen, dustmen and milkmen, to thank them for their service throughout the year.

Christmas Fare
Christmas would not be Christmas without lots of traditional food and drink. But Christmas food hasn't always been the same.

Christmas cake, for example, used to be part of the Twelfth Night celebrations. Christmas puddings appeared in the 17th Century. It is meant lucky to help make the pudding - in the past families use to take it in turns to stir the mixture clockwise and make a wish. The cook use to put a sixpence into the mixture and whoever found it was suppose to have good luck bestowed upon them.

Mince pies are older in origin. The early mince pies were made with meat in the filling and were shaped to look like Christ's manger. Mince pies today however are made from pastry and a sweet fruit filling. It is meant to be lucky to eat twelve different mince pies made by twelve different cooks. However they are very sweet so try not to eat them all at once.

Traditionally Christmas cake, puddings and pies are made from different variations of a fruit based recipe, containing raisins, currents, glace cherries, apricot, candied peel cinnamon or nutmeg walnuts or almonds and of course not forgetting the alcohol brandy or rum.

Folklore states that mince pies are the favourite food of Father Christmas....so if you want lot's of presents this year remember to leave out mince pies, glass of milk and carrots on Christmas Eve for Santa and his Reindeer!

Article compiled by Vicky Stayton, Team Mildenhall Community Relations Adviser
victoria.stayton@mildenhall.af.mil, 01638 54 2254

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