Cornwall

Christmas Traditions from Around the UK

Some universal and some unique to distinct pockets, many of the UK’s Christmas traditions date back centuries. From peacekeeping gifts from fearsome Vikings to spiritual Pagan rituals to modern traditions embraced by all, here are just some of the best Christmas celebrations from around the UK. 

Exploring celebrations past and present, we’ve put together some of our favourite Christmas traditions from around the UK.

Plygain

Plygain is a popular Welsh Christmas tradition first noted in the Black Book of Carmarthen in the 13th Century. Thought to be derived from the Latin “pullicantio”, which means “when the cock crows at dawn”, it involves merry carolling from 3am to 6am on Christmas Day. Uniting singers in tuneful harmony, Plygain is a tradition that many Welsh communities still enjoy today – with the help of a coffee, or two.

Christmas Puddings

First eaten in the UK back in the 14th Century, the polarizing Christmas Pudding is made with raisins, currants, prunes, wines and spices. For a fun twist that has survived the centuries, King Edward II introduced the tradition of hiding a dried pea or bean (later becoming a more appealing silver coin) inside Christmas Puds. The idea was that whoever got the winning slice became King or Queen for the day. 

First-Footing

‘First-Footer’ is the name given to the first person to arrive on Christmas Day. Believed to date back to the Viking Invasion of the British Isles when fur-clad Norseman would supposedly turn up at villagers’ doors with gifts as a sign of peace, the tradition is still recognised today (just without the longboats). Often associated with Scottish Christmas traditions, first-footers are expected to arrive bearing gifts such as delicious black buns – a Scottish fruit cake covered in pastry.

Mummers’ Plays 

Dating from at least the 17th century in the UK, Mummers’ Plays are traditionally performed by troupes of amateur male actors, entertaining local communities with short dramas in rhymed verse. Historically moving from house to house, the tradition now generally moves from pub to pub instead, delighting audiences with increasingly enthusiastic performances. Two popular Mummers’ Plays take place in Padstow in Cornwall and Marshfield in the Cotswolds.

Christmas Trees

A fairly recent addition to Yuletide celebrations, Christmas trees became popular in England when Prince Albert, husband to Queen Victoria, brought one over from Germany in 1841. Cementing its place in Windsor Castle and UK festive history to boot, the tradition of decorating Christmas trees is now one of the most popular pastimes in the run up to Christmas, relished by all generations. 

Festive Lights

The origins of Christmas lights are rooted in Pagan beliefs, when candles were lit during the solstice to encourage the return of the sun after the long, dark months of winter. These days, Christmas lights are a much-loved part of Christmas celebrations with many communities organising annual ‘switch ons’, accompanied by live music, hot food and fragrant mulled wine. Lighting up coastal villages, country towns and city streets all over the UK, they are a real sight to behold.

Wassailing 

If you’ve ever been carol singing, you may have heard the line “here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green”. Often overlooked these days, this actually refers to a UK Christmas tradition from the 1600s, when people would prepare a belly-warming, cider-based drink in large bowls to share with their neighbours. The use of cider was meant to scare away bad spirits and encourage a healthy apple harvest in the New Year. It was also, one can imagine, somewhat inebriating!

Christmas Day Swims 

One of the slightly more painful – sorry – brave Christmas traditions to be enjoyed throughout the UK is the Christmas Day Swim. While unofficial dips have taken place for centuries, Brighton Swimming Club is widely regarded as hosting the UK’s longest-established organised event. A brilliant way to start Christmas Day, unite communities and earn that extra mince pie, these swims should make it onto everyone’s festive bucket lists at least once.

Mistletoe

Many moons ago in ancient Britain, mistletoe was considered so sacred that only druids wielding golden sickles were allowed to cut it.  Symbolising peace, it was used to decorate homes to bring shelter and protection. That was, until the Victorians got their hands on it. From the 18th Century the custom of puckering up under mistletoe was widely embraced and it is a still romantic symbol to this day. 

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