Learning a language is very closely connected to learning about the cultural aspects of the home country of that particular language. When I was learning Italian I had to learn about La Biffana – a witch who delivered sweets to children for Epiphany (Jan. 6th) I couldn’t consider myself a Polish speaker if I didn’t know the word ‘choinka’ – Christmas tree. Similarly, imagine learning English without understanding the meaning and cultural context of ‘Trick-or-Treat!’
Knowing words and being able to describe cultural practices go hand in hand with knowing the language itself. Christmas as a holiday in Britain is rich with vocabulary and tradition and it is heavily intertwined with life in late December in the UK. We are going to explore some cultural practices and vocabulary associated with British Christmas so here we go! HO HO HO!
Many English speaking countries have a huge roasted turkey on the table at Christmas time with mashed potatoes and gravy but here are some foods and treats that are exclusively British.
- Mince Pies – Small, biscuit-sized pastries filled with minced meat OR nuts and sweet flavourings such as cinnamon or sugar. Fun Fact: This treat was probably inspired by Middle Eastern Cuisine.
- Gingerbread Stuff – Cookies, houses, little people figures and stars all made from gingerbread and well suited to milk or egg nog.
- Christmas Pudding – Small dessert cakes made from figs or plums usually topped with a sprig of holly.
- Candy Canes – These are small, minty, hard candies in the shape of a walking cane. They can be hung from the tree or given as treats to friends.
There is the traditional practice of young people going from house to house to sing Christmas carols and hopefully earn some small change. Carollers often dress up as characters from the nativity or Victorian England and carry a lantern on a stick. It is important to make the distinction between Christmas Carols – religious music associated with the birth of Christ and Christmas Songs – fun, modern music about the winter season and enjoying the snow.
One very British tradition involves sharing a Christmas cracker. It is essentially a gift-wrapped container resembling a huge over-sized sweet which contains an assortment of small toys and gadgets. The coolness and complexity of the toys is directly relative to how much was paid for the crackers themselves. They also always contain a paper crown and a small (childish) joke. Each participant holds one end of the cracker and firmly pulls to detonate a small firecracker which makes a loud BANG sound and open the cracker itself.
A typical Christmas Cracker joke: Where does Frosty keep all of his money? In the snow bank!!
It seems that the practice of wearing kitschy, loud, flagrant and outrageous Christmas themed sweaters has gained in popularity since the release of Bridget Jones Diary when Colin Firth’s character arrives at a Christmas party wearing such a remarkable sweater. This scene was a social commentary on the very common practice. Everyone in the UK has that goofy cousin or uncle who has a collection of odd and laughable sweaters for each day leading up to the holidays. Elves, reindeer, snowmen, anything goes and the more distracting the better. Add-ons, working light and protruding elements of the sweater are more than welcome.
All of these things are closely connected to British culture and you would be much less likely to find them in the United States. How do you feel about Christmas in your country? Do you feel it has become too commercial? Do you have a fond memory of some family traditions. Share in the comment section below.