[ 2007-02-09 16:18 ]
Christmas is Britain's most popular holiday and is characterized by traditions which date back hundreds of years. Many Christmas customs which originated in Britain have been adopted in the United States.
The first ever Christmas card was posted in England in the 1840s, and the practice soon became an established part of the build-up to Christmas. Over a billion Christmas cards are now sent every year in the United Kingdom, many of them sold in aid of charities.
Christmas decorations in general have even earlier origins. Holly, ivy and mistletoe are associated with rituals going back beyond the Dark Ages. (The custom of kissing beneath a sprig of mistletoe is derived from an ancient pagan tradition.) The Christmas tree was popularised by Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, who introduced one to the Royal Household in 1840. Since 1947, the country of Norway has presented Britain annually with a large Christmas tree which stands in Trafalgar Square in commemoration of Anglo-Norwegian cooperation during the Second World War.
Popular among children at Christmas time are pantomimes: song and dance dramatisations of well-known fairy tales which encourage audience participation.
Carols are often sung on Christmas Eve by groups of singers to their neighbours, and children hang a stocking on the fireplace or at the foot of their bed for Santa Claus (also named Father Christmas) to fill. Presents for the family are placed beneath the Christmas tree.
Christmas Day sees the opening of presents and many families attend Christmas services at church. Christmas dinner consists traditionally of a roast turkey, goose or chicken with stuffing and roast potatoes. This is followed by mince pies and Christmas pudding flaming with brandy, which might contain coins or lucky charms for children. (The pudding is usually prepared weeks beforehand and is customarily stirred by each member of the family as a wish is made.) Later in the day, a Christmas cake may be served - a rich baked fruit cake with marzipan, icing and sugar frosting.
The pulling of Christmas crackers often accompanies food on Christmas Day. Invented by a London baker in 1846, a cracker is a brightly coloured paper tube, twisted at both ends, which contains a party hat, riddle and toy or other trinket. When it is pulled by two people it gives out a crack as its contents are dispersed.