Where Do British Christmas Traditions Come From? The Answer Might Surprise You.

Last updated on March 4th, 2024 at 01:49 am

Christmas carols

You’ve often heard the phrase: “A traditional British Christmas,” or “A traditional German Christmas,” or French, Spanish, or Mexican. Every country where the holiday is celebrated feels some ownership of its traditions, from making snowmen to drinking mulled wine.

However, the Christmas that we know and love results from centuries of migration, much like the rest of our culture. Remitly has been delving into the history books to find out the origins of famous Christmas festivities. Read on to learn what we’ve discovered about some of the most popular British Christmas traditions.

Christmas carols

It wasn’t until the year 336 AD that the birth of Christ was first celebrated on December 25th. It is believed that Roman bishops chose the date as it coincided with several pagan and non-Christian festivals prone to excessive drinking. Eventually, the more conservative, spiritual celebration supplanted its rowdy rivals.

Around the same time, a number of hymns emerged, specifically celebrating the new festival. While there is disagreement around the very first, Jesus Refulsit Omnium (Jesus Illuminates All) became particularly popular. Penned by Saint Hilary of Poitiers in France, this 16-hundred-year-old classic is still performed by many people singing carols in the U.K.

Eating Turkey

While not the centerpiece of every Christmas dinner table around the world, turkey is a common British Christmas tradition and is popular in many European countries, North America, and parts of South America. Its journey to becoming a Christmas favorite is a combination of exploration and royal fashions.

Turkey, the bird, hails from the Americas and was domesticated by the ancient Aztecs. It was brought to England by the 16th-century explorer and politician William Strickland. Its arrival coincided with the reign of King Henry VIII, who came to develop a taste for the meat.

Turkey quickly supplanted peacock as the festive dish of choice on the king’s Christmas dining table.

Then, as now, royal fashions trickled down to the general population, and it wasn’t long before all of England was feasting on this foreign foul.

Unlike other parts of Europe, where the main meal is enjoyed on Christmas Eve, British families typically have dinner in the afternoon on Christmas Day.

Mulled Wine

All credit goes to the Romans for inventiveness when it comes to wine. Faced with the problem of transportation across a vast empire and storage through variable seasons without air-tight containers, they devised some imaginative solutions.

After a few years of storage, the Romans’ wine tended to become thick and had to be diluted with warm water and strained through a bag.

The resulting solution was often to boil the wine to reduce its wateriness.

During this process, they sometimes added bad wine to the better stuff to make it drinkable, and spices and honey were added for flavor. This drink was known as mulsum, which sounds and tastes remarkably similar to today’s mulled wine.

Today, mulled wine is a common accompaniment to Christmas food, like turkey and mince pies. It’s also a common European Christmas tradition enjoyed in Germany, Austria, and other countries.

Mulled wine

Lights on trees

The lighted Christmas tree is one of those historical curios where a figure, well known for one thing, has an unrelated claim to fame.

Martin Luther is remembered for sparking the Protestant Reformation by nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517.

The theologian’s other legacy—for which there is less solid evidence—was bringing fir trees indoors to mark Christmas. Luther is said to have added candles to the branches of his tree to give the impression of twinkling stars.

Although they can be traced back centuries, Christmas trees didn’t join British Christmas traditions until 1800. It was then that Queen Charlotte decorated the first Christmas tree in the Queen’s Lodge at Windsor Castle.

Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria, first decorated a tree to be displayed publicly in 1840. Since then, displaying a Christmas tree each year has been a British tradition.

Father Christmas

The role of Saint Nicolas in the creation of Santa Claus or Father Christmas is well known. St. Nick is—literally—his nickname.

The real Saint Nicolas lived between the 3rd and 4th centuries and was the bishop of the Mediterranean town of Myra in modern-day Turkey.

Many claims of miracles are attributed to Saint Nicolas, but it was his gift-giving to poor children for which he would be best remembered. In later centuries, this legend would become reborn as part of the Sinterklaas or Santa Claus character.

As for when Father Christmas became incorporated into British Christmas traditions, most historians credit author Susan Warner with the introduction. In 1864, she published a children’s book entitled Carl Krinken: His Christmas Stocking, which depicted Father Christmas bringing presents to good children.

Mince Pies

Far from a universal treat, eating mince pies is really only popular in the U.K. However, they originate from much farther afield.

When 13th-century crusaders returned from their religious wars in the Middle East, they brought exotic, new foodstuffs. Some of these involved the combination of fruits, spices, and meats.

Being a nation of pie lovers, it was only a matter of time before the English wrapped a pastry case around the exotic mixture, which at that time included mutton. Appetite for the meaty part of mincemeat pies fell off in the 19th century, leaving the sweet dessert enjoyed today. Today, mince pies are a staple Christmas food enjoyed by many families.

Christmas presents


The Christmas cracker is one historical Christmas tradition that can be precisely dated. Christmas crackers were invented by London confectioner Tom Smith in 1847. After selling sweets wrapped in paper, Mr. Smith spiced up the offering by adding love messages.

He then took things further by adding a small exploding mechanism, activated when two people pulled either end of the cracker. The product became known as “Bangs of Expectation.”

The sweet was eventually replaced with small gifts, and today’s cracker-pullers can expect to go home with anything from a nail clipper to a mini pack of cards.

Pulling Christmas crackers has become a part of Christmas traditions in some parts of the world, such as Australia, South Africa, and Canada. Go elsewhere, and you’ll get blank looks when you ask if it’s time to pull Christmas crackers.

Party hats

Wearing paper crowns is a key part of the Christmas crackers tradition, but their history goes further back than pulling crackers. During the winter solstice celebration of Saturnalia, the ancient Romans wore festive crowns.

It’s unclear exactly when the paper party hat tradition arrived in the U.K., but today, many people look forward to donning one as a part of the fun on Christmas Day.

Christmas pudding

For many Brits, nothing says “Merry Christmas“ quite like plum pudding, and the practice of preparing and eating Christmas pudding is one of the few British Christmas traditions that has its roots solely in British history.

During the 14th century, a dish called frumenty became popular. It was a porridge with beef or mutton, raisins, wine, currants, and spices. During the centuries that followed, people modified the dish, and by 1650, Christmas pudding had become a truly British tradition.

However, the Puritans thought that plum pudding was too rich and decadent and rallied for a ban on the treat during the 1660s. It wasn’t until 1714 that King George I ended the controversy by making Christmas pudding an official part of the Christmas Day meal.


Pantomimes are one of the British Christmas traditions that many families look forward to every year, and these comical performances date back to the Elizabethan and Stuart days.

During the 14th century, mime, spoken word, and musical performances were held at grand theaters. The British Christmas tradition slowly spread, and by the 17th century, pantomime performances were taking place throughout England.

Today, these performances usually center on children’s stories like Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella.

The televised Christmas speech

The Queen’s Christmas message was broadcast on TV for the first time in 1957, and ever since that first televised Christmas speech, British people have turned on their TVs during their Christmas Day festivities to see and hear the current year’s edition.

During her reign, Elizabeth II delivered the holiday Queen’s speech faithfully every year, except in 1969, she issued a written message instead. In 2022, King Charles III gave his first message.

It’s important to note that the annual Queen’s speech didn’t begin in 1958. Before it appeared on TV, the Queen sent her holiday well wishes via radio. That tradition began with her father, King George V, who was well-known for giving radio addresses. George V’s first message for the holidays took place in 1932.

Christmas present

Christmas cards

Christmas cards are as common throughout the world as the Christmas carol, but the tradition started in England. Michael Maier is believed to have sent the first ever to King James I in 1611.

In 1843, Sir Henry Cole commissioned the first-ever cards to be sold publicly. John Calcott Horsley created the design, which depicted a large family raising their glasses in a toast alongside images of people giving gifts to the poor.

By the 1870s, lithograph cards with a variety of designs were available for purchase in England, and in 1874, they arrived in the U.S.

The John Lewis advert

Watching this year’s John Lewis advert is one of the most highly anticipated British Christmas traditions. One of the UK’s newer Christmas traditions started in 2007, when a British department store aired its first commercial. Called “Shadows,“ it featured presents and products arranged to produce a shadow image of a dog and a woman in the snow.

Many of the songs featured in John Lewis’s Christmas commercials become hits on the Billboard charts, and the popularity of the ads has caused other major retailers like Boots and Salisbury’s to come up with unique commercials of their own.