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

You’ve heard the phrase many times: “A traditional British Christmas”, or “A traditional German Christmas”, or French, Spanish, 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 is a result of 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.

It is an important reminder, in these difficult times, with anti-immigration sentiment on the rise, that some of our most precious gifts were given to us by strangers.

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 a number of Pagan and otherwise non-Christian festivals that were 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 which was the very first, Jesus refulsit omnium (Jesus illuminates all), became particularly popular. Penned by St Hilary of Poitiers in France, this 16-hundred-year-old classic is still performed today.

Eating Turkey

While not the centrepiece of every Christmas dinner table around the world, Turkey is popular in many European countries, North America, and in parts of South America

It’s 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 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 England was feasting on this foreign foul.

Mulled Wine

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

Often, the resulting solution would be boiled, to reduce its wateriness.

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

Lights on trees

This 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 Thesis to the door of 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.

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 bishop of the Mediterranean town of Myra, in modern day Turkey.

Many claims of miracles are attributed for 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.

Mince Pies

Far from a universal treat, mincemeat pies are really only popular in the UK. However, they originate from much farther afield.

When 13th century crusaders returned from their religious wars in the Middle East, they brought with them 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 round 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 desert enjoyed today.


This 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 decided to spice 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.

As well as its interesting origins, this is another tradition regarded as essential in some parts of the world, such as the UK, Australia, South Africa and Canada. Go elsewhere and you’ll get blank looks whether you ask for crackers, or Bangs of Expectation.

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