Seeing as a large part of American culture came from the United Kingdom, it’s not much of a surprise that many of our Christmas traditions and decorations originated there as well. Greenery such as mistletoe, wreaths, and holly and ivy had their origins in the Winter Solstice that became part of Christmas as ancient Britons converted to Christianity. German immigrants brought over Christmas trees, but they didn’t become fashionable in the UK and US until Prince Phillip brought one into Buckingham Palace. All of these decorations persist as part of our holiday culture today, but there are still differences between the ways Americans and Brits decorate for Christmas. If you want to make your Christmas a little more British, you can take an example from below. Let us know what some of your favorite British Christmas decorations are and share them with us in the comments.
Nativity Scene without Jesus (Until the 24th)
Many Americans who celebrate Christmas often keep a manger scene in their home. This set depicts the birth of Jesus in the manger behind the inn after Mary and Joseph couldn’t find lodging anywhere else. The setting id often depicted as a crude barn and includes figures of the animals, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, as well as potentially the shepherds, three wise men, and angels. Normally Americans will keep Jesus in the Nativity scene the entire Christmas season, but it’s more traditional in the United Kingdom not to add Jesus until Christmas Eve, closer to his birth. You can also wait to add the shepherds until then and the wise men on Jan. 6th (the date of the Epiphany, typically celebrated as the day the wise men visited Jesus).
The tradition of giving oranges (especially in stockings) at Christmas in Britain appears to have started in the Victorian era, though it may be much older. Oranges were a sign of wealth but also harkened back to the legend of St. Nicholas, who left three bags of gold for a poor man so that his three daughters would each have a dowry for marriage. The three bags eventually became symbolized as three gold balls, which bear a striking semblance to oranges and still serve as the symbol of pawnbrokers (for whom Nicholas is a patron saint). You can either decorate an orange to become a Christingle (intended to symbolize Christ as the “Light of the World”) or follow one of a dozen recipes online to dry out orange slices and use them as Christmas ornaments for your tree.
Put Your Christmas Stockings on the Bed
The tradition of Christmas Stockings also begins with St. Nicholas who put the bags of gold in the girls’ stockings that were hanging on the bed while the girls were sleeping. In Britain, stockings at the head or foot of the bed are still the traditional place to locate them. Other accounts of the story have the stockings hanging on the fireplace to dry. Part of the reason for this stocking location in America might have to do with the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by American poet Clarke Clement Moore (better known by its first line “’Twas the night before Christmas”). The poem served as one of several origins for Americans’ image of Santa Claus and the description of the stockings being “hung by the chimney” with care may certain have influenced people to do the same.
Confectioner Tom Smith of London created the first Christmas crackers in 1847 as a clever holiday way to sell his bon-bons, but over time they have come to include small toys, a paper crown, and jokes. They’re normally part of the traditional British Christmas dinner, and everyone is expected to wear their crown and read the bad jokes to each other. Christmas Crackers also tend to be very colorfully decorated on the outside, and their placement on your plate serves as an added decoration for the holiday.
Tone Down the Christmas Lights
Most Americans are familiar with the scene in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation when Clark Griswold turns on his home’s Christmas lights and nearly blinds the whole neighborhood or Tim Taylor from Home Improvement causing a blackout with his decorative light show. Exterior Christmas lights are a very big deal in the States, with whole neighborhoods holding competitions and lighting events drawing visitors near and far, but Christmas lights are a more subdued affair in the UK. Sure, the high streets and shops will be aglow with incredibly extravagant and colorful Christmas lights, but most homes in the UK don’t go so large. That doesn’t mean you can’t put out any, but for a British Christmas, less is more.