When I moved to England over twenty years ago I was surprised by how different the Christmas celebrations could be. To start with, Christmas lunch was, well, lunch – not dinner as I was used to. Oh, and we set fire to the dessert, but more about that later. Of course traditions vary family to family but here’s a little peak into a typical British Christmas.
Santa leaves the presents on Christmas Eve of course but instead of cookies and milk, children leave him a mince pie and a glass of sherry. Carrots are usually left out for the reindeer. Stockings are opened first thing Christmas morning, but larger gifts may be left till after Christmas lunch.
The main Christmas meal is almost always served at no later than one o’clock in order to ensure that everyone finishes in time to gather round the television and watch The Queen’s Christmas Broadcast at 3pm. Everyone has a Christmas cracker at their place at the table. Crackers are decorated paper cylinders with folded paper hats, a novelty gift and a joke inside. They make a loud crack as they are pulled apart and the novelties inside fall out. You then put the hat on and share the silly jokes. In our family we’ve taken the hat thing to another level now and everyone is given a silly hat to wear as they sit down. We still have crackers though!
That’s me on the left and my sister and brother in law on the right. I love the hats!
An appetizer course is often served. By necessity it is something light, perhaps some smoked salmon or shrimp cocktail. Turkey – and sometimes ham – are the main dishes served at most British Christmas tables. Some of the side dishes you’ll find at our table are
Chestnut and / or sausage stuffing may be served as well. Sometimes sausage stuffing is rolled into balls before it is cooked and served alongside the turkey with tiny, slightly addictive bacon wrapped sausages. Stuffing is never referred to as ‘dressing’ here, even when it is cooked outside the bird.
There will be a number of vegetables served but generally dressed simply with butter and salt and pepper. There will almost always be Brussels Sprouts. We sometimes have Creamed Spinach as well.
Dessert is almost always Christmas Pudding, and yes, we set it on fire.
Christmas Pudding is a mixture of lots of dried fruits and spices mixed with flour, suet (fat), eggs and brandy, although recipes for this traditional dessert vary wildly between cooks. Traditionally it is garnished with a sprig of holly and carried flaming to the table. Christmas pudding is served with either Brandy Custard, Hard Sauce or Brandy-laced heavy cream.
Mincemeat pies are sometimes served as well. These are small tarts filled with a delicious combination of currants, raisin, sugar, apples, candied peel, suet and sometimes nuts and cranberries. I also like to serve Mincemeat Oat Squares or small squares of Brandy and Mincemeat Cake but this is not at all traditional!
For those who still have room there’s a cheese course, generally accompanied by lots of Port, a sweet fortified wine served in very small glasses.
After lunch, The Queen’s Christmas Broadcast and present opening we mostly just collapse on the sofas and play silly board games or maybe watch a Christmas film on television. If anyone is still hungry, there’s always plenty of chocolate and dried fruit, ‘sweetmeats’ (candy or crystallised fruit) and nuts. We also drink copious amounts of hot tea.
At about 7 or 8pm , we have Cucumber Sandwiches and more tea. Making a sandwich with cucumber may sound odd, but thin cold slices of cucumber served on buttered white bread with salt and pepper are actually incredibly delicious. Sometimes salmon sandwiches are served as well.
Following the sandwiches there’s always Christmas Cake. One of my nephews often makes the Christmas Cake now, using a Victorian recipe from his late Great-Nana. It always tastes better than hers did to me, but I think I may have found out his secret. Click on the link above and you can find it out too!
I miss my Canadian Christmases – and especially the people who are no longer with us – but over the years the British way of celebrating has grown on me too.
What are some of your favourite Christmas traditions?
More Christmas Posts