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10 UK Christmas Traditions That Confuse Americans

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With Christmas just around the corner, it can feel like a time to celebrate togetherness and put aside our differences. But what about the differences in the way we celebrate Christmas? When you’ve been celebrating a holiday one way your entire life, it’s easy to assume that’s the way it’s celebrated everywhere—but just ask someone who celebrates Christmas across the pond, and you’ll see some subtle but strange differences. Here are just a few of them.

1. CRACKERS

No, we’re not talking crispy snacks here. These are a series of three cardboard tubes connected by a wrapping of colored foil. They are a British Christmas institution and you’ll see them on dinner tables right next to the cutlery. What are they for? Well, they’re somewhere between pulling the wishbone on a turkey and a fortune cookie. The idea is that you and the person next to you each grab an end and pull.

The tubes pull apart with a small bang (or crack) thanks to the tiny explosive inside. The winner of the game is the person with the lion’s share of cardboard tubes (i.e. two) and their prizes sit inside that middle tube. Now, unless you spend serious money on luxury crackers (which are totally a thing), don’t expect an incredible prize. Usually you’re looking at a small plastic toy or magic trick that barely works, a terrible Christmas joke on a small scroll of paper, and the most important thing of all: the paper crown—multi-colored, deeply embarrassing, and begrudgingly worn for about five minutes before being relegated to the trash.

Crackers stem from a Victorian confectioner named Tom Smith, who was on a visit to Paris in 1840 when he noticed how the French wrapped bon-bons in colored tissue paper and decided to try selling a similar product in Britain. After middling sales, inspiration hit him one evening by the fireplace when the crackling sounds caused him to imagine opening bon-bons with a bang (he was really into bon-bons). After finding the perfect mix of chemicals for his explosive new packaging, their popularity grew and grew.

2. MINCE PIES

The humble mince pie has been a part of British cuisine since the 13th century, when crusading knights returned home with exciting new ingredients from the wider world: cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon. There were quickly added to pies with dried fruit, suet, and minced meat.

After the puritan ban on Christmas and all things deemed unholy, the mince pie (like all Christmas traditions) went away for a while before coming back in a slightly altered form. By the 19th century the recipe had become sweeter, and the pies themselves much more bitesize.

3. WASSAIL? WHASSAT?

While spiked eggnog may very well be the booze of choice for the month of December in the good old US of A, the United Kingdom tends to prefer their festive tipple to be of the mulled variety.

“Wassail” in Anglo-Saxon means “Be Well” and was traditionally a greeting made at the start of the New Year. The act of Wassailing—going door-to-door with a bowl of spiced alcoholic beverage—was performed on the “Twelfth Night,” (January 5, 6, or 17, depending on which calendar you go by) and met with replies of “Drink well.”

The drink in question, depending on where you lived, was likely either a wine or a cider which would be heated up and mixed with various fruits and spices. More common nowadays is simply “mulled wine,” which follows much of the wassail recipe at heart, but without having to wait until the New Year.

4. CHRISTMAS PUDDING

A classic festive dish that dates back to the medieval era, the Christmas pudding is a sort of boiled fruit cake that’s heavily spiced, doused in brandy, and briefly set on fire. Traditionally, coins are hidden inside as an extra gift (or an unpleasant mouthful of metal).

The pudding’s medieval origin comes complete with some very specific instructions from the Roman Catholic Church, which say that “pudding should be made on the 25th Sunday after Trinity, that it be prepared with 13 ingredients to represent Christ and the 12 apostles, and that every family member stir it in turn from east to west to honor the Magi and their supposed journey in that direction.”

5. FATHER WHO?

Illustrated London News via Wikimedia // Public Domain

While he’s known in the U.S. as Santa Claus (an evolution of the Dutch settlers’ term “Sinter Klaas,” which is itself a shorthand for Sint Nikolaas), the UK refers to him almost exclusively as Father Christmas.

Although they’re generally thought of as the same person today, Santa and Father Christmas have very different origins. The modern-day Santa Claus owes a large debt to Clement Clarke Moore’s legendary 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” although he’s also inspired by a 4th-century Bishop of Myra (a.k.a. St. Nicholas) and, some say, the Norse God Odin.

Father Christmas, however was more of a winter presence than a gift-giver. He’s been traced back as far as the 5th or 6th century, appearing first as a Saxon “King Winter” who promised a milder winter climate if people were kind to him. When Normans invaded, the St. Nicholas story was mixed in with the Saxon mythology to create something that started to resemble Father Christmas. The first recorded mention of Father Christmas by name (well, almost) comes from a line in a 15th century carol, which says “Welcome, my lord Christëmas.” Lord Christëmas morphed into Sir Christmas and then Captain Christmas (which, frankly, should be brought back) before Father Christmas took its place in the 1600s.

Notably, while Mr. and Mrs. Claus famously reside in the North Pole, Father Christmas lives in Lapland, the northernmost region of Finland. There’s a huge Christmas-based tourism industry up there, with UK and Nordic travel agents selling all kinds of “meet Santa Claus” packages featuring reindeer rides, snowmobile adventures and, of course, an audience with the big man with the white beard himself.

6. MERRY CHRIMBO?

The British are seemingly notorious for their colloquialisms, so why should the holiday season be any exception? Christmas in the UK very often gets shortened to “Chrimbo” (or Crimble if you’re of the John Lennon school of phrasing). Meanwhile, the phrase “Happy Christmas” is just as socially acceptable as “Merry Christmas.”

7. PANTOMIME

 

Do you like campy theatrical productions of popular fairytales with a cast made up of minor celebrities and men in drag? Do you ever watch horror movies and have the sudden urge to scream “He’s behind you!” at the doomed protagonists? If so, pantomime may well be for you.

Pantomime, or panto if we’re continuing with the colloquialisms, is a type of musical comedy that’s a big deal in the UK. In 2012, during the throes of a national recession, the largest panto production company in the UK made more than $30 million during the Christmas period alone.

Pantomime is something that has to be experienced to fully appreciate it, so perhaps it’s best to be bewildered by this star-studded (by British standards) televised panto from 1998 seen above and wonder how it’s so profitable.

8. THE CHRISTMAS ADVERTISING SEASON

In the U.S., the commercial holy grail is the Super Bowl ad, with a 30-second slot costing $5 million at the 2016 game. As the UK isn’t exactly a hotbed of (American) football fanatics, the big commercial events appear around Christmastime. It used to be that the classic Coca-Cola ad served as a signpost for the start of the festive season proper, but for the past few years, adoration has shifted toward the always-anticipated John Lewis Christmas ad.

John Lewis is a high-end UK department store chain that has made a name for itself in the last 10 years with increasingly more saccharine short films that seem scientifically engineered to tug at your heartstrings. With a campaign this year costing an estimated $8.7 million, it’s clear that this is a Christmas tradition they take very seriously. But they’re not even the biggest spenders—Burberry’s star-studded, cinematic 2016 Christmas ad “The Tale of Thomas Burberry’” is rumored to have cost $12.5 million.

9. BOXING DAY

December 26 is more than simply “The Day after Christmas” to the Brits—it’s Boxing Day! Boxing Day is not only a public holiday (which means it’s an extra day off work), it’s also the starting flag for the post-Christmas sales. Much like Black Friday in the U.S., the Boxing Day sales aren’t for the faint-hearted. With shoppers flush with cash from the distant relatives who didn’t know them well enough to get them a meaningful gift, the bargain-hunting can be riotous.

The origins of the name Boxing Day are dubious, but it has nothing to do with a prize fight. Depending on who you believe, it’s either named for the Church of England’s practice of breaking open donation boxes to distribute among the poor, or for the aristocracy giving boxes full of presents to their servants on the day after Christmas.

Whatever its charitable origins may have been, most Brits who don’t spend it shopping or visiting relatives just tend to eat leftovers and watch TV. Something we can all agree on.

10. THE ROYAL CHRISTMAS BROADCAST

A true British institution, the Christmas broadcast by the reigning monarch has been an almost yearly mainstay in one form or another since 1932. Originally starting as a radio broadcast by George V, the broadcast evolved as the monarchy did, and 1957 saw Queen Elizabeth II deliver the first broadcast televised live to the nation. However, due to radio interference, some viewers apparently heard U.S. police radio transmissions mixed in with the Queen’s speech, including the phrase “Joe, I’m gonna grab a quick coffee.”

Since 1959, the broadcast has been pre-recorded, but is still faithfully beamed into homes across the country at 3 p.m. on Christmas day. The exception occurred in 1969, when there was no speech because the Queen decided that after a documentary about the royal family had aired earlier that year, there’d been enough of her on TV already.

The subject matter tends to be similar every year: a reflection on the events of the previous 365 days and overall message of togetherness. Since the ‘90s its popularity has dwindled, with TV station Channel 4 broadcasting their ‘”Alternative Christmas Message” at the same time since 1993. Their subject matter varies from the humorous (Marge Simpson delivered the speech in 2012) to the more serious and controversial—in 2006, a Muslim woman known only as Khadijah spoke about Islam and conflict in the Middle East, while in 2013 Edward Snowden was the chosen speaker.

All images via iStock unless otherwise noted.

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Big Questions
Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?
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Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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20 Random Facts About Shopping
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Shopping on Black Friday—or, really, any time during the holiday season—is a good news/bad news kind of endeavor. The good news? The deals are killer! The bad news? So are the lines. If you find yourself standing behind 200 other people who braved the crowds and sacrificed sleep in order to hit the stores early today, here's one way to pass the time: check out these fascinating facts about shopping through the ages.

1. The oldest customer service complaint was written on a clay cuneiform tablet in Mesopotamia 4000 years ago. (In it, a customer named Nanni complains that he was sold inferior copper ingots.)

2. Before battles, some Roman gladiators read product endorsements. The makers of the film Gladiator planned to show this, but they nixed the idea out of fear that audiences wouldn’t believe it.

3. Like casinos, shopping malls are intentionally designed to make people lose track of time, removing clocks and windows to prevent views of the outside world. This kind of “scripted disorientation” has a name: It’s called the Gruen Transfer.

4. According to a study in Social Influence, people who shopped at or stood near luxury stores were less likely to help people in need.

5. A shopper who first purchases something on his or her shopping list is more likely to buy unrelated items later as a kind of reward.

6. On the Pacific island of Vanuatu, some villages still use pigs and seashells as currency. In fact, the indigenous bank there uses a unit of currency called the Livatu. Its value is equivalent to a boar’s tusk. 

7. Sears used to sell build-your-own homes in its mail order catalogs.

8. The first shopping catalog appeared way back in the 1400s, when an Italian publisher named Aldus Manutius compiled a handprinted catalog of the books that he produced for sale and passed it out at town fairs.

9. The first product ever sold by mail order? Welsh flannel.

10. The first shopping cart was a folding chair with a basket on the seat and wheels on the legs.

11. In the late 1800s in Corinne, Utah, you could buy legal divorce papers from a vending machine for $2.50.

12. Some of the oldest known writing in the world includes a 5000-year-old receipt inscribed on a clay tablet. (It was for clothing that was sent by boat from Ancient Mesopotamia to Dilmun, or current day Bahrain.)

13. Beginning in 112 CE, Emperor Trajan began construction on the largest of Rome's imperial forums, which housed a variety of shops and services and two libraries. Today, Trajan’s Market is regarded as the oldest shopping mall in the world.

14. The Chinese invented paper money. For a time, there was a warning written right on the currency that all counterfeiters would be decapitated.

15. Halle Berry was named after Cleveland, Ohio's Halle Building, which was home to the Halle Brothers department store.

16. At Boston University, students can sign up for a class on the history of shopping. (Technically, it’s called “The Modern American Consumer”)

17. Barbra Streisand had a mini-mall installed in her basement. “Instead of just storing my things in the basement, I can make a street of shops and display them,” she told Harper's Bazaar. (There are photos of it here.)

18. Shopping online is not necessarily greener. A 2016 study at the University of Delaware concluded that “home shopping has a greater impact on the transportation sector than the public might suspect.”

19. Don’t want to waste too much money shopping? Go to the mall in high heels. A 2013 Brigham Young University study discovered that shoppers in high heels made more balanced buying decisions while balancing in pumps.

20. Cyber Monday is not the biggest day for online shopping. The title belongs to November 11, or Singles Day, a holiday in China that encourages singles to send themselves gifts. According to Fortune, this year's event smashed all previous records with more than $38 million in sales.

A heaping handful of these facts came from John Lloyd, John Mitchinson, and James Harkin's delightful book, 1,234 Quite Interesting Facts to Leave You Speechless.

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