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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
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


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Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

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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holidays
10 Things You Might Not Know About Chinese New Year
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Some celebrants call it the Spring Festival, a stretch of time that signals the progression of the lunisolar Chinese calendar; others know it as the Chinese New Year. For a 15-day period beginning February 16, China will welcome the Year of the Dog, one of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac table.

Sound unfamiliar? No need to worry: Check out 10 facts about how one-sixth of the world's total population rings in the new year.

1. THE HOLIDAY WAS ORIGINALLY MEANT TO SCARE OFF A MONSTER.

Nian at Chinese New Year
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As legend would have it, many of the trademarks of the Chinese New Year are rooted in an ancient fear of Nian, a ferocious monster who would wait until the first day of the year to terrorize villagers. Acting on the advice of a wise old sage, the townspeople used loud noises from drums, fireworks, and the color red to scare him off—all remain components of the celebration today.

2. A LOT OF FAMILIES USE IT AS MOTIVATION TO CLEAN THE HOUSE.

woman ready to clean a home
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While the methods of honoring the Chinese New Year have varied over the years, it originally began as an opportunity for households to cleanse their quarters of "huiqi," or the breaths of those that lingered in the area. Families performed meticulous cleaning rituals to honor deities that they believed would pay them visits. The holiday is still used as a time to get cleaning supplies out, although the work is supposed to be done before it officially begins.

3. IT WILL PROMPT BILLIONS OF TRIPS.

Man waiting for a train.
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Because the Chinese New Year places emphasis on family ties, hundreds of millions of people will use the Lunar period to make the trip home. Accounting for cars, trains, planes, and other methods of transport, the holiday is estimated to prompt nearly three billion trips over the 15-day timeframe.

4. IT INVOLVES A LOT OF SUPERSTITIONS.

Colorful pills and medications
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While not all revelers subscribe to embedded beliefs about what not to do during the Chinese New Year, others try their best to observe some very particular prohibitions. Visiting a hospital or taking medicine is believed to invite ill health; lending or borrowing money will promote debt; crying children can bring about bad luck.

5. SOME PEOPLE RENT BOYFRIENDS OR GIRLFRIENDS TO SOOTHE PARENTS.

Young Asian couple smiling
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In China, it's sometimes frowned upon to remain single as you enter your thirties. When singles return home to visit their parents, some will opt to hire a person to pose as their significant other in order to make it appear like they're in a relationship and avoid parental scolding. Rent-a-boyfriends or girlfriends can get an average of $145 a day.

6. RED ENVELOPES ARE EVERYWHERE.

a person accepting a red envelope
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An often-observed tradition during Spring Festival is to give gifts of red envelopes containing money. (The color red symbolizes energy and fortune.) New bills are expected; old, wrinkled cash is a sign of laziness. People sometimes walk around with cash-stuffed envelopes in case they run into someone they need to give a gift to. If someone offers you an envelope, it's best to accept it with both hands and open it in private.

7. IT CAN CREATE RECORD LEVELS OF SMOG.

fireworks over Beijing's Forbidden City
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Fireworks are a staple of Spring Festival in China, but there's more danger associated with the tradition than explosive mishaps. Cities like Beijing can experience a 15-fold increase in particulate pollution. In 2016, Shanghai banned the lighting of fireworks within the metropolitan area.

8. BLACK CLOTHES ARE A BAD OMEN.

toddler dressed up for Chinese New Year
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So are white clothes. In China, both black and white apparel is traditionally associated with mourning and are to be avoided during the Lunar month. The red, colorful clothes favored for the holiday symbolize good fortune.

9. IT LEADS TO PLANES BEING STUFFED FULL OF CHERRIES.

Bowl of cherries
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Cherries are such a popular food during the Festival that suppliers need to go to extremes in order to meet demand—last year Singapore Airlines flew four chartered jets to Southeast and North Asian areas. More than 300 tons were being delivered in time for the festivities.

10. PANDA EXPRESS IS HOPING IT'LL CATCH ON IN THE STATES.

Box of takeout Chinese food from Panda Express
domandtrey, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Although their Chinese food menu runs more along the lines of Americanized fare, the franchise Panda Express is still hoping the U.S. will get more involved in the festival. The chain is promoting the holiday in its locations by running ad spots and giving away a red envelope containing a gift: a coupon for free food. Aside from a boost in business, Panda Express hopes to raise awareness about the popular holiday in North America.

A version of this story originally ran in 2017.

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