Holiday Traditions in the British Isles

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Article describing Christmas holiday traditions in the British Isles.

Before Christmas & Christmas Day

·         The ‘greening’ of Christmas – holly and ivy, mistletoe, and the Christmas tree.

·         Father Christmas/St. Nicholas – the popular patron saint of little children.  St. Nicholas’ Day is December 6th.

·         St. Thomas’ Day, December 21st – poor widows went door to door begging for food and money.

·         Caroling – the Welsh are particularly fond of and noted for their singing.

·         Wassailling – to drink from the wassail bowl – a traditional drink made with apples and spices.

·         Mummers – An 800 year old tradition – troops of ‘mummers’ would put on a traditional play.

·         Pantomime – more traditional plays.

·         Christmas cards began in 1843.

·         A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens was published in December 1843 and more than 15,000 copies were sold within a year.

·         Candles were placed in the windows to light the way for the Christ Child, and to invite anyone in need into the home.

·         Christmas Day, celebrated on Dec. 25, coinciding with ancient celebrations of the return of light to the Northern Hemisphere.

§         Christmas dinner and pudding

  • Christmas crackers
  • The Queen’s speech

December 26th, ST. STEPHEN’s DAY

·         He was a disciple of Christ, one of seven to whom the twelve Apostles gave the task of caring for the widows and the poor.

·         St. Stephen is the patron saint of alms giving.

·         On St. Stephen’s Day the alms boxes were opened and alms were given to the poor.


·         A day for giving to the poor and to those who serve you throughout the year.

·         The origin comes from the tradition of opening the church alms boxes on this day and distributing alms to the poor.

·         Or, it comes from the tradition of the wealthy boxing up the left-over of their Christmas feast and giving it to their servants and poor.

·         Tips are given to those who serve you such as the postman or dustman.

·         In Ireland, young men in extravagant dress, sometimes wearing masks, parade noisily through the streets in the Wren Boys' Procession. They carry a long pole on top of which is attached a holly bush. The bush supposedly contains a captured wren, and for whose sake the young men beg for money.


·         Begin on December 25th and end on January 5th, called Twelfth Night.


·         The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ whose birthday we celebrate on December 25, the first day of Christmas.

·         Two turtle doves represent the two books of the Bible: the Old and New Testaments.

·         Three French hens represent the Three Christian Virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity.

·         Four calling birds represent the four Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

·         Five gold rings represent the first five books of the Old Testament.

·         Six geese a-laying represent the six days or periods of the Creation.

·         Seven swans a-swimming represent seven gifts of the Spirit (see Romans12:6-8).

·         Eight maids a-milking represent the eight Beatitudes.

·         Nine ladies dancing represent the nine Fruits of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22).

·         Ten lords a-leaping represent the Ten Commandments.

·         Eleven pipers piping represent the eleven faithful Apostles of Jesus Christ.

·         Twelve drummers drumming represent the twelve points of the Apostles’ Creed.



' ·         The new year used to begin in the Spring on March 25th and was not changed to January 1st in England until 1752 (Scotland changed in 1600).

·         New Year’s Eve is a time for partying with family and friends and visiting each other’s homes.

·         On the stroke of midnight church bells peel throughout the land.

·         “First Footing” is the tradition of having a dark stranger be first to step over your threshold at midnight.  He brings coal, food, and a coin for good luck and your feed him.

·         “Hogmanay” is what the New Year’s Eve party is called in Scotland and gifts may be exchanged at midnight.


·         Twelfth Night is the eve of January 5th and is the official end of the twelve days of Christmas.

·         Again parties are held, plays are put on, and bonfires are lit.

·         Christmas decorations are taken down.


·         Epiphany is the commemoration of the visit of the Three Wise Men to the Baby Jesus.

·         It is the climax of the Christmas season.

·         Gifts may be exchanged on this day instead of Christmas.


·         Baker, Margaret, Folklore and Customs of Rural England, FHL book 942 H7bm.

·         Hole, Christina, English Custom & Usage, FHL book 942 H6hc.

·         Various Internet web sites, especially