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.

December 26th, Boxing Day

  • 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.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

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

Religious Symbolism

  • 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.

New Year's Eve

' * 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

  • 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.

Sources of Information

  • Baker, Margaret, Folklore and Customs of Rural England, FHL book 942 H7bm.
  • Hole, Christina, English Custom & Usage, FHL book 942 H6hc.