If you are staying in Britain during December you will be aware of Christmas.
This is the biggest festival of the year in Britain, and can be a very special time. Christmas Day falls on December 25, but people celebrate with parties and special performances in the weeks before.
So what do you need to know about Christmas?
Christmas is celebrated just after the shortest day of the year. It marks the birthday of Jesus Christ and has been a Christian festival for over a thousand years. Before that, there would have been midwinter festivals and feasts, and some of those traditions carry on.
There are also modern traditions. These include the idea of Father Christmas bringing presents to children, having a decorated pine tree in the house, and exchanging special cards.
Most people in Britain are not practising Christians, but still celebrate Christmas. For most people it is a holiday rather than a religious festival. Children love it because they get presents.
Christmas Day (December 25) and Boxing Day (December 26) are national holidays but many people stay off work till early January.
It is very common for families to get together, exchange presents, and enjoy a large meal on Christmas Day. It is also traditional for the Queen to appear on television during Christmas afternoon and talk about the year which has just passed.
This is a Christian festival so there are special services in Anglican and Catholic churches. These tell the Bible story of how Jesus was born in a stable, with a star overhead. You will see images of angels, the stable with people inside, and the camels of the wise men who came to visit the baby. People sing special Christmas songs, called carols, at these services.
People who do not go to church regularly often attend Christmas services, especially Midnight Mass which is generally held very late on December 24.
Look out for signs outside churches and halls, and ask in your language school. There are often carol concerts which are open to all. Sometimes these are close to a Christmas tree in a public place. Sometimes carol singers call at people’s homes, usually to raise money. Children often take part in special performances at schools.
You could also go to a pantomime, which is a traditional Christmas show. This usually retells a traditional story with lots of jokes and music.
These are both names given to a magical figure who delivers presents to all the children. British children believe that he travels round the world on the night before Christmas and delivers presents to everyone. He has a white beard and wears red, and gets into each house down the chimney to the fireplace. Children leave a large sock for him to fill with presents.
You will often see pictures of reindeer – these are supposed to pull Father Christmas through the sky. You will also see lots of snowmen, even though it does not snow at Christmas very often.
People send special cards to each other, often with pictures of old-fashioned houses in the snow. The shops get very busy as people buy presents and food. Workplaces often organise special parties. This means pubs and restaurants can be very busy. People buy special pine trees and hang glass balls and lights on them.
There are traditional foods for the Christmas Day meal and most of these are also eaten during December.
Mince Pies are small pastries filled with a sweet mix of raisins and currants. They are eaten hot or cold, and sometimes served with brandy butter (an alcoholic, sweetened butter) or cream. These are widely served in December.
Christmas dinner. This is widely available in pubs and restaurants in December. Expect to be offered roast turkey or goose, potatoes, Brussels sprouts, small sausages, gravy and stuffing (a herby bread sauce). Christmas Pudding. This is a dark, very sweet, cake-like pudding full of dried fruit. Be warned – it is sometimes served on fire!
Families often buy an enormous turkey and serve it in different ways for several days. Expect lots of jokes about turkey curry, turkey sandwiches and so on.
Christmas lunch itself is large and filling. Most people buy lots of food and invite their families for the day.
If you are invited to Christmas lunch, look out for brightly-coloured paper tubes by each plate. These are crackers. You and a friend will pull each end until the paper rips with a loud noise. Inside is a paper hat (which you must wear), a small gift and a very bad joke.
The shops are very busy until closing time on December 24. They are mostly shut on Christmas Day itself. Many shops reopen for sales on December 26. They are then very busy again. Buses and trains often run on reduced timetables after Christmas. Some train services are very crowded and have to be booked.
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