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Brits Take (and Make) the Cake for Odd Christmas Customs

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“Dick Whittington and His Cat,” shown here at the Palladium in London’s West End, is a popular “panto” play during …

When you think about it, Christmas time is full of traditions that are slightly strange. Why does Santa (or Father Christmas in Britain) park on sloping roofs and wriggle down chimneys when most people have driveways and front doors? And when was the last time someone used a Bavarian decorative nutcracker to actually crack nuts?

For really loopy customs, the Brits take the Christmas cake. By the way, that's a dense fruitcake traditionally made at the end of summer, carefully soaked in brandy through the fall, and then not even served on Christmas day!

Here are five other bonkers British holiday traditions that make no sense whatsoever, other than ensuring that Britain is the most magical, if not sensible, place to spend the Christmas season.

Tolling the Devil's Knell

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This year, the bells at Dewsbury Minster will ring 2,012 times to ensure that the Devil stays away for the coming …

It's not just Father Christmas who has rounds to make on Christmas Eve. In Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, the Devil himself is out to make trouble. Luckily, parishioners there have found a way to stop Satan from bothering them for the 12 months ahead. If they ring the church bells of historic Dewsbury Minster precisely at midnight, he'll stay outside the parish boundaries in the year to come.

Unfortunately, the Devil is getting a little stronger all the time, so the Minster's campanologists (bell experts) have to add an extra stroke every year. The church's tenor bell now sounds as many peals as there are years since Christ's birth, an arm-aching 2012 strokes this year. The tradition might sound a bit daft, but proof of its effectiveness is right there in the history books: Dewsbury has never suffered a tsunami, earthquake, volcano or attack of killer bees.

Crackers

If Christmas in America is missing one thing, it's fireworks that are set off indoors, directly above food. Crackers are cardboard tubes filled with goodies and wrapped in tissue paper. Before eating Christmas dinner, all the guests cross their arms in front of their chests, grab a cracker in each hand and pull it with the person sitting on either side. A little firework inside makes a loud bang, showering the presents over everyone's food and only occasionally setting fire to the tissue paper.

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Cardboard Christmas crackers contain both small surprises and explosives. (Photo by FRESHFOODVILLAGE via Wikimedia …

Goodies always include a paper crown — which everyone must wear — a terrible joke that they must read out, and small plastic toys and gadgets that they will find (painfully) later on while chewing stuffing or munching Brussels sprouts. While most families will pay about $20 for a six-pack from the local grocery or department store, Fortnum & Mason and Harrods now offer luxury crackers costing as much as $1,000.

Yule logs

Britain in midwinter can be extremely cold and cruel, so why would anyone try to make a single log burn for at least 12 hours on Christmas Eve — and ideally have it smolder for the full, chilly 12 days of Christmas? Apparently, it's because letting the log burn out before that will doom the house to a whole year of bad luck. To ensure maximum protection against accidental fire and lightning strikes, the log must not be purchased and should even be lit with fragments from last year's log.

In these days of central heating, many Brits celebrate Christmas Eve with a Yule log made from rich cake, thick cream and layers of chocolate instead. No one knows whether one of these could last for 12 hours because it has never happened.

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Mince pies used to contain minced meat, but now they’re usually safe for vegetarians. (Photo by Britain on View/Visit …

Mince pies

Mince pies are individual-sized pies stuffed to the brim with mincemeat. But they're still fine for vegetarians to eat. These festive Christmas pastries used to contain all manner of animal flesh, from beef tongue and veal to mutton and even goose, and traditionally had 13 ingredients to represent Christ and his apostles.

The little pies were so bound up with Catholicism, in fact, that Oliver Cromwell banned them completely during England's Civil War in the 17th century. Vegetarians and other modern-day puritans can now indulge in mince pies to their heart's content, however. Most recipes these days stick to apples, sultanas, raisins, currants, citrus fruits, sugar and perhaps a splash of brandy.

Panto

Pantomime is the best Christmas entertainment, ever. After watching a few minutes of washed-up actors, minor reality-TV stars and aging pop celebrities stagger through a favorite childhood fairy tale, you might cry out, "Oh, no it isn't!" Just don't be surprised if the cast turns to you and shouts, "Oh, yes it is!"

"Panto" is possibly the most perplexing British holiday tradition. Between the start of December and the middle of January, professional actors and serious productions across the nation make way for pantos: part vaudeville, part children's play, part cabaret. The plots are absurd, the dialogue a bizarre mix of bad puns and risqué asides, the acting dreadful and the costumes comical.

And yet one month of sold-out pantomime will often subsidize 11 months of worthy dramas. Expect men dressed as women, girls dressed as boys, candy thrown to the audience, everyone bursting into song and lots of opportunities to shout out, "Behind you!" Don't ask why — just go with the flow.

by Mark Harris

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