British and American festivals and traditions
(in comparison with ours)

Christmas in Great Britain

Christmas is Britain's most popular holiday and is characterised by traditions which date back hundreds of years. Many Christmas customs which originated in Britain have been adopted in the United States and Canada.

The first ever Christmas card was posted in England in the 1840s, and the practice soon became an established part of the build-up to Christmas. Over a billion Christmas cards are now sent every year in the United Kingdom, many of them sold in aid of charities.

Christmas decorations in general have even earlier origins. Holly, ivy and mistletoe are associated with rituals going back beyond the Dark Ages. (The custom of kissing beneath a sprig of mistletoe is derived from an ancient pagan tradition.) The Christmas tree was popularised by Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, who introduced one to the Royal Household in 1840. Since 1947, the country of Norway has presented Britain annually with a large Christmas tree which stands in Trafalgar Square in commemoration of Anglo-Norwegian cooperation during the Second World War.

Popular among children at Christmas time are pantomimes: song and dance dramatisations of well-known fairy tales which encourage audience participation.

Carols are often sung on Christmas Eve by groups of singers to their neighbours, and children hang a stocking on the fireplace or at the foot of their bed for Santa Claus (also named Father Christmas) to fill. Presents for the family are placed beneath the Christmas tree.

Christmas Day sees the opening of presents and many families attend Christmas services at church. Christmas dinner consists traditionally of a roast turkey, goose or chicken with stuffing and roast potatoes. Mince pies and Christmas pudding flaming with brandy, which might contain coins or lucky charms for children, follow this. (The pudding is usually prepared weeks beforehand and is customarily stirred by each member of the family as a wish is made.) Later in the day, a Christmas cake may be served - a rich baked fruitcake with marzipan, icing and sugar frosting.

The pulling of Christmas crackers often accompanies food on Christmas Day. Invented by a London baker in 1846, a cracker is a brightly coloured paper tube, twisted at both ends, which contains a party hat, riddle and toy or other trinket. When it is pulled by two people it gives out a crack as its contents are dispersed.

Another traditional feature of Christmas afternoon is the Queen's Christmas Message to the nation, broadcast on radio and television.

The day after Christmas is known in Britain as Boxing Day, which takes its name from a former custom of giving a Christmas Box - a gift of money or food inside a box - to the deliverymen and trades people who called regularly during the year. This tradition survives in the custom of tipping the milkman, postman, dustmen and other callers of good service at Christmas time.

In the Czech Republic, Christmas is also the most popular family holiday. It is also quite common for people to send each other Christmas cards with their best wishes for the holidays. People buy Christmas trees, hang various decorations and Christmas sweets on it. Some people prefer an artificial Christmas tree which can be used several times. We have the traditional Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve. Some people follow the old tradition of fasting all day before the meal. Christmas dinner is very rich but it is different from the English one. We have fish soup and the main meal is fried carp and potato salad.

We have a different tradition for opening Christmas presents. Children wait to hear a ringing bell signal from the "Infant Jesus". This usually occurs after the Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve. Then they unwrap their presents under the Christmas tree. Many people buy mistletoe like in Britain but in the Czech Republic the mistletoe is a symbol of happiness. People celebrate the coming of the New Year on 31st of December at midnight.

British festivals - New Year’s Day - January 1st - Titles and decorations are conferred by the sovereign.

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