It’s November, and Cambridge is becoming colder and wintrier by the day, so I thought this would be a good time to write about some traditions that British people get up to at this time of year. And yes, quite a few of them do involve Christmas, but not all. I know that the holiday season might look a little different this year, but I’ve tried to stick to things that should still be possible in the current climate, just maybe with a little adaptation. Why don’t you try some of them yourself?
1. Bonfire Night – 5th November
First up is Bonfire Night. Also known as Guy Fawkes, it is the next major event on the British calendar after Halloween. Every year on 5th November, we ‘remember remember the 5th of November', the historic date that Guy Fawkes’ planned assassination of King James I at the Houses of Parliament failed due to an anonymous tip off. Guy Fawkes’ arrest was celebrated with bonfires, and this is a tradition that has carried on until the present day, hence the name ‘Bonfire Night.’ These days, Bonfire Night usually involves a firework display as well, with the best in Cambridge being held on Midsummer Common every year. Unfortunately, due to the ongoing pandemic, the fireworks are cancelled this November, but I recommend making a small bonfire of your own if you have a garden, and toasting some marshmallows. You could even put on your own fireworks display – some people do their own every year!
2. Christmas Lights – 15th November
By November, people are well and truly thinking about Christmas: Christmas food, Christmas shopping, and to get you in the festive spirit, Christmas lights! The ‘Christmas Light Switch On’ is an event that takes place all around the country, usually mid-way through November, where towns’ Christmas lights are turned on and everyone stares in awe at the luminous creations. If you have a chance, a walk through Cambridge on a winter evening to appreciate the glowing lights is thoroughly recommended, but if you can’t be here with us this year, why not see if there are Christmas lights to look at where you live, or even better, put some up outside the house! In Britain, there are sometimes competitions for the house with the best Christmas light display, and people go all out to win!
4. Christmas Stockings – 24th December
A tradition from long, long ago, Christmas stockings began when children would place one of their everyday socks at the end of their bed for ‘Saint Nicholas Day.’ For years now, however, the tradition in Britain has been to place a festive-themed ‘stocking’ either at the end of the bed or by the fireplace on Christmas Eve, and wait for Father Christmas to come down the chimney and fill it up with gifts. You have to be good all year though, or he won’t come!
5. Christmas Crackers – 25th December
Typically on the table with Christmas Lunch, crackers are essentially a decorated cardboard tube that you use to play tug-of-war with the person next to you. When pulled, they make a ‘snap’, leaving one person with the longer end of the cracker which tends to contain a paper hat, a joke and a small gift. It is definitely British tradition to read out the jokes from inside the crackers and laugh at how bad they are!
6. Christmas Day Walk – 25th December
After Christmas Lunch, many Britons like to go for a family walk to burn off all the turkey! A lot of British families would say that their Christmas Day would be incomplete without it! It’s a bonus if it’s a white Christmas, as the children can build a snowman or have a snowball fight.
7. The Queen’s Christmas Message – 25th December
Every year on Christmas Day, usually after people have eaten their Christmas Lunch, the Queen makes a televised speech to the nation. She usually reflects on the year that has passed, and gives her good wishes for the one ahead. In a time like the present, the Queen’s Christmas message of 2020 should be an interesting watch, as she will no doubt speak about the worldwide battle with Covid-19.
8. Boxing Day Sales – 26th December
For lots of people in Britain – Boxing Day means one word: SALES! Swarms of Britons get up early the day after Christmas and rush to their nearest shopping centre to snap up deals on clothes, electronics and more. It’s not a tradition everyone is fond of, and some people prefer to look back to the origins of the name, which came from the rich boxing up gifts for the poor and giving their servants a day off. In light of this, some British people choose to spend time around Christmas volunteering by serving festive food to the homeless.
9. Big Ben on New Year’s Eve – 31st December
At midnight on New Year’s Eve in London, Big Ben, or ‘the Elizabeth Tower’ as it’s formally known, will ‘bong’ to ring in the New Year. It chimes 12 times before falling silent again. While the fireworks show that usually accompanies it may not be possible this year, Big Ben will always chime for New Year. This is always streamed live on television, so you can watch along if you want to.
10. Burns Night – 25th January
A Scottish tradition, Burns Night celebrates the life of poet Robert Burns, and involves Scottish food and music. Bagpipes, the traditional Scottish musical instrument, are usually played. The meal is always Haggis, which is a savoury pudding containing sheep’s heart, liver and lungs. I’d say go in with an open mind, but if it really doesn’t sound appealing, there are usually vegetarian and vegan Haggis offerings, or you can fill up on ‘neeps and tatties’ – suede or turnip and potatoes. Try buying or making your own Haggis this year and having a Burns Night with your friends!
I hope these British Winter Traditions have given you some ideas, wherever you are in the world this year, and that they’ve provided some normalcy and escapism at this time. Where are you from? Let us know in the comments and tell us about a winter tradition of your own!
Allegra Goodwin, Student Experience Manager