Brit Language: Christmas Traditions and Customs Largely Unknown to Americans

Last year, we had our own British Christmas complete with crackers, wassail, and Christmas pudding. I was so excited! I schemed, planned, and surfed the net for the just the right combo of food and fun. But alas, the wassail was ho-hum, no one was interested in the games after too much turkey and pumpkin pie, and no matter how much brandy I threw on that cake, I couldn’t get it to flame. Perhaps unwittingly I doomed the whole thing by failing to observe some traditions well know to the Brits, but still a mystery to many Americans, like me. So, as I observe one of my special Christmas traditions, watching Miracle on 34th Street (was there ever a Santa like Edmund Gwenn?), I’m contemplating some new traditions and understanding others a little better.

WASSAILERS

We sing “Here We Go a Wassailing” every year along with all the other Christmas carols. It has something to do with a hot spiced punch, but we give it little thought beyond that. The term wassail comes from the “Anglo-Saxon phrase ‘waes hael’, which means good health”. Wassailers are groups of laborers who would travel from orchard to orchard wassailing the trees driving away evil spirits, ensuring good fortune, and a bountiful apple crop in the new year. Parts of Somerset, Dorset, and Devon still go a wassailing and are rewarded with money and Lamb’s Wool, one of the traditional drinks of the wassail made with cider or ale and roasted apples.

LAMBS WOOL (Robert Herrick 1648)

Next crown a bowl full
With gentle lamb’s wool :
Add sugar, nutmeg, and ginger,
With store of ale too ;
And thus ye must do
To make the wassail a swinger.

JESSE TREES

I’ve heard of Chestnut trees and Partridge in a Pear trees, but I’ve never heard of Jesse trees. Historically, the first Jesse trees were large carvings, tapestries, or stained glass in churches to teach people who couldn’t read the Bible the story of creation through the Christmas story Today, the Jesse Tree is a type of Advent calendar. A special decoration or ornament depicting a story from the Bible is hung on a banner or small tree each day throughout Advent or sometimes on the four Sundays of Advent.

 

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DUMB CAKE

History is full of unusual traditions, like the Dumb Cake. Today we have Match.com and E=Harmony, but women once chose their intended with rituals like the one from St. Faith’s Eve where a dumb cake ritual inspired the choice of one’s truelove. Since Saint Faith was baked on a griddle and beheaded, she’s the natural choice for a saint to bring about matrimony, but I digress, So if you still haven’t found that special someone, try baking a dumb cake on Christmas Eve. The cake is made and eaten in silence. Prick your initials on top and the doppelganger of your loved one comes in at midnight and puts hs initials next to yours. For a dreaming cake, put a piece under your pillow, messy, and you’ll have visions of your future spouse.

Dumb Cake

One and one-half pounds flour, one and one-half pounds sugar, one-half pound butter, two cups milk, four teaspoonfuls baking powder, ten eggs and two gills brandy and a little pulverized mace. Mix as any cake and bake in a flat pan. Now cut off two cornes to make it a triangle; ice top and sides with icing; outline nuts and garnish the lower edge with English walnuts and autumn leaves.Christingle:

CHRISTINGLES

Christingles are used in Christingle services which come from a Moravian custom of distributing lighted candles to children on Christmas Eve, a recognition of Chriust, the light of the world. Christingle services can be held for Advent, Christmas, or Epiphany. The Christingle is a representational symbol:

An Orange, which represents the World that God made.

A Red Ribbon tied around the Orange, representing the Blood of Christ

A Lighted Candle representing Jesus Christ, shining in the world today

Four cocktail sticks, representing the four seasons

And some dried fruit, nuts and sweets representing God’s gifts to the world.

I thought I was such a good Anglophile, but these customs are new to me. Along with baking sugar cookies, wrapping presents, and writing Christmas cards, I now have to find some wassailers, make a Jesse tree, bake a dumb cake for (even though I’m happily married) buy some oranges, and candles. Apparently, I have a lot to learn. Stay tuned for Part 2 as I explore more unique Christmas traditions and customs.

Comments

  1. avatarJudy says

    This was a great article and I really enjoyed reading about it. Just a note though: the Jesse tree isn’t solely and Anglo tradition. It is very common in this country, during Advent, to see depictions of the tree (either a tree itself or a banner depicting the tree) in Catholic churches, and the passage from Isaiah about the Jesse tree is always read at Mass during Advent. Nor did the tradition of depicting the tree originate, necessarily in England. I think the earliest depictions of the Jesse tree (in stained glass) can be found in Germany and France. Still, I’m off to make Christingles for the kids. Thanks!

  2. avatarDeanna says

    Interesting article. My husband is a Brit import and we have a couple Christmas traditions I thought I would share. When my husband had been here in the US for a couple years, I decided one Christmas to give him a gift of a full English breakfast on Christmas Day. He loved it and it has now become a yearly tradition. We have a full English breakfast every Christmas Day. Another thing he brought with him is “fry up”. , I don’t know if it is an English thing, but he introduced it to our family. We put a bit of oil in a frying pan and fry up the leftovers from Christmas dinner on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas). We also do this the day after Thanksgiving. We have Christmas crackers now at Christmas too.

  3. avatarAlfuso says

    I remember a number of these traditions when I was a child in the 50′s in Boston, Massachusetts. Wassail, oranges with ribbons and dried fruits, crackers, advent calendars, etc.

    Could be because my entire matriarchal line was from Nova Scotia.

    All gone now.

  4. avatarCarrie says

    Wow! I have even lived in Kent during Christmas and the only one of these I was exposed to was Wassailing which I already knew about. Facinating stuff.

  5. avatarSusan says

    thanks for the lovely article. It brings back wonderful memories of spending Christmas in England in 2008 and would love to get back to do it again. Went to a Christingle service, didn’t do any wassailing but did get to join in a carol sing with wine and mince pies. Went to 9 carols and lessons at a beautiful old stone church and enjoyed many culinary treats while there.

  6. avatarAnonymousLondoner says

    These are new to me and I’m a native here in the UK.

    Despite inheriting all their traditions from Europe (composed by the Victorians), most people in USA haven’t heard of Christmas Crackers (not to be confused with party poppers), Christmas Pudding (en flambe with golden coins/tokens/charms inside), Christmas Cake, Mince Pies, Chocolate Yule Log, Trifle, Christmas Goose, Bread Sauce, Brandy Butter, Mulled Wine and the Queen’s Christmas Message Broadcast.

    I think there’s some things that should stay uniquely British.

  7. avatarAnonymousLondoner says

    I forgot the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures… and perhaps The Snowman, Carols from the King’s and Midnight Mass.

  8. avatarAmanda says

    I’m British, born and bred, but the only tradition here that I’ve heard of is the Christingle. Bubble and squeak however is a personal favourite, alongside watching whatever Christmasspecials are on; Doctor Who of course!

  9. avatarAndy says

    I’m English and, apart from Wassailing, I’ve never heard of the other “customs”. The only time I’ve had pumpkin pie was when North American friends made it for Thanksgiving.

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