Festivals, celebrations and public holidays
Updated: 14 December 2015
There are lots of events you can get involved with in the UK, from street parties to traditional festivals!
On ‘bank holidays’, most shops, businesses and institutions are closed. Some of the events below are bank holidays, but not all – and there are different dates in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Please visit the gov.uk website for a list of all bank holidays.
There are many more events across the UK, throughout the year. You can find out more at Visit Britain and Discover Northern Ireland, or browse our Holidays, festivals and events section for even more ideas – and to read about other international students' experiences!
So what's going on in 2016? Scroll down or jump straight to:
1st – New Year’s Day. On New Year’s Eve (31 December), it is traditional to celebrate midnight with your friends or family and to sing ‘Auld lang syne’, a folk song with words by the Scottish poet Robert Burns. The party can last well into New Year’s Day! Many people make ‘New Year’s resolutions’, promising to achieve a goal or break a bad habit in the coming year.
In Scotland, the celebration of the new year is called Hogmanay. There are big parties across the country – expect lots of music, dancing, food and fireworks – but Edinburgh hosts some of the biggest.
25th – Burns’ Night (Scotland). Many Scottish people hold a special supper (dinner) on Burns’ Night, a celebration of Robert Burns, with toasts and readings of his poetry. Men might wear kilts, there may be bagpipe music, and people will almost certainly eat haggis (the traditional Scottish dish of sheeps’ heart, liver and lungs) with neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes).
8th – Chinese New Year. Outside Asia, the world’s biggest celebration of Chinese New Year is in London – each year there is a parade through Chinatown in the West End, with free performances of music, dance and acrobatics, a feast of food and fireworks. There are many more events around the UK, so find out what's on in your area – cities including Manchester, Nottingham, Liverpool and Birmingham usually host colourful street parties.
Find out more in Chinese New Year.
Chinese New Year in London (Photo ©VisitBritain/Grant Pritchard)
9th – Shrove Tuesday or ‘Pancake Day’. Lent is the traditional Christian period of fasting, which lasts for 40 days. Shrove Tuesday is the day before Lent, when households would traditionally use up their eggs, milk and sugar by making pancakes. Nowadays, even if they are not religious, many people still make and eat pancakes on this day.
Some towns in the UK also hold ‘pancake races’, where contestants toss pancakes in a frying pan while running for the finish line. One of the most famous is in Olney, Buckinghamshire, where it’s believed the first Pancake Day race took place in 1445. Find out more about Shrove Tuesday traditions in How to celebrate Pancake Day.
14th – Valentine’s Day. Love is in the air! Historically the Feast of St Valentine, nowadays this is a celebration of romance. Many people in the UK go out for dinner with their sweethearts, and give them a Valentine’s card, chocolate or flowers. If you’re single, you might receive an anonymous card from a ‘secret admirer’! Find out how students mark the event in our Valentine's Day article.
1st – St David’s Day (Wales). St David is the patron saint of Wales, and March 1 is a celebration of Welsh culture. People in Wales might wear a daffodil and eat cawl, a soup of seasonal vegetables and lamb or bacon. Events are held across Wales, including a large parade in Cardiff.
6th – Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day is a day to celebrate motherhood, and to thank mothers for everything they do throughout the year. Many people give their mothers a card or gift, treat them to a day out or cook a meal.
17th – St Patrick’s Day (Northern Ireland). The Feast of St Patrick is a national holiday in Ireland, and is now celebrated by Irish communities all around the world. In the UK, there are St Patrick’s Day events in cities including Birmingham, Nottingham, Manchester and London, as well as Belfast. Many people go out with friends, wearing green or a shamrock symbol (the lucky clover) and drinking Guinness, the Irish dark beer. Get top tips with our feature How to celebrate St Patrick's Day in style.
23rd – Holi Day. The 'festival of colours', the end of the winter season in the Hindu calendar, falls on this day in 2016. In several places in the UK, including London, Manchester, Bristol and Belfast, people celebrate the event by running through the streets and throwing coloured paint all over each other! Check out Celebrating Holi in the UK to find out more.
25th–28th – Easter weekend. Easter is a Christian holiday celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is always on a Sunday in March or April (called Easter Sunday), and the previous Friday (Good Friday) and following Monday (Easter Monday) are bank holidays. People celebrate Easter in different ways, but many give each other chocolate eggs and eat ‘hot cross buns’ (sweet buns with a cross design), while children decorate eggs or take part in Easter egg hunts.
1st – April Fools’ Day. For one day of the year, it is acceptable – even encouraged! – to play tricks, pranks and practical jokes. Even newspapers, TV and radio shows often feature fake stories on April 1. It’s customary to reveal the joke by saying ‘April fool!’ (the person who falls for the joke is the ‘fool’), and to stop playing tricks at midday.
23rd – St George’s Day (England). The legend is that St George was a Roman soldier who killed a dragon to rescue a princess. He is now the patron saint of England, and this is England’s national day. You might still see St George’s Cross (a red cross on a white background, England’s national flag) or events with morris dancing (an English folk dance), but it is not a bank holiday and most people don’t hold special celebrations.
April 23 is also known as William Shakespeare’s birthday, when events take place to honour the playwright... and 2016 will be the 400th anniversary of his death. The British Council is hosting a year-long programme of events to mark this occasion with Shakespeare Lives. Check out our dedicated Shakespeare Lives section on Education UK, or visit www.shakespearelives.org to see how you can get involved.
St George's Day at Wrest Park (Photo ©VisitBritain/Grant Pritchard)
1st – Beltane. Beltane (or Beltain) is the Celtic festival of fire, which celebrates fertility and marks the start of summer. With its roots in ancient Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man, modern versions of the event are becoming more popular – some of the largest are in Edinburgh, Thornborough in Yorkshire and Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire, where the traditional 30-foot Wicker Man is burned at sunset.
2nd and 30th – Bank holidays. There are two Mondays in May when people have the day off work or school and (if we’re lucky!) spend some time outdoors enjoying the spring sunshine.
13th – The Queen’s Official Birthday. Although the Queen’s real birthday is on the 21st of April, it has been a tradition since 1748 to celebrate the king or queen’s birthday in June. A military parade known as Trooping the Colour is held in London, attended by the Royal Family. (Click here to see footage of the procession!)
19th – Father’s Day. Father’s Day is a day to show appreciation to fathers, grandfathers, stepfathers and fathers-in-law. Many people in the UK give their father a card or gift, have a meal together or go out for drinks.
21st – Summer solstice. The ancient monument of Stonehenge in Wiltshire has its true moment in the sun as people celebrate the longest day and shortest night of the year. Stand inside the monument facing northeast, toward a stone outside the circle called the Heel Stone, and you'll see the sun rise like a blazing fire – a sight that brings in pagans and sun-lovers of all beliefs!
Sunrise over Stonehenge (Photo ©VisitBritain/Richard Allen)
27th–July 10th – Wimbledon Tennis Championships. Wimbledon, the world’s oldest tennis tournament, is a summer highlight for sports fans. Held at the All England Club in London since 1877, Wimbledon is known for the tennis players’ white dress code and the tradition for spectators to eat strawberries and cream. Find out more in Sport in the UK.
5th – Eid al-Fitr. Marking the end of the month-long fast of Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr is widely celebrated by Muslim communities in the UK. Each community usually organises its own events, but there are some large celebrations and feasts in city centres, such as in London and Birmingham.
29th–6th August – Eisteddfod. The National Eisteddfod is Wales’ biggest artistic event and one of Europe's oldest cultural festivals. This is a chance to hear Welsh music and literature, see dance and theatre performances, shop for books and crafts, and much more.
5th–29th – Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The largest arts festival in the world, ‘the Fringe’ features over 40,000 performances and more than 2,500 shows at 250 venues. Any type of performance may participate, across theatre, comedy, music and dance, and many students visit Edinburgh to put on their own shows. For more, read our Edinburgh Festivals guide.
27-28th – Notting Hill Carnival. Held in west London over a bank holiday weekend, Notting Hill Carnival is Europe’s biggest street festival. Around 1 million people go to see colourful floats and dancers in flamboyant costumes, hear music from salsa to reggae, and taste Caribbean food from street stalls. Bring your party spirit, enough cash and a lot of patience – it can be very crowded.
Notting Hill Carnival (Photo ©VisitBritain/Jon Spaull)
16th–20th – London Fashion Week. London Fashion Week sets the global fashion agenda, alongside the other big shows in Paris, Milan and New York. These are for industry insiders, but you can get tickets to London Fashion Weekend for a taste of the fashion show experience. There are two each year – the first London Fashion Week is in February, with the Weekend on 19-23 February. Students get involved too, with events including student and graduate showcases and networking opportunities. Find out more in our London Fashion Week article.
31st – Halloween. The modern way of celebrating Halloween is based on the Christian feast of All Hallows’ Eve and the Celtic festival of Samhain. Children go trick-or-treating (knocking on neighbours’ doors to ask for sweets) or carve pumpkins, while older students go to parties and Halloween events at pubs, clubs or Students’ Unions. The important thing is to dress up as gruesomely as you dare!
If you want to get really spooky, check out our Haunted UK article to find out how to visit the scariest locations in the UK.
All month – Movember. If you’re seeing more moustaches than usual, you’re not imagining it – throughout November, the charity campaign of Movember invites men to grow a moustache and raise awareness of men’s health issues.
5th – Bonfire night. Historically, this marks the anniversary of Guy Fawkes’ plot to blow up the House of Lords and assassinate King James I in 1605 – the failed 'gunpowder plot' is remembered in the children’s rhyme ‘Remember, remember the 5th of November; gunpowder, treason and plot’. Today, it is commemorated with spectacular displays of fireworks.
There will be firework displays in most cities, but one of the best places to be is in the medieval town of Lewes, East Sussex – here, the fireworks are accompanied by colourful parades, music, costumes and the traditional ‘guy’, an effigy made of straw or paper to burn on the bonfire.
Find out more in An international student's guide to Bonfire Night.
11th – Remembrance Day. Each year in the UK, November 11 is a memorial day to honour members of the armed forces. The aim is to remember those who lost their lives in battle, so many peace campaigners also support the event. The Royal British Legion charity sells paper poppy flowers to raise funds for veterans and their families (the poppy is a symbol of Remembrance Day), and it is customary to observe a two-minute silence at 11am.
30th – St Andrew’s Day (Scotland). Honouring its patron saint, St Andrew’s Day is Scotland’s national day. There are many events across Scotland, including traditional meals, poetry readings, bagpipe music and country dancing. This is a great opportunity to go to a ceilidh – a party with Gaelic folk music and dancing. Fortunately, there is usually a ‘dance caller’ to teach the steps!
30th – Diwali. Diwali (or Deepavali) is the Festival of Lights for Hindu, Sikh and Jain communities. Cities including Leicester (which hosts one of the biggest Diwali celebrations outside India), London and Nottingham have extravagant street parties with traditional food, music, crafts and dancing – and of course, displays of lights, lanterns, candles and fireworks. Read Celebrating Diwali in the UK to find out more.
London's Trafalgar Square in December (Photo ©VisitBritain/Britain on View)
Throughout December, there are countless winter markets and festive visitor attractions across the UK. Look out for events advertised in local magazines and at your school, college or university, or check out our December Diary countdown! Some of our favourites are:
Winter Wonderland in London’s Hyde Park. In addition to a traditional Christmas market, this huge site features carnival rides, two circuses, an ice skating rink, fake snow and an exhibition of ice sculptures… and enough hot chocolate and mulled wine to keep you warm.
Hogwarts in the snow, a wintry version of the Harry Potter tour at Warner Bros. Studios in Leavesden (near London). Watch snow fall over the original model of Hogwarts castle, and see the Great Hall set for Christmas dinner.
Birmingham’s Frankfurt Christmas Market, the largest German market outside Germany and Austria, complete with glühwein (mulled wine), wursts (sausages), pretzels and sweet treats. You can also shop for unique gifts from local artists at the Craft Fair.
The winter festival at the Eden Project in Cornwall. Usually an educational ecology park, in December the Eden Project is transformed with Christmas trees, a choir, real reindeer and an ice rink, with ice skating classes for all ages.
Belfast’s Christmas Market. If you’re studying in Northern Ireland, visit the multicultural market outside Belfast’s City Hall for festive food and drink from around the world, crafts, gifts and Christmas decorations.
Pantomimes. The traditional Christmas ‘panto’ is a mix of slapstick comedy and musical theatre, with silly costumes and audience participation. Pantomimes are usually for children, but it’s worth seeing one for a uniquely British experience.
24th–1st Jan – Hanukkah. Jewish communities across the UK will be celebrating Hanukkah (Chanukah), the Festival of Lights, from December 6 to 14 in 2015. In London, the Menorah in Trafalgar Square is the largest in Europe. It’s usually lit by the Mayor of London on the first day of Hanukkah, at an event with free doughnuts and live music.
25th – Christmas. Most people in the UK celebrate Christmas, even if they are not religious. There will be Christmas trees, presents, carol singing, mulled wine (warm, spiced red wine), mince pies (small pies with a sweet fruit filling) and if it snows, snowmen and snowball fights! The traditional Christmas dinner is a whole roast turkey with roast potatoes, vegetables, gravy and Christmas pudding for dessert (a steamed sponge pudding with dried fruit) – but each family has its own variations. Read our students' guide to a UK Christmas.
26th – Boxing Day. The day after Christmas is called Boxing Day, and is a bank holiday in the UK. It’s believed to have been named after the ‘Christmas box’ of money or gifts which employers used to give to servants and tradesmen. Nowadays, there are no particular Boxing Day customs, but most people spend the day with their families, going for a walk, watching sports or eating the Christmas leftovers.