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You know it’s a UK Christmas when…

Channing Hotel in Edinburgh, decorated for Christmas ©VisitBritain / Britain on View

By Ellie Buchdahl at Education UK, 24 December 2014

How do you know you’re in the midst of a UK Christmas? With the help of our Education UK student ambassadors Lordina Arthur, Raquel Ferreira and Omolabake Fakunle, we look at all the traditional foods, activities and stories of the season.

These are the 12 signs you’re celebrating Christmas in the UK!

1. You’ve put up the Christmas tree…

then sit around it on Christmas Day to open your presents (even if the tree is tiny, made of plastic and in the corner of your student flat)!

Christmas trees have been part of the UK Christmas since Victorian times. Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, is often said to have brought the first tree to the UK (it had been a German tradition, and Prince Albert was German).

Nowadays, plastic trees of all sizes are as popular as real ones – and you can get as creative as you like with the decorations, from glittery tinsel to homemade ornaments.

Raquel and a friend from Portugal admire the Christmas tree and lights in Leicester (Photo ©Raquel Ferreira)

2. You send or receive at least one Christmas card

Even now that email is the communication of choice, many people in the UK still choose to give real Christmas cards. Choosing and writing a Christmas card shows the person you care, and it’s also a chance to support a charity – see our guide to Winter charity in the UK.

Raquel says: ‘Something I noticed that British people still use (a lot), that can barely be seen in Portugal, is cards. I found them so beautiful, and with such a beautiful meaning, that I think it could be a really nice Christmas present. Last time I was in the UK I sent cards to my family and they just loved it.’

3. You hang up a stocking (and open it, of course)

Hanging out a big, colourful sock on Christmas Eve and hoping to find it stuffed with small presents and sweets on Christmas Day is one of the most exciting traditions for children in the UK. According to tradition, Father Christmas flies around the world on Christmas Eve (the night between 24 and 25 December) delivering gifts to children.

It might be one of the best traditions for parents too – a distraction when the kids wake up early on Christmas morning, allowing a bit more sleep before it’s time to attack the ‘big presents’ under the tree!

4. You’re wearing at least one item of clothing with a cartoon reindeer or penguin on it

Preferably a jumper – but a tie, a pair of socks or a piece of jewellery would also be acceptable. Read our guide to the UK winter wardrobe to find out more…

Left: A classic Christmas outfit (©Neil Turner, CC BY-SA); Right: Dressing up for charity (©Bromford, CC BY-SA)

5. You’ve got a Christmas song stuck in your head

It’s likely you will start to hear Christmas carols on the radio from November – and once you get one in your head, it might be stuck there until at least January.

For Raquel, the song Jingle Bells reminds her of Christmas in the UK: ‘It can be heard in every street or shop here in Leicester.’ For Lordina, from Ghana, the UK's Christmas songs reflect its international influences – the song she hears most is Feliz Navidad!

6. You’ve eaten a bit too much sugar…

From the chocolates spilling out of your stocking to the plates of fruity mince pies and Christmas pudding after dinner, there are a lot of sweet treats to indulge in – see our Guide to the UK’s sweet festive foods.

It starts the night before too – it’s a UK tradition to leave mince pies out for Father Christmas.

Raquel: ‘I associate the smell of Christmas with roasted chestnuts in the oven and cookies – a lot of freshly baked cookies… and the taste of Christmas? For me, that’s roasted chestnuts, cinnamon and other spices, and marshmallows.’

7. And you’ve made it through Christmas dinner

Brace yourself for the multi-course meal that is the UK Christmas dinner!

Traditionally, this is a large roast bird – usually turkey, but chicken and goose are also popular, or a meat-free ‘nut roast’ as a vegetarian option. This comes with all the side dishes you could imagine, from carrots and parsnips to Brussels sprouts and roast potatoes, along with stuffing (sausage meat cooked inside or alongside the main meat dish), ‘pigs in blankets’ (small sausages wrapped in bacon) and an array of different sauces. Find out more in How to cook the perfect Sunday roast.

You'll need a big appetite at this time of year (Photo ©VisitBritain/Britain on View)

Lordina: ‘Of all the smells I associate with Christmas in the UK, it is the aroma of Christmas pudding and mouthwatering Christmas turkey as it wafts through the chimney of my college’s pantry.’

8. You’ve gone for a walk – whatever the weather

Either on Christmas Day (25 December) or Boxing Day (26 December), taking a long walk is a popular way to work off all that food! It’s the perfect chance to get some fresh air and check out the UK’s spectacular scenery – whether it’s a city park or the countryside. If you’re lucky, you might even see snow! Check out the 10 best places to spend a snowy day in the UK.

Just make sure you check the weather forecast, as Omolabake from Nigeria warns: ‘When it snows in the UK, I set out in all my winter gear: thick clothing, gloves, scarves, hats and snow boots. I even have shoe spikes for better grip! When the snow melts and then freezes, you sometimes get the dreaded aftermath – black ice. When that happens, I walk gingerly and focus totally on getting around safely.’

Braving the chill for a walk in Clissolds Park, north London (Photo ©Craig Fast & Emma Field)

9. You’ve pulled a Christmas cracker

Ready to put on a colourful hat, blow a whistle or put on a false moustache and tell lots of bad jokes?  

Get yourself a box of Christmas crackers and hand them out around your friends before you start the Christmas meal. When you pull them, inside you’ll usually find a paper hat, a piece of paper with a joke or fun fact, and a small gift. You could spend a lot on luxury crackers containing jewellery or miniature perfume bottles – but it’s often more fun to go for the cheap and silly ones!

Christmas crackers decorating a typical UK Christmas dinner table (Photo ©Amella Wells, CC BY 2.0)

10. You realise you’ve forgotten to watch the Queen’s speech

The Queen gives a speech on Christmas Day every year, which is broadcast on TV at 3pm. It is a short broadcast, where she describes the issues in the past year and goals for the year to come – but with all the food and presents, it’s easy to forget to watch. You can catch it online afterwards.

11. You’ve sobbed at The Snowman and A Christmas Carol

Stories and films that tug at the heartstrings are a real risk at Christmas. These are two classic tales:

A Christmas Carol is Charles Dickens’ novel with a moral, in which miserable Ebenezer Scrooge learns the true meaning of friendship and sharing at Christmas. It’s a fantastic history of life in Victorian times – and it also contains a lot of ‘tearjerker’ moments. Pick up a copy of the book or watch one of the many TV versions.

The Snowman is about a lonely little boy who has a remarkable adventure when a snowman he builds on Christmas Eve comes to life, and takes him to the North Pole to visit Father Christmas. The comic book by Raymond Briggs tells the story in pictures, and the only words in the much-loved film version come in the song We’re Walking In The Air, which plays as the snowman and the boy fly across the world together. That’s also the moment when most people burst into tears of nostalgia.

Lordina, third from right, visiting Cumberland Lodge in Windsor for the Christmas break (Photo ©Lordina Arthur)

12. You’ve eaten and opened your presents, you’re happy and exhausted, but somehow you’re still playing games and chatting to your friends and family (even if it’s by phone or Skype) – and suddenly you realise it’s past midnight already!

Lordina: 'For me, Christmas is a great chance to take some well-earned time away from studying, to catch up with friends and to share in the joy and warmth that such unions bring.'

Raquel: 'My top tip for everyone enjoying the festive season in the UK is just to grab a friend and walk through the streets – and look up! You will notice something wonderful that you hadn’t noticed before, and now with Christmas decorations everywhere, you will love it!'

Omolabake: 'I love Christmas because it is a time of the year that you can feel the goodwill and cheer in the air wherever you are in the world – in spite of the blustering wind, snow, ice, chill… or sunshine!'

Read more:

   •   Staying in the UK for the holidays? Stay with a British family with HOST
   •   Hanukkah, Pancha Ganapati, Bodhi Day... Discover all the UK's December celebrations
   •   What's a wassail? The UK's weirdest winter traditions

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