Christmas in the eyes of a foreigner in England

I’ve been in England for 15 years now, yet there are still new things about Christmas I find each year. I thought I have known all I need to know about Christmas, yet there are always surprises. Here are some of the facts that I’ve gathered over the years:

1) Christmas List:

It’s a list-loving nation. People love their shopping list, Christmas to do list, and the most important list of all, is a Christmas card list. In Britain, there’s an expression that you’re either ‘on someone’s Christmas list’ or you get ‘crossed off’ someone’s Christmas list. If your distant relative hasn’t sent you a Christmas card for 2 consecutive years, do you still send him one — now that a second class stamp is worth 50p? Do you go the extra mile to send your old friend or foe a card?

2) Christingle:

The Christingle service is foreign to me. I’d never heard of it until two years ago. Last weekend, in our local Church of England, there was a candlelit Christingle service. Children were each given an orange and messages of peace and prayers were said. They passed on the candle flame and it was an extremely moving scene to observe how children were taught the message of peace in this simple ritual. Christingle was introduced by The Children’s Society in 1968 to the Church of England, and money is raised to support vulnerable children.

Christingle The Children's society

Christingle for Christmas: Symbolism of orange, red ribbon, dried fruits and lit candle.

  • The orange – represents the world
  • The red ribbon – indicates the love and blood of Christ
  • The dried fruits and sweets – symbols of God’s creations
  • The lit candle – symbolises Jesus, the light of the world

3) Colour:

Though a white Christmas is on everyone’s lips, I’ve come to realise that in Britain, the colour of Christmas is possibly black. I joined my colleagues for my first Christmas party last week, and I was astounded to see that almost all ladies wore black, and to be precise, ‘a little black dress’ with a lot of glitters on. Apparently, I was told later that black is the colour for parties, and ‘a little black dress’ (a short, flattering dress) is a must for any lady’s wordrobe. As a typical Chinese, I thought red is the festive colour and so I wore a warm red top, which covered every bit of my flesh, as I have never bought a ‘little black dress’ in my life.

Little Black Dresses (Image from Debenhams Blog)

Little Black Dresses (Image from Debenhams Blog)

4) Mummers:

At our dinner party in a local hotel last week, some actors in ancient costumes suddenly appeared to entertain the guests. My colleagues told me these were ‘mummers’, who used to spread the word of Christ in ancient times. I later found out that mumming, as an early pantomime, in England goes back for over 1,000 years, and it’s a traditional feature of the English Christmas. The plays are based loosely on the legend of St. George and the dragon.

Western mummers (image from Rodw on wikipedia)

Western mummers (image from Rodw on wikipedia)

5) Christmas advert:

I’ve grown to love comparing TV Christmas adverts. John Lewis only starts its TV Christmas adverts since 2007, yet each production is memorable and classic. This year, their advert ‘The Journey’ features a determined snowman, who treks across fields, rivers and mountains just to buy the perfect gift for his snowwoman. At one point, the snowman even had to dodge behind some wheelie bins to  avoid being hit by snowballs as kids were chucking them. The snowman looked battered after his long-winding journey and, in the end, the joy of buying the perfect gift – a hat, scarf and a pair of gloves – to his lady was immeasurable. And the viewers sigh with relief, ‘AAAhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!’

The advert costs only £6 million and was filmed in New Zealand.

19 thoughts on “Christmas in the eyes of a foreigner in England

  1. Tilly Bud - The Laughing Housewife

    I love your perspective! It is fascinating to see our traditions through someone else’s eyes.

    I only learned about the Christingle about ten years ago, when I started attending an Anglican church. I’ve heard of mummers but never come across any.

    Thank you and Ben for the lovely card, and the sweet origami figures (? not sure what to call them) inside. I have stuck them in my notebook so I will always have them 🙂

    Merry Christmas!

  2. anexactinglife

    You are so right about black as the Christmas colour. I even bought a sparkly black top to wear for Christmas parties this year. In North America we see a lot of movies that depict Brits wearing garish Christmas sweaters (as seen in the Bridget Jones movie). That’s a tradition we don’t have – not intentionally, anyway!

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Yes, the garish Christmas sweaters seem to have come back this year. People just like to be a bit silly once in a while. I find the child-like behaviour (wearing silly sweaters) rather endearing!

  3. Maxim Sense

    Christmas is not in the Muslim tradition but being someone educated in a Catholic educational system and whose friends and acquaintances are more from Christians than Muslims, I have embraced Christmas (not celebrate) like it was part of tradition. This is why I can write a “Letter to Santa Claus” ( ) like I was very familiar with it.

    It thrills me to know that Christmas celebrations can vary from one culture to another and how people interpret the merrymaking in a lot of ways.

    Thank you Janet for sharing this.

    1. Maxim Sense

      Haha.. I find Santa’s current status (from Santa’s Tracker) hilarious: “I am getting too big for this chimney”. Why does he have to pass through it all the time? And he knows he’s as robust as an elephant and chimneys were not designed for his size!

      Now you have to answer my question. (I’ve asked Santa about it and he’s still doing a lot of soul searching) 🙂

  4. todadwithlove

    I have never heard of mummers. So thank you, Janet, for educating me on this. I do agree that black is invariably the colour for Christmas — for reasons I don’t know anyone can explain — just like red is the colour for Lunar New Year — for reasons I know you know we have. Still, I do like the little black dress, have always liked it, and will continue to do so — for as long as my body permits. 🙂
    And I do love the advert, Janet, as I do your post! Merry Christmas!

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Vera,

      It’s amazing to find new things about an old tradition. Christmas here is rich in culture, though shopping has mostly taken over as the main purpose of worship to many people. I remembered the Orchard Road street party in Singapore — it was such a hype in the 80s and I often watched it on the TV. It was what Christmas was considered to be, party, party and party, in the most commercial fashion in the East. Now in this little suburbs in England, we had mummers in ancient robe trying to fight the dragon. What a stark contrast!

      I love Christmas for its many quirky routines too.

      My mission is to look for a little black dress for myself in the new year. Thank you for your lovely feedback!

      All the best to you in the new year.

  5. eof737

    I had a good laugh reading your perspective on things English… I grew up with the list and haven’t given it up .
    ¸.•*¨*•.♪♫♫♪ 😆 Happy Holidays to You & Yours! 😆 .♪♫•*¨*•.¸¸ ♥
    ˜”*°•.˜”*°•.˜”*°•.★★.•°*”˜.•°*”˜.•°*”˜” ♥ ˜”*°•.˜”*°•.˜”*°•.★★.•°*”˜.•°*”˜.•°*”˜”

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you! How do you do all these lovely musical notes and stars……? You’ve done it a few times in my blog before. Beautiful!

      Perhaps you can tell me how to do it in a list?

      Happy new year!

  6. Yolanda D

    What a fun post. I’ve never heard of Christingle, that is a neat tradition. In America we wear lots of sparkle, red, silver and gold for Christmas parties–though the little black dress is always a wardrobe staple. I liked the history of mummers. My husband is from the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area in the U.S. There they have a New Year’s tradition of a Mummers Parade. It is quite odd. Check it out here.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you Yolanda for your wonderful link. It is really eye opening — the colour, the boldness, and a bit of craziness! It’s so much fun to see ancient tradition is still very much alive!

      At the work do, various groups were also having their Christmas meals there in the hotel, and the most shocking for me to see was that 95% of ladies wore black with lots of sparkles, the V neck, lace and patterned tights……. They later also danced according to Gangham Style in their Little Black Dress!

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