Every nation and every country has its own traditions and customs. Traditions make a nation special. Some of them are old-fashioned and many people remember them, others are part of people’s life. Some British customs and traditions are known all the world.
From Scotland to Cornwall, Britain is full of customs and traditions. A lot of them have very long histories. Some are funny and some are strange. But they are all interesting. There is the long menu of traditional British food. There are many royal occasions. There are songs, saying and superstitions. They are all part of the British way of life.
You cannot really imagine Britain without all its traditions, this integral feature of social and private life of the people living on the British Isles that has always been an important part of their life and work.
English traditions can classified into several groups: traditions concerning the Englishmen’s private life (child’s birth, wedding, marriage, wedding anniversary); which are connected with families incomes; state traditions; national holidays, religious holidays, public festival, traditional ceremonies.
What about royal traditions? There are numerous royal traditions in Britain, some are ancient, others are modern.
The Queen is the only person in Britain with two birthdays. Her real birthday is on April 21st, but she has an “official” birthday, too. That is on the second Saturday in June. And on the Queen’s official birthday, there is a traditional ceremony called the Trooping of the Colour. It is a big parade with brass bands and hundreds of soldiers at Horse Guard’s Parade in London. A “regiment” of the Queen’s soldiers, the Guards, march in front of her. At the front of the parade there is the regiment’s flag or “colour”. Thousands of Londoners and visitors watch in Horse Guards’ Parade. And millions of people at home watch it on television. This custom is not very old, but it is for very old people. On his or her one hundredth birthday, a British person gets a telegram with congratulations from the Queen.
The changing of the Guard happens every day at Buckingham Palace, the Queen’s home in London. The ceremony always attracts a lot of spectators – Londoners as well as visitors – to the British capital.
So soldiers stand on front of the palace. Each morning these soldiers (the “guard”) change. One group leaves and another arrives. In summer and winter tourists stand outside the palace at 11:30 every morning and watch the Changing of the Guard.
Traditionally the Queen opens Parliament every autumn. But Parliament, not the Royal Family, controls modern Britain. The Queen travels from Buckingham Palace to the Houses of Parliament in a gold carriage – the Irish State Coach. At the Houses of Parliament the Queen sits on a “throne” in the House of Lords. Then she reads the “Queen’s Speech”. At the State Opening of Parliament the Queen wears a crown. She wears other jewels from the Crown Jewels, too.
Every year, there is a new Lord Mayor of London. The Mayor is the city’s traditional leader. And the second Saturday in November is always the day for the Lord Mayor’s Show. This ceremony is over six hundred years old. It is also London’s biggest parade.
The Lord Mayor drives to the Royal Courts of Justice in a coach. The coach is two hundred years old. It is red and gold and it has six horses.
As it is also a big parade, people make special costumes and act stories from London’s history.
In Britain as in other countries costumes and uniforms have a long history.
One is the uniform of the Beefeaters at the tower of London. This came first from France. Another is the uniform of the Horse Guards at Horse Guard’s Parade, not far from Buckingham Palace. Thousands of visitors take photographs of the Horse Guards.
Britannia is a symbol of Britain. And she wears traditional clothes, too. But she is not a real person.
Lots of ordinary clothes have a long tradition. The famous bowler hat, for example. A man called Beaulieu made the first one in 1850.
One of the British soldiers, Wellington, gave his name to a pair of boots. They have a shorter name today – “Wellies”.
There is a very special royal tradition. On the River Thames there are hundreds of swans. A lot of these beautiful white birds belong, traditionally, to the king or queen. In July the young swans on the Thames are about two months old. Then the Queen’s swan keeper goes, in a boat, from London Bridge to Henley. He looks at all the young swans and marks the royal ones. The name of this strange nut interesting custom is Swan Upping.
There are only six public holidays a year in Great Britain, that is days on which people need not go in to work. They are: Christmas Day, Good Friday, Easter Monday, Spring Bank Holiday and Late Summer Bank Holiday, Boxing Day.
So the most popular holiday in Britain is Christmas. Christmas has been celebrated from the earliest days of recorded history, and each era and race has pasted a colourful sheet of new customs and traditions over the old.
On the Sunday before Christmas many churches hold a carol service where special hymns are sung. Sometimes carol singers can be heard in the streets as they collect money for charity. There are a lot of very popular British Christmas carols. Three famous ones are: “Good King Wenceslas”, “The Holly and The Ivy” and “We Three Kings”.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of people all over the world send and receive Christmas cards. Most of people think that exchanging cards at Christmas is a very ancient custom but it is not right. In fact it is barely 100 years old. The idea of exchanging illustrated greeting and presents is, however, ancient. So the first commercial Christmas card was produced in Britain in 1843 by Henry Cole, founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The handcoloured print was inscribed with the words ’A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year to you’. It was horizontally rectangular in shape, printed on stout cardboard by lithography.
A traditional feature of Christmas in Britain is the Christmas tree. Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, brought the German tradition (he was German) to Britain. He and the Queen had a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in 1841. A few years after, nearly every house in Britain had one. Traditionally people decorate their trees on Christmas Eve – that’s December 24th. They take down the decorations twelve days later, on Twelfth Night (January 5th).
An older tradition is Christmas mistletoe. People put a piece of this green plant with its white berries over a door. Mistletoe brings good luck, people say. Also, at Christmas British people kiss their friends and family under the mistletoe.
Those who live away try to get back home because Christmas is a family celebration and it is the biggest holiday of the year. As Christmas comes nearer, everyone is buying presents for relatives and friends. At Christmas people try to give their children everything they want. And the children count the weeks, than the days, to Christmas. They are wondering what presents on December 24th. Father Christmas brings their presents in the night. Then they open them on the morning of the 25th.
There is another name for Father Christmas in Britain – Santa Claus. That comes from the European name for him – Saint Nicholas. In the traditional story he lives at the North Pole. But now he lives in big shops in towns and cities all over Britain. Well, that’s where children see him in November and December. Then on Christmas Eve he visits every house. He climbs down the chimney and leaves lots of presents. Some people leave something for him, too. A glass of wine and some biscuits, for example.
At Christmas everyone decorates their houses with holly, ivy colourful lamps.
In Britain the most important meal on December 25th is Christmas dinner. Nearly all Christmas food is traditional, but a lot of the traditions are not very old. For example, there were no turkeys in Britain before 1800. And even in the nineteenth century, goose was the traditional meat at Christmas. But not now.
A twentieth-century British Christmas dinner is roast turkey with carrots, potatoes, peas, Brussels sprouts and gravy. There are sausages and bacon, too. Then, after the turkey, there’s Christmas pudding. Some people make this pudding months before Christmas. A lot of families have their own Christmas pudding recipes. Some, for example, use a lot of brandy. Others put in a lot of fruit or add a silver coin for good luck. Real Christmas puddings always have a piece of holly on the top. Holly bushes and trees have red berries at Christmas time, and so people use holly to decorate their houses for Christmas. The holly on the pudding is part of the decoration.
Crackers are also usual at Christmas dinner. These came to Britain from China in the nineteenth century. Two people pull a cracker. Usually there is a small toy in the middle. Often there is a joke on a piece of paper, too. Most of the jokes in Christmas crackers are not very good. Here is on example:
Customer: Waiter, there’s a frog in my soup.
Waiter: Yes, sir, the fly’s on holidays.
A pantomime is a traditional English entertainment at Christmas. It is meant for children, but adults enjoy is just as much. It is a very old form of entertainment, and can be traced back to 16th century Italian comedies. There have been a lot of changes over the years. Singing and dancing and all kinds of jokes have been added; but the stories that are told are still fairy tales, with a hero, a heroine, and a villain.