The British hardly invented Christmas, but much of the iconography now associated with the holiday can be traced to the Victorian Era. Charles Dickens’ 1843 story A Christmas Carol immortalised a certain lasting vision of the season, with its atmospheric images of stockings stuffed with gifts beside roaring fireplaces and beneath Christmas trees, dinner tables heaving with hot chestnuts and roasted poultry. All the old carols popularised in Dickens’ time, many derived from early Christian hymns, are still sung by church choirs and out in the streets, which are, ideally, covered in snow.
The Queen appears on TV every Christmas day to give a state-of-the-nation address summarising the year’s ups and downs. On Boxing Day – named for an old tradition of giving alms to the poor on 26 December – crowds will flock to pantomine performances at city theatres. What used to be silent mime shows are now rowdy musical comedies, mostly geared towards kids but with a few jokes delivered with a wink to the grown-ups.
In the aforementioned A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge signals his overnight change of heart by ordering the biggest turkey in the shop to roast and share with the hitherto neglected people in his life. That bird remains the focus of British Christmas dinner, invariably served up with chestnut stuffing, roast potatoes, and the highly divisive vegetable accompaniment of Brussels sprouts.
Fruit-filled Christmas cakes, pies and puddings are also popular, and the classic English trifle will often be plonked on the table too – a wobbling confection of jelly, sponge, cream and custard.