A big thank you to all the people who replied to my 'happy Christmas' post; thanks to woman_of, petzipellepingo, darkestboy, pamsblau, lavastar, crossreactivity, frogfarm, gabrielleabelle, alexeia_drae, angearia, tessarin and maharet83. Et aussi, merci beaucoup à frenchani et candleanfeather pour m'avoir souhaité un joyeux Noël en français. And if you're reading, special thanks to mr_waterproof for the hospitality. :-)
Apparently my use of the word 'happy' instead of 'merry' in my post caused quite a stir. In my experience, I'd say that people in Britain write 'Merry Christmas' more often, but when they're speaking, 'Happy Christmas' is significantly more common. 'Merry' just sounds archaic and old-fashioned. (Which is possibly why Americans still say it; love you, but you're all really tradition-bound and olde-worlde sometimes compared to us in the UK. :-))
Anyway, since I'm on the subject here are seventeen features of a traditional UK Christmas. I'd be interested to know which ones are common to other nations too and which are unique. (And British people on my flist can feel free to chime in to say "That's not a British tradition at all, that's just you being weird.")
1. The run-up to Christmas begins when shops put their Christmas stock on the shelves and put up Christmas decorations. Maybe in the dim and distant past this was done at the start of December; nowadays, it's more like October.
2. On 1 December it's time to start the Advent Calendar. This is a printed cardboard calendar with lots of little windows numbered 1 - 25. (Or 1-24 if you have a cheap calendar, or 1-31 if you have a peculiar one.) You open one each day to reveal a cute little picture behind it. Or even better, a chocolate. Or if you have mean workmates/family members, an empty hole where there used to be a chocolate until someone came along and opened all the doors in advance and scoffed all the chocolates.
3. At the same time or slightly later, the Christmas decorations go up. The centrepiece of these is always a Christmas tree; either a real fir or spruce or whatever, or an artificial tree. Tastes differ. There's a huge (real) tree erected in London every year that's a gift from the people of Norway to Britain for us helping them out during the Second World War. Thanks, Norwegians! :-) The tree can be decorated with tinsel, baubles, fairy lights, and may have an angel or a star on the top. Other house decorations can include streamers, wreaths of holly, bunches of mistletoe (for kissing under), more fairy lights, and so forth. The occasional nutters will convert their entire house into a festive lights display, thereby annoying their neighbours and getting in the local newspaper.
3a. The local council (city government) will usually put up Christmas lights as well in the streets, and get some minor celebrity to turn them on. Large stores or shopping malls will build a Santa's Grotto. Piped music will play Christmas tunes, which leads me to...
4. Certain songs will be played every single Christmas on the radio and over public sound systems. The first time you hear them, you might even smile to hear the old familiar tune. By the tenth time, you're ready to commit murder. Why more shop assistants who have to listen to the same piped music every single hour of the day don't flip out in homicidal killing rages is a total mystery. For the record, these are the most-played Christmas songs in Britain in the '00s, according to the Performing Rights Society:
1. ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS YOU Mariah Carey (1994)
2. FAIRYTALE OF NEW YORK The Pogues (1987)
3. MERRY XMAS EVERYBODY Slade (1973)
4. STOP THE CAVALRY Jona Lewie (1980)
5. DO THEY KNOW IT'S CHRISTMAS? Band Aid (1984)
6. DRIVING HOME FOR CHRISTMAS Chris Rea (1988)
7. LAST CHRISTMAS Wham (1984)
8. I BELIEVE IN FATHER CHRISTMAS Greg Lake (1975)
9. STEP INTO CHRISTMAS Elton John (1973)
10. WONDERFUL CHRISTMAS TIME Paul McCartney (1979)
5. Children are encouraged to believe in Father Christmas and send him a letter describing what presents they want, which of course is very useful for the child's parents and relatives. 'Father Christmas' is more common than 'Santa Claus' as a name for him, though the second term is known as well. He looks just like the traditional image from the 1930s Coca Cola advert : a fat old man with a white beard, dressed in a traditional Siberian shaman's costume of red trimmed with white fur, carrying a sack of toys and riding in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer.
6. Sickeningly smug and well-prepared people do all their Christmas shopping in, like, September. More people do it in early December. Some people do it late on Christmas Eve. I decline to comment on which group I fall into. :-) Presents are bought for family, friends, and occasionally work colleagues. Secret Santa is a tradition at some workplaces (you're given the name of an randomly chosen colleague and buy them a gift anonymously, instead of buying presents for everyone or causing drama by leaving some people out.)
7. You also send out Christmas cards. Two years ago someone at work was handing out cards to everyone there, and hesitated when he came to my (Pakistani Muslim) friend N. and asked in some confusion "Is it okay to give you one too?" She replied in tones of genuine puzzlement "Why wouldn't it be?" Last year she sidestepped the issue by making a point of handing out her own cards to people early. (On discussing it with her later, she said that as far as her family is concerned, "We don't really think of Christmas as a Christian thing, it's just a British thing.")
8. Another long-established tradition is that at some point a bishop will be wheeled out to make a speech lamenting that we've "Forgotten the true meaning of Christmas". Right-wing and conservative media will quote this as an excuse to complain that the country is collapsing into anarchy because of political correctness and multi-culturalism. Sometimes they try to whip up an American-style War On Christmas frenzy about a school that's banned the singing of Christmas carols or a council that's put up non-denominational decorations - most such examples turn out to be exaggerated or taken out of context, and few people care.
9. However, lots of people enjoy listening to traditional Christmas carol singing (Silent Night, O Come All Ye Faithful, While Shepherds Watched, Little Town of Bethlehem, We Three Kings, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, etc) as opposed to the playing of Christmas pop songs (see 4. above). In the old days carol singers used to go around the streets singing carols on doorsteps and collecting money for charity. These days they'd probably get mugged, or people wouldn't dare go to the door in case the carol singers mugged them.
10. The week of Christmas arrives, and half the population gets in their car or on a train to go and stay with family over Christmas. Travelling is, of course, a nightmare - especially since this is late December which in Britain means freezing rain or sleet, black ice on the roads, and occasionally your actual snow. However, note that if it does snow the week before Christmas, all the snow will have melted by the 25th, and no new snow will fall until after Christmas. This is Traditional.
11. Some people go to church, either on the night of Christmas Eve or on Christmas morning. In 2007 the Church of England recorded 2.7 million people attending its services. Out of a population of 50 million in England, that's one person in 20 who attends church. You can probably add on a similar number or slightly less from all the other denominations - Catholics, evangelicals, etc.
12. Children normally leave out a stocking on Christmas Eve, in the hope that Father Christmas will come in the night and fill it full of presents. In many households this "stocking" is more like a sack. It's also traditional to leave a small snack out in front of the fireplace for Father Christmas - for example a mince pie and a glass of sherry or whiskey. A carrot for his reindeer is also included. These will, of course, actually be consumed by the children's parents once they're in bed, leaving some crumbs to sustain the illusion. Also, how Santa gets down the chimney when most houses these days have central heating and the chimney is blocked off is one of life's eternal mysteries. Presents for adults are most often left beneath the Christmas tree.
13. On Christmas Day, children will often be up at the crack of dawn, over-excited and hyper and demanding to open their presents. Sometimes this is done individually, other times it's a formal family ceremony as each present is opened and oohed and aahed over in turn.
13a. The classic "boring present for a male relative you don't really know all that well" is a pair of socks. Another traditional present is an orange, dating back to the days when fruit imported from overseas was exotic and special. These days Terry's Chocolate Oranges are probably more popular and equally traditional. Also, it's a rule that young children will have more fun playing with the wrapping paper and boxes than the actual expensive presents they were given; and that at least one thing will be broken or have no batteries.
14. Christmas dinner is probably the single largest meal most people will eat all year. The traditional centrepiece is a roast turkey. Back before America was colonised goose rather than turkey was used, and some families prefer to serve this instead. Along with the turkey comes stuffing and cranberry sauce, roast potatoes, probably some other form of potato too, and various vegetables. Brussels sprouts are always served, which is a mystery because almost nobody likes them. Small pork sausages wrapped in bacon and roasted alongside the turkey are also essential, though I suspect those Jewish and Muslim households who cook Christmas dinner (see 7. above) leave them out. Vegetarian households doubtless omit them too, along with the turkey itself.
After the main course comes the Christmas pudding, a kind of incredibly rich, sticky fruit cakey thing. (I have to confess, I'm not a fan myself.) Traditionally, silver sixpences are baked into the pudding and belong to the person who finds them in his or her dish; the age of this tradition can be deduced from the fact that the last silver sixpence was minted in 1946. While other coins might be substituted, generally this isn't done due to, among other reasons, Health and Safety fears and the fact that puddings are often heated in the microwave now, and filling them with metal coins could be spectacular. However, one tradition which is upheld is soaking the pudding in brandy then setting fire to it as it's brought to the table, so it arrives covered in sheets of blue flame. White sauce (made from the finest-quality white), brandy butter, ice cream and so forth can be served too. After the pudding comes Christmas cake (like Christmas pudding but drier, less crumbly, and with marzipan and icing), cheese and biscuits, coffee, mints, and anything else you like. All washed down with lots of alcohol, of course.
15. Christmas dinner is usually in its closing stages by 3.00 pm when the Queen's Speech is broadcast. This is another old British tradition dating back - actually only to 1932, since it would have been impractical before TV and radio were invented. In the old days the entire family would gather around in hushed and respectful silence as Her Maj talks about what sort of year she's had and gives us some uplifting homilies on being nice to each other and keeping a stiff upper lip when things look dodgy. These days not as many people bother to watch, but it's one of those things that's nice to know still happens even if it doesn't actually affect you directly.
However, there are other television programmes which have themselves become part of the traditional Christmas. There's almost always a James Bond film being broadcast, for instance, and various old chestnuts like The Sound of Music pop up year after year. Soap operas like Corrie and Eastenders usually broadcast special Christmas episodes with twice the usual amount of melodrama, and other 'family' shows do the same. In recent years the Doctor Who Christmas special has become a particular focal point with 10 million people watching it in 2009 (one person in six of the population - or to put it another way, nearly four times more people watched Doctor Who as went to CofE church services this year).
16. The day after Christmas is called Boxing Day for obscure reasons that have nothing to do with the concept of people punching each other for entertainment. Rather, it seems that in bygone days servants were given the day off, and wealthy families would hand out boxes containing gifts, leftover food from the Christmas dinner, etc, to both their servants and people like their butcher, milkman and plumber. This tradition hasn't been followed for at least a century, but the name remains. Boxing Day is a public holiday in Britain, but these days many shops open and hold sales, and expect to do a significant percentage of their entire year's turnover in this one day. Boxing Day also features many sporting events, like football and horse-racing, and traditionally was also a time for fox hunting - a little tricky now since fox hunting was banned on grounds of animal cruelty, so the hunts chase after men dragging bags of Essence of Fox instead. People also visit relatives (the ones they didn't see on Christmas Day itself). The traditional Boxing Day meal is cold leftovers from Christmas dinner the previous day (especially turkey), since nobody wants to cook.
17. Almost nobody in Britain goes to work between Christmas and New Year, apart from retail and transport workers and those in essential services. Everybody else is on holiday.
Special British English terminology note, mostly for Americans:
Christmas Day is a religious festival or holy day, and is also a Bank Holiday - a term of art that means that banks are legally obliged to close down, and most other businesses do too. The "Christmas holiday" means the period from late December to early January that children are off school, students are not at university, and most people don't work. A 'holiday' is when you go away somewhere nice for a week or two, such as to the seaside, or skiing. The correct response to the term "Happy Holidays" is "But I'm not going away this year" or "When did you turn into an American?" Most people are vaguely aware of Eid, Diwali and Hannukah, but nobody's heard of Kwanzaa or Festivus, and besides, Christmas is generally considered a secular festival, which was originally pagan, then stolen by the Christians, then stolen in turn by the rest of us.