12 British Christmas traditions explained!

21st December 2022
Person wearing a Christmas jumper, Santa hat and novelty glasses

Moving to a new country as an international student is exciting – there are so many experiences to enjoy, especially during special times of the year. Being open minded to these traditions is all part of settling in, and if you’re an international student in the UK, Christmas traditions are a great place to start.

The festive period holds a special place in the hearts of UK residents – we simply can't get enough of Christmas! Our festive traditions are a whole lot of fun (albeit a little out of the ordinary in some cases!), and many of your British flatmates will have taken part in them since they were children.

Find out all about 12* favourite weird and wonderful British Christmas traditions below – and then get ready to impress your Sanctuary Students flatmates!

(*Why 12, we hear you ask? ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ is a popular Christmas carol – find out more about it here!)

1. Don a Christmas jumper 

Festive knits are a British institution, and even more so at the moment (did we mention that it’s COLD?!). Adorned with every festive cliché going – from tinsel-adorned Christmas trees to reindeer with flashing noses – this woolly jumper merriment takes place throughout December.

Person wearing a Christmas jumper, Santa hat and novelty glasses

2. Sprouts... sprouts everywhere!

As an international student living in the UK, chances are you’ll already have been introduced to popular meals like an English fry-up and fish & chips. However, there’s one humble vegetable you might not have yet experienced, which is always found on the dining table at Christmas: the Brussels sprout. But fear not, many Brits either love or hate them, so don’t worry if you fall into the latter group!

3. Pull a Christmas cracker

We Brits are creatures of habit, even when the habit in question is a bit, well, questionable. Enter the Christmas cracker – essentially, a decorated cardboard tube that’s pulled apart (with a crack or bang, hence the name!), with the person left holding it getting the prizes held within. These are usually a small gift and a riddle or a groan-worthy festive joke. And don’t forget the all-important paper crown, which you must wear with pride for the entire meal. We don’t make the rules…

4. Boo...hiss...

From the country that brought you theatrical masterpieces from Shakespeare, Marlow and Wilde, the concept of a pantomime (panto, for short) might seem a bit bizarre. But for many families, no Christmas would be complete without one!

With over-the-top humour, outrageous costumes and questionable plotlines, these plays are designed for families with young children, but are enjoyed by all ages. Often a parody of Peter Pan or Aladdin, pantomimes involve plenty of singing and audience participation – you’re actively encouraged to boo the villain and shout “He’s behind you!” as he attempts to sneak up on the hero.

5. Try some mulled wine 

It would be an understatement to say the British love a mulled beverage. Mulled wine is a hot, spiced drink that’s been around since Roman times, but it became a Christmas tradition when Charles Dickens included it in his 1843 classic, A Christmas Carol. In recent years, mulled cider has joined mulled wine as a popular beverage at festive markets – more on those later!

A saucepan filled with mulled wine and oranges

6. Take an icy swim

As you’ve probably realised, most British Christmas traditions involve being warm and cosy…but not always! For those who live near water, you might come across a group of intrepid swimmers who like to take the plunge over Christmas.

Notable locations and events include Bude in Cornwall on Christmas Day, Salford Docks on Boxing Day and The Peter Pan Cup in London – where members of the Serpentine Swimming Club plunge into the Serpentine Lido for a Christmas day race. Would you take the plunge?

7. Set fire to dessert

At the other end of the heat spectrum, many Brits celebrate Christmas by eating a pudding that is set alight. Yes, you read that correctly! Christmas pudding is a spiced boiled fruit cake, which is soaked in brandy and briefly set on fire – a tradition that dates back to medieval times. Not one to attempt in your student accommodation, please!

8. Hang out your stockings

This is a very wholesome tradition whereby children hang stockings on the end of their beds (or on the fireplace) on Christmas Eve in the hope that Santa will fill it with gifts. Why not treat your flatmates with their very own stockings this year?

Six stockings hanging on the fireplace with a Christmas tree in the background

9. Try something fishy

If you’re at university in Cornwall, you’ll already know that the county is proud of its folklore and traditions. One such festive Cornish tradition is Stargazy Pie, a fish pie filled with whole pilchards whose heads protrude from the pastry crust, appearing to gaze at the stars. Yummy...

10. Visit a Christmas market 

Nothing screams ‘It’s Christmas!” than attending your local Christmas market. After all, what could be more festive than looking for a unique handmade gift with a warm bratwurst in hand and then indulging in a nice mulled wine with a backdrop of Christmas carols?

Two people on a carousel at night time

11. Grab a bargain

Move over, Black Friday – the original big sales day used to be Boxing Day. But why the name, we hear you cry. The day was traditionally a day off for servants and they would receive a Christmas box from their master for them and their loved ones. Nowadays, it’s a chance to snap up a deal on anything that you didn’t receive from your festive wish list.

12. Sing it loud for Hogmany

If you’re celebrating the festive period in Scotland, there are oodles of fun traditions that you can take part in. Hogmanay is the Scots’ word for the last day of the old year and is celebrated with plenty of revelry. What’s more, the classic sing-alone for when the clock strikes midnight, ‘Auld Lang Syne’, comes from Scottish poet Robert Burn.

As you can see, getting involved with Christmas traditions is a good way of making new friends and making the UK your new home-away-from-home. Which tradition are you going to try first?