The premise of Christmas in the UK and the US is the same. It’s held on 25th December to celebrate the birth of Jesus but was originally a pagan holiday called Yule. Today, depending on how religious you are, it’s either still about the birth of Jesus or all about THE PRESENTS.
For me, it’s all about the foooood. Nothing compares to a good Christmas dinner. And I am pleased to say that I will never miss out on this – Americans like food. And lots of it.
But there are a few key differences that have had me and my husband questioning whether the other is a little insane…
Cookies and Milk vs. Brandy and Mince Pies
Every country has a unique take on what the children should leave for Santa and his reindeer. Nowhere is the difference more clear than between the UK and the US.
In America, you’ll gather the kids by the fireplace and set out some carrots for Rudolph and co, a few home-baked cookies and a glass of milk to wash it all down. Very wholesome and family-friendly.
In the UK you will also gather the children around the fireplace and layout some carrots for the reindeer but instead of cookies we will place a mince pie or two – these are THE British Christmas food. Delicious little sweet pies filled with mincemeat. Not actual meat, but a mixture of dried fruit and nuts. So still a nice little treat for Santa to get him through the night.
Now, this is where the comparison takes a pretty stark turn. Instead of a nice glass of warm milk, we Brits will set out a glass (or two) of brandy. or in my family’s case Baileys or Tia Maria. Basically, my parents choice of liquor that year to sip on while doing some last-minute present wrapping.
Never did it occur to me that this was alcohol. The stuff that’ll get you a bit merry after a glass or two.
No 4-year-old child will know that after one street Santa was getting absolutely blitzed every Christmas Eve would probably need to get his stomach pumped to get presents to the rest of the children in the village, let alone the world.
It was a simpler time.
Christmas cards vs. Round-robins
Brits don’t like to express feelings, but they do like to send cards with general well wishes printed inside. It’s a cultural thing, a key British habit. So at Christmas, we all send pretty cards to each other that generally says “to X, Merry Christmas and a happy new year! Lots of love, Y”.
America, however, has no such qualms about expressing their feelings and sharing the joys of the past year. In the States, a Christmas card is a chance to share the highlights of the past year. Also known as a Round-robin.
This will usually include a few cute photos, ranging from random ones you tooth throughout the year to full-on professional photoshoots taken specifically for the card, in full makeup and matching Christmas jumpers.
To Brits, this is THE WORST thing you can send out to people. As it sounds like you’re boasting as you tell everyone how great you are and what a fantastically amazing year you have forged for yourself and how you would rule the world if everybody just woke up and realised how fabulous you and your gorgeous family are.
Having said that, I swallowed my pride (or rather suppressed my British tendency to hide any form of pride) and sent out American style Christmas cards this year. For every positive review, we got a very violent rejection of them from British friends and family. My mother has requested that we do not send her one in the future.
Basically, the British are judgemental and none of them care.
White Elephant vs. Secret Santa
Nothing says Christmas like awkwardly exchanging gifts with co-workers. This is common on both sides of the Atlantic. But how we do it is slightly different.
In the UK, Secret Santa is the torture of choice. For this, each person taking part will choose someone’s name out of a hat. And normally you’ll be unlucky enough to select that random person you don’t know. So you then spend 2 weeks agonising over what the hell you’re gonna get them for under £10. Nightmare.
The gifts are then handed out at the Christmas meal and opened with varying levels of jubilation and confusion. It’s a good idea to practice your gracious gift-receiving face so John thinks you like that type of wine and the itchy socks with ponies on.
Oh, and then you have to guess who got you the gift. Good luck remembering everyone’s name buddy…
In the States, you are spared the pain of finding the perfect gift for Susan in accounts. Instead, the genius tradition of White Elephant rules. For this, everyone gets a random gift for a certain amount of money. And you can be as creative as you want with zero worries of getting the perfect gift. The weirder, the better!
The gifts are then wrapped, (or put in a gift bag, usually by a man) and set out at the Christmas gathering. Everyone then draws numbers and you choose a gift in that order. Now, this is where it gets interesting. As if you aren’t a fan of the gift you can steal someone else’s.
It can get pretty heated. Usually its alcohol is being stolen… But a nice Starbucks gift card will also bring out the claws.
Carol Service vs. Carolling
I love a good Christmas carol. My personal favourite changes each year, but right now it’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”. Mainly because I recently saw a performance mashed up with riffs from “ABC” by the Jackson Five and a sax solo of “Jingles Bells”. PURE GENIUS.
However, my favourite way to enjoy these classic songs is at a nice British carol service which will usually take place the week before Christmas.
At the service, candles will be lit, the old church will be beautifully decorated with seasonal greenery and everyone sings as many Christmas carols as possible in an hour-long service. Following this, you’ll usually be offered glass after glass of mulled wine and a few mince pies as you catch up with neighbours and chat about the year with the lovely elderly folks in the village who know your grandma but there’s no way you could remember who is Doris and who is Margaret.
Sadly, this tradition has not made it across the ocean yet. Instead, groups will gather together and wander from door to door, offering to sing a few carols for each house.
This does sound lovely and nice to get to know the neighbours, but what if it’s raining? And doesn’t it get cold holding the front door open for these carollers? And what if no one comes to your house to sing? When will you hear these Christmassy tunes?? I have so many questions.
Christmas Nativity Play vs. Absolutely Nothing
In the UK, every Primary School/Elementary School, will usually put on some form of Nativity play for their doting parents to attend.
The children in the younger years will all be cast in the play – everything from Angels to a bin/trash can. (don’t ask me about that last one – my younger brother requested this part in his last nativity play. Purely to mess with the teachers). However it’s the coveted part of Mary that can create an hour or two of drama between 7 year old girls. And rightly so – according to a recent article, girls who are cast as Mary in their nativity play are supposed to be more successful later in life…
The whole idea of the school Nativity play really surprised my American husband and kinda made his brain explode. In America there is an absolute separation of religion and government. So the idea of a state funded school making kids take part in a religious tradition once a year? NO WAY, DUDE.
As outlined in the First Amendment, government has no business making laws or setting out how individuals should practice religion – their concern should be governing and governing alone. So anything related to or receiving funding from government cannot have anything to do with religion or religious practices.
So Christmas Nativity plays in state run schools would be a big no no. (Just wait until I tell him we used to sing hymns every single day in morning assembly…)
However, the UK has no such separation of religion of state – the Queen is the head of the Church of England! Although in practice, its not a particularly religious country. The Christmas Nativity is just a tradition, and we Brits love an old tradition.
AND IT’S SO CUTE. Who doesn’t want to see their gorgeous little child dressed up as an angel or a donkey, shyly singing songs they learnt in class on the school stage? Americans are missing out!
Boxing Day vs. no Boxing Day
Christmas is great, but every Brit knows that the real celebration is on Boxing day or 26th December. The day after Christmas is a time to relax, survey the wonderful presents you have received (and decide on which you intend to exchange or regift), possibly tackle the boxing day sales if you’re feeling like wrestling other shoppers and waiting in lines and maybe a crisp walk to burn off the binge eating of Christmas day.
However, it’s also perfectly acceptable to just sit by the fire, dozing in front of a Christmas film, with a Christmas sandwich in hand.
If I’m honest, I think I prefer the leftover sandwich to the actual Christmas dinner. There is something so fascinating and magical about stuffing an entire Christmas dinner (minus anything green) between two slices of bread covered in cranberry sauce and gravy. And maybe toasted with a bit of brie if you’re feeling fancy.
America however, is denied the joys of Boxing Day. Well, if they don’t wanna be part of the UK and decide to rebel, frankly they don’t deserve it.
Instead, Americans will often drag themselves back to work, with no chance to digest and relax from the craziness of Christmas Day. However, for many Americans, the big event is Christmas Eve – dinner will be held the night before Christmas and Christmas day is treated as a day to chill. Much like a boxing day, but with presents.
It's Christmas, no matter where you are
This year, despite living abroad, I have been lucky enough to travel back to the UK to celebrate Christmas with my family and friends. While I have yet to enjoy an actual Christmas Day in America, I know that when I do I’ll love it. If Thanksgiving is anything to go by, Americans know how to celebrate a holiday and eat a ton of food surrounded by your favourite people, just like the Brits.
Despite the slight quirks and different traditions between the UK and the US at Christmas, the festive feeling is the same. As soon as the weather begins to turn, the lights, chocolates as holiday sales appear.
And where there are little differences, I plan to keep the British ones I love the most (I am willing to search every shop and pay anything for mince pies) and adopt those American ones loved by my husband. Until one day we have created THE ULTIMATE CHRISTMAS.