Great Britain, Ireland and 5000 small islands constitute the British Isles. England, Wales and Scotland form Great Britain which is the largest of all islands in the Isles. The customs and traditions are different all these islands and each of them have their exclusive manner of celebrating the festival of Christmas. Sending Christmas cards, singing carols, hanging mistletoe, decorating the Christmas tree and the visit of Santa Claus are some of the fundamental customs which are widespread not only in the British Isles, but in many other countries where Christianity is the primary religion. Most of rituals that observed in Christmas are a result of the influence of each neighboring nation on the other. Still, there are some traditions that remain typical to that particular nation or island. The practice of Christmas speech, for instance, by the monarch of England began in 1932. Till today, the Queen delivers a speech to the citizens of England on the day of Christmas. This can be counted as one of the recent trends in the list of Christmas celebrations.
Customs, Traditions & Celebrations
Let us know about the customs in the major countries of the British Isles.
The kissing bough is one of the most persistent customs of England. In the Middle Ages, hanging small treetops upside was usual as it was thought to be a blessing on the household. Hence, it was seen not only in the occasion of Christmas but also otherwise. This concept evolved into the Christmas tree later, when Germans visited England. The customs of hanging greens such as mistletoe, holly or ivy are still existent in England. Christmas celebrations as we know have their roots in ancient Scandinavian and Roman cultures. Long before Jesus was born, people used to undertake some winter festivals, the gloomiest time of the year. The festivals were characterized by merriments and so that they remind them of spring. It was also believed that the ceremonies will please the Gods of spring and summer. Later, these mid-winter pagan festivals were replaced by Christmas celebrations. On the main day of Christmas i.e. 25th December, the houses and their exteriors are beautifully decorated keeping in mind the traditions of Christmas. Midday Christmas dinners are held by the families, wherein the whole family sits together for dinner. Sending Christmas cards begin weeks ahead of the festival. Nativity plays are aired in various TV channels and in many churches as well. Christmas tree is an integral part of Christmas celebrations world wise, and so it is in England. Hanging evergreen branches are a common sight in England during Christmas. Father Christmas delivers gifts secretly the night before Christmas. Hence, children hang their stockings or pillowcase at their beds hoping it to be filled with presents the next morning. A special Christmas speech is also given by the reigning sovereign of England. The day following Christmas is called Boxing Day, as traditionally, the alms box was opened in the churches and the contents were distributed among the poor. Towards the twentieth century, the rich would tip their servants and give them a day off. Today, the concept is to help the less fortunate in any manner possible.
Christmas celebrations in Scotland have a deep connection with their past, when Christianity had not arrived. They did not approve of the English way of celebrating Christmas and adhered to their long followed customs, in a new manner. Christmas here is also known as "Yuletide". Yuletide was celebrated by the Scandinavians in commemoration of Odin, a Norse God. Fire and light play an important part of the celebrations and therefore many magnificent fireworks are displayed. In order to keep away the elves, people light the fireplace and in some occasions huge bonfires are ignited accompanied by singing and dancing. It is an old Scottish tradition to light a candle at every window to illuminate the path for the Holy Family. Making a black bun or the Twelfth Night cake is again a ritual followed by most Scottish people. The cake is rich with fruits, almonds, spices baked with a lot of whisky in it.
In Wales it is customary to attend the church services early in the morning. It is called "Plygain" or day break, which is done at as early as 3 A.M. The service is followed by carols and is seen mostly in the country side. The giving of the 'Calenigg' is considered a symbol of luck. The 'Calenigg' is an apple to which three twigs are pierced giving the impression of a tiny tripod. A small hint of evergreens are stuck on or all over the apple. The 'Calenigg' is usually carried by the children, door to door, in return of some small presents or cakes. They call it the the 'Lucky Calenigg'.
In Ireland the placing of a lighted candle near the window is practiced to welcome the Mary and Joseph, who are thought to have traveled a lot and need some shelter. In many rural areas of Ireland, whitewashing the entire is still prevalent. Houses are whitewashed to honor the birth of baby Jesus, which is a sacred occasion. Not only the houses are whitewashed, new linens, bed and table covers, cushions, etc. are put so that holy child is duly honored. Decorating the doors with Holly wreaths originated in Ireland. Holly was a common plant in Ireland and it enabled the poor to decorate their houses, in the old days, thereby giving birth to the tradition. The Gaelic version of the 'Merry Christmas' greeting song is 'Nollaig Shona Duit'.
Though many of the customs have modernized to a great extent, where people indulge in lot of Christmas parties and shopping for the occasion, yet certain traditions are extant which are followed religiously by many people till today. Also, Christmas is an event when the family members come together and share a festive feeling. In spite of the difference in traditions in the different islands of British Isles, the spirit of the festival is always espoused.
Let us know about the traditions and customs that are prevalent in the British Isles during Christmas and how the festival is celebrated there.