A short quiz on British culture and traditions related to Christmas.

1. In the UK, what happens at 3 pm on Christmas Day?

Answer: The Queen’s Speech

The Queen’s speech, also known as the Royal Christmas Message, is an annual event in which the reigning monarch addresses the people of the UK and the British Commonwealth. The message is usually a summary of the year and its main events, with a focus on one or two major topical themes. The first Royal Christmas Message was given by King George V in 1932. It was written by the poet Rudyard Kipling and was broadcast live on the radio. Queen Elizabeth II gave her first Christmas message in 1952 and the first televised message was in 1957. From the late fifties, the messages have been pre-recorded and are always broadcast at 3 pm on Christmas day.

2. Name one other example of traditional TV viewing at Christmas in the UK.

Answer: Any of the following examples are acceptable:

  • James Bond Films. There is always a Bond film on over Christmas, and this goes back to the 70s when, for the first time, people were able to see a Bond film in their own home, rather than having to go to the cinema.
  • The John Lewis Christmas advert. Each year the retailer releases a short promotional film made with a big budget. Its release has become a much-awaited annual event. Usually, it’s a heart-warming seasonal tale with filled with humour and emotion. In recent years, other retailers have followed suit.
  • Christmas Specials. Popular drama series, soap-operas, light entertainment shows and Christmas Quizzes all compete for audience share at this time of year by releasing a Christmas special.
  • Christmas films. Britain is not alone in showing a range of seasonal films over Christmas. Popular films include black and white classics such as White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life, through family movies like Home Alone and A Muppet Christmas Carol, to feel-good Rom-coms like The Holiday and Love Actually or animated favourites such as The Snowman and The Tailor of Gloucester.

3. In a traditional British pantomime, where is ‘he’?

Answer: ‘He’s behind you!’

Pantomime is a particularly British form of entertainment. It’s a kind of musical comedy performed around Christmas and New Year, based on traditional stories or folk tales. Pantomimes are big, loud and camp, with larger-than-life characters, including a ‘dame’ – usually a middle-aged female character played by a man. Children are often taken to see pantomimes at their local theatre and, because the audience is comprised of children and grown-ups, there is a mixture of humour directed at the young ones, plus jokes and puns aimed at the adults (often on sexual or risqué in nature). There is also a lot of slapstick physical comedy and audience participation, with actors breaking out of character to address the audience. Pantomimes often contain a number of set ‘routines’, including one in which something or someone dangerous (usually the ‘baddie’) is seen by the audience, but not by the hero or heroine. The audience tries to warn the character by calling out ‘He’s behind you!’ or ‘It’s behind you!’ After a number of failed attempts, during which the audience gets more and more frustrated by the character’s stupidity, the danger is eventually spotted – by which time the children in the audience are in a frenzy of shouting and laughing.

4. Who brings the Children their presents?

Answer: Father Christmas

Okay, we will allow you Santa Clause – although, unlike in the USA, Father Christmas is the name usually used in Britain. When Santa Claus is used in the UK, the shortened form of Santa is more common than the full form.  But what are the origins of this figure? Well, there has always been an allegorical figure who is supposed to embody the spirit of Christmas. However, the depiction of an old man with a beard is thought to have come from a character in a play by Ben Johnson, written and performed early in the 17th century. Saint Nicholas, adopted by the Americans, and transformed into Santa Claus, the giver of gifts, is thought to have merged with Father Christmas in the 19th Century. In the UK, the smaller presents are usually left by Father Christmas in an empty stocking put out on Christmas Eve (along with a mince pie and a glass of brandy for the old man – plus a carrot for the reindeer). In most households in the UK, Christmas presents are opened on Christmas morning.

5. In the UK, what name is given to the day after Christmas, and why?

Answer: Boxing Day

Boxing Day is the name given in the UK to December 26th.  It is thought to be named after the tradition dating back to the 17th century of giving a ‘Christmas Box’, by way of thanks, to servants or tradespeople who have provided a regular service to the household. The ‘Christmas Box’ consisted of a cash gratuity or a gift. These days it is not so common, but some people still give a small gift at Christmas to regular service providers such as their postman. In the UK, Boxing Day, like Christmas Day, is a bank holiday. Traditionally, it is the start of post-Christmas sales, with many shops and online retailers selling off stock at greatly reduced prices. Boxing day is also traditionally associated with sporting events. Although people cook on Boxing Day, especially if they have family or friends visiting, for many families it is also an opportunity to use up leftovers from Christmas day – for example, cold cuts or turkey sandwiches and uneaten mince pies.

6. In the UK, which green vegetable is an essential element of the traditional Christmas Lunch?

Answer: Brussels sprouts

Brussels sprouts are named after the Belgian capital because, in the 15th century, this was the first place in Europe where they were cultivated extensively. Cute-looking and bitter (much like the British), loved and loathed in equal measure (much like the British), brussels sprouts are a plucky little winter vegetable, easily grown and able to survive severe weather and frosts. They are prepared by having their outer leaves removed and having a cross cut into their base – this is to help their cooking, but the symbolism (coincidental or otherwise) helps associate them with Christmas. Sprouts can be boiled, steamed, pan-fried or eaten raw, they are often served with chestnuts. It is believed that they became a popular Christmas veg because they were being imported and sold in large numbers in Victorian times, just as the modern style Christmas dinner was becoming popular. Although the correct spelling is brussels sprouts (with an s, and with an optional capital B), a YouGov poll in 2017 showed that 77% of the British public spell it incorrectly (without the s).

7. How many Christmas cards are sold in the UK each year?

Answer: About 1 billion

To be honest, the numbers of Christmas cards bought and sent each year in the UK are a bit sketchy, but a billion is probably quite a good estimate. The Royal Mail says it delivers about 150 million cards each year. However, this doesn’t take account of all the cards that are delivered by hand, or given face-to-face – or indeed, all the cards that everyone has left over and unused at the end of the season. Surveys suggest that the average person in the UK sends and receives about seventeen cards each year – allowing for the fact that many people (especially children) will hand-make some cards, the 1 billion figure seems reasonable. Whatever the actual number, Britons are one of the biggest senders of cards at Christmas – and many people use Christmas cards as a way of maintaining annual contact with seldom-seen friends and relatives. Selling Christmas cards is also an important fund-raising activity for charities in the lead up to Christmas.

8. What is Scrooge’s first name in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol?

Answer: Ebenezer

Dickens himself, although born into a middle-class family, had a difficult childhood that clearly influenced his view of the poor and how they were treated in Victorian times. He was particularly concerned with the treatment of children and their exploitation for child labour. His father was extravagant and wasteful with his money and was thrown into debtor’s prison when Charles was just 12 years old. As a result, the young Dickens was forced to leave school and work in a factory. At age 15, he returned to school to complete his education, later becoming one of the most popular British novelists of all time.

9. What is a Christmas cracker and what three items would you usually find in one?

Answer: A joke or motto, a paper crown and a gift

A Christmas Cracker is a rolled tube of cardboard wrapped in crepe paper, containing a banging device, and decorated seasonally. The Christmas cracker was invented by a confectioner called Tom Smith in the mid 19th century. He sold bon-bons (paper-wrapped sweets) and, when sales started to decline, he invented a mechanism that gave a short loud snap or crack when the paper was pulled open. Eventually, the sweets were dropped from crackers and replaced by other contents. Modern crackers usually contain:

  • A coloured paper crown, which is worn while dinner is eaten. This is thought to echo the traditions of the Roman festival of Saturnalia.
  • A small gift
  • A slip of paper with a motto, saying, quote or bad joke.

The crackers are usually pulled before eating, often by everyone crossing arms and forming a small circle, linked by the crackers, which are pulled simultaneously. In theory, the person left holding the larger end of any cracker wins its contents, although in practice these are shared out so that everyone ends up with something. Each person reads out their joke and everyone groans at how bad it is – this is a kind of bonding activity where everyone agrees how terrible each joke is before tucking into their food.

10. Is Christmas in the UK seen primarily as a Christian celebration?

Answer: Yes – and no!

Although a lot of Christmas traditions in the UK are Christian in origin (midnight mass, carols, etc.), and practising Christians still maintain it as a celebration of the birth of Christ, Christmas has always been an amalgamation of Christian and pagan traditions. In fact, for many Britons, these days ‘Christmas’ is a secular celebration and a time for families and friends to get together, escape from the stresses of work, and over-indulge in food and drink. You are likely to get a ‘Merry Christmas’ from friends of other religions, in the same way as many Britains will wish their friends a ‘Happy Hannukah’, ‘Happy Eid’ or ‘Happy Diwali’. In recent years there has been a movement towards more inclusive greetings such as ‘Season’s Greetings’, ‘Happy Holidays’ or ‘Happy Yuletide’, but ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Christmas’ remain the most common phrases.

If you enjoyed this quiz, then you can download a copy below with a question and answer sheet to use in class or with family and friends!

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