Christmas in Britain: Candles for All, God for Some

A Briton celebrates and reflects on Christmas in the United Kingdom

Christmas in Britain: Candles for All, God for Some
Late Night, The Shambles, York, Yorkshire, England / Getty Images

On the first Sunday of Advent, the church of Holy Trinity, Goodramgate, York, is lit by candles at the corner of every pew. Light softens the 15th-century stone of the nave, flames multiplying in reflections in the stained glass. There are remnants of the earlier 12th century building seen in Norman fragments and decorations, and there is a record of a church on the site in 1082. Now, though, it is the gracious beauty of late medieval European Christianity that dominates, accentuated by rare 17th century box pews benched on three sides. “You can look at the people or the pulpit,” my aunt whispers, as I close the door of the box pew she’s chosen, knowing that the uneven stone floor flags mean they swing open if left unlatched. She chooses to people-watch; I choose the pulpit; my parents sit between us.

The candles are necessary on dark December evenings, as there is no electricity in this church. It’s also cold: Winter coats, hats and scarves do not come off when we sit down, and it is only the COVID-compliant face masks that stop the breath coming out in clouds, as we see when the chaplain steps up to the pulpit to welcome us all, his breath clearly visible. “I’d offer you a warm welcome,” he begins. “But I’m not a liar!”

So begins the ancient service, which — like so much about Christmastime in the United Kingdom — is a complex web of historical interconnections and references: the Old Testament’s predictions of the coming of the Messiah, early Christian thought, medieval musical traditions and more.

Advent, “the coming,” is the month of preparation for the birth of Jesus. Our family is participating in an old form of the service, which starts the holy month: Advent Antiphons. An antiphon is a short chant in a service, sung as a refrain. There are seven of them in the Advent version of the service. Beginning each with “O,” they address Jesus Christ as Wisdom, Lord, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Rising Dawn, King of Nations and Emmanuel. Mentioned in the 6th century by Boethius in his “Consolations of Philosophy,” the form is familiar to churchgoers as the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” — translated into English from Latin in 1861, then paired with a medieval French Franciscan processional piece of music.

This service at Holy Trinity is particularly embedded in the community. Education, politics, guilds, business, music and religion are all represented by local figures, seen in the choice of readers: the Head Master of St. Peter’s School, which St. Paulinus of York founded in 627 A.D. and is therefore one of the oldest schools in the world; the master of the York Guild of Scriveners, an ancient guild for writers; the deputy lord mayor, a largely ceremonial role and in this case a woman despite the title; a member of the local choir; a friend of the church, helping to keep the fabric and function alive despite no longer having a parish; the service chaplain; and, finally, a member of the Goodramgate Traders Association. There is nothing I do throughout the rest of the year that brings together quite so much of society.

Goodramgate itself goes back much further. Its name is a corruption of “Guthrum’s Street,” after a 9th century Viking ruler of York. (“Gate” means “street.” Many of the streets in York are so named: Stonegate, Petergate, Monkgate, Swinegate and many more. The gates themselves are called bars. And, well, bars are called pubs.) The city of York, too, is old: Its name comes from the Viking “Jorvik.” Before that, the Romans had named the place “Eboracum” — a designation still seen around the city, in the Ebor horse racing event and similarly inspired businesses like a gym and a pub. Eboracum was the city where Constantine was proclaimed Roman emperor in 305 A.D. He was the same Constantine who instigated across the empire the celebration of the birth of Christ we now call Christmas. York and Christmas, then, have long been connected.

The choir finishes the service with an old English carol: “This is the Truth Sent From Above,” arranged and popularized by Ralph Vaughan Williams, the 20th-century composer and champion of traditional English music. Many of these old English carols (indeed many of our folk tunes), are in a minor key, soft and often melancholy, resolving into something brighter only with the final chord. Perhaps Advent used to be more subdued, resolved only at midnight on Christmas Eve. No longer.

Christmastime in the U.K. is now a month of festivities. It is marked with Advent calendars, the doors of which people open by day to reveal pictures, chocolates or — especially these days — other products like whisky, soap or toys. They are yet another vehicle of consumerism, even as they remain markers of holy days. Images have become less and less religious, too. From the Nativity scenes of my childhood, which had angels with glittery wings floating above the stable, scenes of the street or of nature are now common: They are snowy, decorated and festive — but nonreligious. The same goes for Christmas cards, by which we surely help keep the Royal Mail functioning in the time of email and social media. Coming through the door, cards from family, friends, businesses, old universities and others pile up throughout December. Poet Betjeman commented on this tradition over half a century ago in “Advent 1955,” a poem familiar to many from December school assemblies. Asking how we prepare for the coming of God-turned-man, he wrote: “For some it means / An interchange of hunting scenes / On coloured cards,” noting that “Some ways indeed are very odd / By which we hail the birth of God.”

It is also a month of warmth and hospitality — long a key part of the celebrations, in every part of the U.K. Friends will get together for dinners and parties throughout December, exchanging invitations to intimate and large gatherings alike. Drinks are another reason December is such a frenetic time; there is so much socializing to fit in, along with carol concerts, shopping, decorating and the writing of cards or invitations to these same parties. When I go to pick up the turkey, on Dec. 23, the butcher serves mulled wine, tea, coffee, chocolates and mince pies to the immense queue. Work parties have also been a feature, year after year, ranging from wine in the office to booked-out rooms in pubs and restaurants. This year, though, many of the cards and conversations have references to the lack of parties. Last year, it was obvious there would be none of the usual gatherings beyond families. (Political leaders and their cronies didn’t always get the memos, even if and when they wrote them.) This year, gatherings were planned and are now being canceled. My grandparents had an open house on Dec. 28 every year, combining Christmas with their wedding anniversary; I had planned to do the same this year, inviting all the same family and friends from those days plus new ones, everyone free to bring the guests they happen to have staying for Christmas, part of the inclusivity of this season. Three friends and I managed a “house crawl” this year, visiting all our houses in turn to look at the decorations and eat and drink in each.

These days, many of the cards coming through the door are designed by children, printed and sold to parents as fundraisers for their schools — just one of their many Christmas activities. The pandemic allowed me to see my niece galloping around as a wise man’s camel in her Nativity play as it was live-streamed from her classroom, and though this tradition is no longer universal, many still put on the classic stable story, and even more do variations on a theme, popular titles including “Mary’s Knitting,” “The Innkeeper’s Breakfast,” “The Angel Who Nearly Missed It All” and “The Inn-Spectors.”

My godson was also in a play this year: “Woolly: An Up-Bleat Nativity Musical” (“I’m sheep 7!” he told me proudly). He now sings on car journeys: “It’s a wonderful thing / a wonderful thing / that happened tonight,” the wonderful thing being the birth of Jesus (“under the staaaar light”). All include angels with various forms of halos and shepherds with drying up cloths on their heads. (I had both roles in my childhood. For years, I thought Gabriel was a girl’s name as a result).

It’s a similar story for the carols: The children’s classics of “Away in a Manger” and “Little Donkey” have been expanded to include innovative ways of celebrating Christmas with song. My cousin sent a video of her daughter’s school concert: Children were singing enthusiastically about King Herod, who murdered male children under the age of two around Bethlehem in his attempt to eliminate Jesus – not exactly a normal character in a school play. “Herod’s curious / Herod’s furious / and he doesn’t want to hear about Jesus!” the children sing, upbeat, in a pretty funny show for watching parents.

Children of all faiths — and of none — take part in these festivities. Although some of the more religious non-Christians might not say all the words, they participate in the plays, attend the parties, and exchange cards and presents. When he was a child, a Muslim friend was in Nativity plays and had an Advent calendar. His family decorated the home and gave presents on Christmas Day with no clash with the family’s Muslim beliefs. Of course, many of the songs are now completely secular in content — like “Jingle Bells,” about sleighing in the snow, and “Frosty the Snowman.”

Church services, though, continue with the traditional music, which are also familiar from carol singers either going door to door or playing in marketplaces and other shopping streets, and many schools still include them alongside the newer interpretations of the Christmas story. There is not one type of music as shared throughout the country (except, perhaps, the Beatles): As the Salvation Army bands around the country strike up in shopping centers and marketplaces, people sing and hum along, as well as put money in their collection boxes, for the homeless, the lonely and families in poverty. This link between charity and Christmas has been retained, seen in the many appeals coming through the door and the figures themselves: Charities make more money in December than any other month. The Christmas spirit remains strong despite the waning of Christian beliefs.

Many will go to carol concerts, passing around information as to the good choirs, given how many are held in any one city. The most famous is that belonging to King’s College Cambridge, who sing for the BBC Christmas services, but community choirs also provide such concerts. I went to a local music venue and heard the Stonegate Singers, accompanied by an equally local brass band. The singers and audience alike are of all ages, just as with church congregations. Children, then, have plenty of chances to pick up the words and music that all generations know, not to mention the story itself, no matter the beliefs (or nonbelief) of their parents.

Many people still go to church at some point during Advent. They perhaps do so out of a sense of community and continuity, even if they have no faith in the story of a God-turned-man, born of a Virgin, and arriving into the world in a stable, surrounded by animals. Humans like to feel part of something bigger than our individual lives. Despite its Christian basis, contemporary Christmas unites the country — or many in the country — beyond religion. It is a tradition connecting us to a long history and to people around us today.

One colleague, who had a baby in 2021, is keeping a running list of traditions for her new family. Her Christmas list is familiar to anyone in the U.K.: an Advent calendar and a stocking filled by Father Christmas; and activities including visiting a Christmas market, carols and ice skating. Like the opportunities for consumerism, these activities have also increased since our childhood. Outside skating rinks now feature in many cities. Stately homes, now owned by the National Trust, put on phenomenal illuminations. To escape some of the consumerism of present-giving, I bought tickets to one such show as Christmas gifts for friends this year, at Wimpole Hall, near Cambridge. Greeted by stalls selling mulled wine and mince pies, we waited until it was dark, then walked around their extensive grounds, a light display in each part of wood and garden, finishing up watching the grand house itself as the canvas for a light show.

Innovation is not just due to rampant capitalism but has happened over the centuries, traditions accumulating over time. Indeed, many of our most common traditions — the Christmas tree, sending cards — only go back to the 19th century, with Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert, bringing his way of celebrating from his homeland. Now most households will have a decorated tree of some description and will sing the translated German song, “O Christmas tree / O Christmas tree / How lovely are your branches.” The Norwegian government sends the U.K. a huge Norwegian fir every year, displayed in Trafalgar Square in the heart of London, in thanks for the British support during World War II (though this year it attracted criticism for being a bit patchy, sparking discussions of whether the choice of tree was political).

No ritual is complete without food. Leaving Holy Trinity after the Advent service, with Goodramgate lit up courtesy of the Goodramgate Traders Association, we walk down to Bedern Hall. A 14th century-refectory for vicars who sang for the nearby minster, the hall has had a checkered history and yet is once again being used for its original purpose of serving food: mulled wine and mince pies to all who went to the Advent service. Tucking in, we chat to the readers, mingle with the choir and reconnect with faces only seen once a year. I find myself discussing an Egyptian novelist with the deputy lord mayor, offering my services to St. Peter’s as a career adviser and lecturer, and hear about the chaplain’s time serving in Jordan and Syria.

As we emerge onto the freezing street, we see the minster, a constant presence in York. “If you’re lost, always walk to the minster,” my granny used to tell us, knowing that people can almost always see it and use it to get their bearings. It, too, will have had a service for this first Sunday of Advent. The choir is now trained at St. Peter’s, the minster’s own school a victim of the pandemic after a “catastrophic loss of visitor income” for the minster. This year, we will go there at midday on Christmas Eve for the children’s service — deeply familiar to me from my childhood, right down to the vast silver platters of fun-size Smartie boxes, not to be confused with the American version, available at the end. (The Rowntree family, old chocolatiers of York, created Smarties in York in 1937. It’s yet another link between religion and business in this old town.)

Children from all over York and its villages come dressed up as angels and donkeys, sheep and shepherds, plus an inevitable random element of Superman or Elsa from Frozen, the dean sure to mention it: “And why wouldn’t Superman be present at the birth of God?” I remember from a few years ago. We all sing the carols written for children to celebrate Christmas, the adults knowing the words from their own childhoods. The sermon usually emphasizes kindness in some way, of showing love for one another.

And this, too, is a link that I think has been retained, despite all the cruel politics the U.K. has seen in recent years, and it’s not just the charitable donations. Inclusivity is at the core of children’s story books about Christmas: Even “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is instructive in this way, in not laughing at or excluding someone just for difference — everyone has their place in the world. My godson’s Nativity play has a similar theme: The sheep is at first bullied for being so woolly, but the angel Gabriel came to ask him for his wool to make a blanket for the baby Jesus, and his worth was shown. Everyone said no to pregnant Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem, the Bible tells us, a warning to us never to say no to anyone in need. “A Christmas Carol” by Dickens has been reinterpreted many times in many genres (my personal favorite one for the day itself).

“What are you doing for Christmas?” is a question during many conversations in December; people might complain about in-laws or family splits, or express fears over COVID, but no one says “nothing” or “working” without giving a reason. We are all celebrating Christmas, knowing that we all — even in a seemingly divided country, with polarized politics — can come together at least once a year.

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