Where it All Began, A Broad History of English Christmas Traditions

If you’re studying IELTS Brighton English Courses, you’ll have your own Christmas traditions. Some traditions are shared across cultures and many are unique to certain countries. But here’s a look at the history of English Christmas;


Christmas is celebrated as the birthday of Jesus although there is no evidence he was born on that day. It was declared his birthday in 440 AD. In England Christmas was originally called Yule. The old Saxon word Yule meant mid-winter. However when the Saxons were converted to Christianity the word Yule came to mean Jesus’ birthday. The word Christmas (Christ mass) was not used until the 11th century.

For most of history Christmas was just one of many festivals celebrated throughout the year. Until the 19th century Christmas was not particularly important in England. Most of the things that make up a ‘traditional’ English Christmas were actually invented (or imported into England from other countries) in the 19th century. That includes Christmas trees, Christmas cards, Christmas crackers, paper decorations and, of course, Father Christmas or Santa Claus with his white beard and red costume.

During the 17th century and 18th century people continued to celebrate Christmas as they had done for centuries. For centuries it was traditional to burn a Yule log in the fireplace at Christmas. In the 19th century it was also common to light a large Yule candle. Boxing Day was originally a day when alms-boxes in churches were opened and the money was distributed to the poor. Later ‘boxes’ were given to servants.


Victoria Albert Christmas Tree EC Brighton
Victoria Albert Christmas Tree



  • It wasn’t until 354 AD that the 25th of December was made the official birthday of Jesus.
  • The word Christmas was first used in the 11th century, but was just one of many other more important festivals
  • In the 16th century in Central Europe Christmas trees were decorated with candles, ornaments and gingerbread. People in England begun eating mince pies at Christmas (which were previously meat pies)
  • In the 17th century tinsel was introduced to Christmas trees
  • In 1752 New Years Day was moved from the 25th of March to the 1st of January
  • In 1800 Christmas trees first make their way to England
  • In 1843 the first ever Christmas card was made by John Horsley
  • Christmas crackers were first made by confectioner Tom Smith in 1847, but the ‘bang’ wasn’t added until 1860
  • The following year 1848, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are illustrated in London New magazine with a Christmas tree, popularizing the Christmas tree tradition
  • The modern image of Santa Clause was created by Thomas Nast in 1862
  • From 1871 Christmas Day became a national bank holiday
  • In 1882 Christmas tree lights were invented
  • Although Christmas cake used to be eaten on 6th of January, it wasn’t eaten on Christmas day till the late 19th century.
  • New Years Day was made a national bank holiday in 1974


Our modern Christmas really began in the 19th century. Long before the 19th century people in England decorated their houses at Christmas with holly, ivy and mistletoe. In the 19th century people began to use colored paper decorations. For centuries it was common to give Christmas gifts to friends and relatives at Christmas. However hanging out stockings to be filled with presents was first recorded in parts of England in the early 19th century. It became common in the late 19th century.