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Christmas Differences between the UK and USA

‘Do they celebrate Christmas over there?’ My American grandmother asked me this question once during our weekly phone call.

I think what she meant was, ‘What do they do for Christmas in England?’ or rather, ‘What are the Christmas differences between the UK and USA?’

Most Americans have visions created by Charles Dickens dancing in their heads. They think Christmas celebrations in London involve Brits eating goose and hoping Jacob Marley doesn’t knock on their door.

So, just to keep things real, I asked my London born husband to explain what he thinks Americans do for Christmas. His response, “Watch silly television. Have pancakes and syrup and bacon that isn’t really bacon for breakfast. Eat dinner which is roast turkey with mashed potatoes and country gravy that’s thick like what you get at KFC and corn, like creamed corn.’

He also added, ‘Being American you probably don’t drink too much, like us English.’

Well then.

To learn more about what he means, you’ll want to watch this video on London pubs at Christmas.

Christmas Differences between the UK and USA

Christmas- Differences between the UK and USA:

First, the Brits refer to Santa Claus as ‘Father Christmas.’ It’s a very tough thing for me to remember when I am in a conversation with my English mates. Next, they say ‘Happy Christmas’ instead of Merry Christmas.

Ok then, that’s sorted.

Christmas- Differences between the UK and USA:
On Your Mark!

I still can’t figure out when Christmas starts England. I’ve had staff members in London pubs approach me about booking a work Christmas party. They start planning for the celebrations as early as then! In October, it’s common for #Christmas to trend on Twitter in London.

Americans are notorious for excessive advertising and gluttony, but we still have an official line for the start of Christmas celebrations. Thank you, Thanksgiving.

In America, once the dinner dishes are cleared at the Thanksgiving table, it’s time to get your Christmas gear on.

That actually could mean battle gear for beating crowds at malls. Up until recently, Black Friday was only an American shopping phenomenon. It didn’t really exist in England. However, for some reason England had an onslaught of sales and super deals the day after ‘Thanksgiving’ back in 2014 which was the first year I lived here. I still can’t figure out why but now it’s become the norm.

Christmas- Differences between the UK and USA:

You’ve probably all seen National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Home Alone.

Most Americans decorate their houses entirely in lights and other festive ornaments. That’s not just a Hollywood portrayal.

In suburban areas of America, great rivalries take place during the holidays to see who can have the most glorious display of Christmas covering their house and yard. It can be quite a competitive atmosphere. And, then there’s some that take the decorating opportunity to raise money for charitable causes. Check out this YouTube video which features the ‘Best of Star Wars Music Christmas Lights Show’

In the suburbs of London, I rarely see houses decorated on a street. Usually 2-3 houses out of both street sides have some lights. The lights seem to be tossed haphazardly around a tree.

What are the Christmas differences between the UK and USA

However, if you travel just 20 miles outside of London, you can see Hogwarts in the Snow, which is the Warner Bros Studio Tour (AKA Harry Potter Tour) covered in Christmas decorations. It’s one of the things you would want to book ahead if you’re planning on being in London during Christmas. This video below should help give you an overview of the the most important things you need to know about London at Christmas.

There are tons of events that sell out fast. One that I highly recommend researching for any time of the year, but especially December holidays, is the Candlelight Concerts. You can read my review of their Coldplay tribute to learn more about what you experience.

Christmas- Differences between the UK and USA:

One of the toughest Christmas differences between the UK and USA for me is television. I just can’t seem to find Christmas specials on TV in London, except for an occasional channel offer. Movies24 runs old Hallmark Christmas movies. But, I need my claymation and old school Christmas shows on constant replay to really get in the spirit.

In America, the titles below (Christmas Classics for Kids, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, and Fred Claus) are each on a few times a week. I had to buy them in London because they are never on television during the holidays.

Christmas Differences Between the US and UK

Christmas- Differences between the UK and USA:
Christmas Crackers

I learned about Christmas crackers the first Christmas I spent in London. Its concept is similar to a Thanksgiving wishbone but much prettier.

A Christmas cracker is a cardboard tube which has a present inside it. The tube is wrapped in colourful, festive paper. There is a banger inside the cracker, two strips of chemically impregnated paper that react with friction so that when the cracker is pulled apart by two people, the cracker makes a bang. This causes a loud snapping noise. The person holding the larger end gets to keep the prize inside. Note- since these are ‘explosives’ you can’t put them in your suitcase. So, unless you buy them in the US, you can’t take Christmas Crackers home as souvenirs if you’re visiting from America.

These are some of my favourite themed Christmas Crackers:

Christmas- Differences Between the UK and USA:
The Pub

It is tradition to go to your ‘local’ in England on Christmas Day. The times I have been to our local pub on Christmas, it is absolutely packed. People bring their kids and dogs for a few hours to celebrate the holiday. It’s open from about 12-2pm.

What are the Christmas differences between the UK and USA

No, the kids and dogs aren’t drinking. Well, the dogs might get a few licks of beer here and there, but please don’t think the Brits are freely giving beer to their little ones. However, entire families are present and it’s joyous. The beer is also flowing pretty steady.

Christmas Differences Between the UK and USA

In this video, I show you the most iconic London Pubs to Visit at Christmas and fill you in on everything you need to know about festive drinking in London. (As if it’s any different from any other day!)

Christmas Differences Between the UK and USA

Christmas- Differences Between the UK and USA:
Boxing Day

I still don’t understand Boxing Day. Traditionally, December 26th was a day that servants received presents. Literally, they would receive boxes with presents inside from their employers.

What I do know is that since it’s a Bank Holiday, not much is open. Well, the pubs are open. Oh, and slowly there’s more and more shopping going on here on this ‘Bank Holiday.’

In America, the post-holiday sales kick off on this day.

Christmas- Similarities between the UK and USA:

Despite these differences, there are also some things that are in fact the same on both sides of the pond.
– There are major sales after Christmas. In London, they’re referred to as the ‘January sales’ and last a little bit longer than American retail sales.
– Stores play Christmas music throughout the season. In England, it seems Paul McCartney’s ‘Wonderful Christmas Time’ and George Michael’s ‘Last Christmas’ are rotated around every other song. I’ve never once heard Madonna’s ‘Santa Baby.’ I’m grateful for that.
– All those ‘happy holidays’ tend to drive some of us over the edge. Family arguments are at their peak in both the UK and USA over this stretch of time.
– Ugly sweaters/jumpers exist everywhere.
– We all like to open presents for Christmas.
– The red ‘Starbucks’ cup arrival is one of the most anticipated events of the holiday season in the UK and the USA.

I write often about Christmas Things to Do in London on my blog.

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For example, the video below outlines what you need to know about the changes to Winter Wonderland due to the pandemic. And I publish daily updates on my TikTok account too, if you’re seeking the most current London food and events news.

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things to do in london at christmas

What can you add to these Christmas differences between the UK and USA? What do you think of Mr. Sunny’s guess that there’s more drinking in England for Christmas than in America?

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  1. I love this breakdown of Christmas! It’s so funny to be able to pick out all of the little differences between countries year to year. I always want to watch the claymation Christmas movies, but they don’t seem to show them over here! I think I’ll need to invest in them in the future… And maybe the one thing missing from the list of differences is the snow. Fingers crossed for a white christmas in London this year! 🙂
    Lots of love,

    1. Kelly, sounds like we need to plan an American Claymation party night next year! 😉 I’m off to Florida on Sunday. Can’t say i’ll miss that Buffalo snow. However, I’d give anything for a Timmy Horton’s coffee and breakfast sandwich!!

  2. How interesting to read your take on the differences. In Scotland we have Santa Claus not Father Christmas and there isn’t the same tradition of going to the pub. Also in Scotland Christmas was the family and religious holiday and Hogmanay (New Year) was the one for all the drinking and partying. But things have changed a lot in the last 20 years as traditions that probably came originally from the UK and Europe to the US, then developed, are coming right back at us via TV and media. Merry Christmas to you.

    1. You’d be surprised how different this is to where I live.. Maybe we grew up with too many American influences but in Wales, well the valleys where I live we pretty much celebrate Christmas the same way as you do. I’d cringe if I heard someone talking Christmas before November. We say Santa. We watch movies. (Jim Carreys grinch) There are obvious differences with Wales and America but also with Wales/Scotland/Ireland and America. Just as there are differences between families in Wales. Like I know of no other 19 year old that has to go to sleep and wake up to presents scattered on her bed :/

      1. I’m American, my husband and children are Scottish, and we are here in America for the last 11 years. You just reminded me of a Christmas difference that came up the first year we were married. In the U.S., like the poem, “stockings were hung by the fire,” but in Scotland, even though they had a fireplace in his home, Santa always placed the Christmas stockings on the children’s beds.

    2. Our relatives in Scotland tell us that Hogmanay traditions are fading, because the youth don’t feel like celebrating them. That’s a shame, as when I visited I thought it quite wonderful, even though I was told it was “tamed” that year because of the 30 year winter storm that left us with deep snows.

      We did all the work beforehand. My husband told me it was unlucky to enter the new year with a dirty house or dirty laundry. It was also considered unlucky to wish anyone Happy New Year before the New Year arrived, so I had to catch myself several times from saying it. We laid out a table with a white cloth and finger food to eat over the next three days, because he said no one cooks for three days, and of course “juice” (soda pop), “lemonade” (lemon soda), beer and Scotch whisky.

      We also went “first footing.” It is a tradition where you go visiting relatives, neighbors, and friends after midnight on New Years Eve, and you carry a gift of whisky or coal. It is considered good luck if the first person through your door on the New Year is tall and dark and carries a gift.

      Hogmanay reveals Scotland’s generous hospitality. You walk into people’s homes without knocking (even without the holiday). No one will ever turn you out or turn you away during Hogmanay because they want some kip (sleep). If they run out of liquor they send someone for more. Some houses are crowded to the hilt with folk, sort of like a contest of seeing how many people you can fit in a phone booth. You drag your kids along from house to house no matter what their age, walking because the adults are drinking…. no one would ever think to drive. Kids play with each other and and the owners dogs, mostly taking care of themselves…when they get hungry they eat at the table, when they get tired they fall asleep wherever they are, even though the noise is sometimes deafening from the party. You can even leave your kids behind if they are asleep. They will be kept safe and you can pick them up later.

      I think the whole world would be better if we all celebrated Hogmanay.

  3. A discussion about British Xmas and no mention of pantomime! !!!!!!! That is the traditional event on Boxing day.

    1. Oh my! I had to consult my husband about your comment. I actually have a background in directing and theatre. I had no idea pantomime was a tradition here. Can’t wait to learn more!!

  4. This is a great post! I never knew that the US don’t really do Christmas crackers and I have to agree with you about the TV – I don’t know what’s happened over the years but when I was still in school, I remember loving all the TV specials but over the years, I find it harder and harder to find anything on TV that I actually want to watch at Christmas time – they need to bring back the classics! And if it makes you feel any better – I’ve lived in England most of my life and I still don’t really understand Boxing day myself!!

    1. Thank you for reading, Shikha. So happy to see you enjoyed the Gold Afternoon Tea also. I was so disappointed with Christmas specials here this year. Next year, I’ll be ready because I’ll own them all on DVD!

  5. Love it! Coming from NZ, we have BBQ’s and complain about the shops being shut on what always ends up being the hottest day of the year and people run out of ice cream!

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting! This year I spent Christmas in Florida, and it was 80 degrees several days. We didn’t run out of ice cream, so I can’t even imagine how hot it is in NZ! Hope you’ve had a nice start to 2015 🙂

  6. Love your post! As an American expat in Northern Ireland, I can identify with your comparisons (especially the TV bit!) I recently posted an entry on Thanksgiving/Christmas dinner and their similarities in the UK – hope you’ll take a wee read! 🙂

  7. I love this comparison of US vs UK Christmas traditions! We all may speak the same language, but there are certainly cultural differences. I’ve noticed in Europe in general (not sure about the UK) that Christmas Eve is a bigger deal than Christmas Day. It seems like in Europe having a big family dinner on Christmas Eve is a tradition, and Christmas Day is more low-key (I didn’t know about the tradition of going to a pub on the 25th – how fun!). But back in the US, most families seem to do a big family gathering on Christmas Day.

    1. Thank you for reading! That’s a very interesting observation regarding Christmas Eve vs Christmas Day. My family in the US always put more emphasis on Christmas Eve but perhaps that was more because of our Italian heritage. Hope your 2015 is starting well.

  8. You actually answered quite a few questions of what UK does during Christmastime. Even though I knew the “Happy Christmas” and “Father Christmas” parts. I saw people talking about the “Christmas crackers” last week in the blog chat, I didn’t understand it and nobody explained it to us Americans on Twitter. There is one thing that I still don’t know about, what are mince pies? I’ve heard EVERY UKer talk about that but again, nobody explained what they were.


    1. Wait, Americans don’t have mince pies!? :O it’s a travesty!! They’re basically small shortcrust pastry pies with sweet mincemeat inside. The best way for you to understand what mincemeat is is to have a look at good ole Delia’s recipe for it! They’re awesome and a Christmas staple here in the UK!

      Also I can’t believe you’ve never been to a Panto Melanie – you must go! They’re usually on until second week of January so see if you can get a last minute ticket this year – the one in Wimbledon is usually pretty good!

      C x
      Lux Life Blog

  9. Thanks for sharing I still can’t beleive how they do t know what Christmas crackers are in the USA, I have friends in Nashville and they was like what the hell are those lol so posting them out with there gifts lol

    1. Thank you for reading! Just a quick word of advice- you can’t take them on planes because they’re classified as small explosives. You might want to see if it’s ok to post them 🙂 I think they may need to order them in the US. Please let me know what you discover.

  10. Hmmm you need to get out of London. Most houses are decorated in lights, Santa exists and always has done. 99.9% of the population have never been to a pub on Christmas day as we are too busy spending time at home with our families and eating turkey and sprouts. There are plenty of christmas films on television, my wife has about 15 recorded for repeat watching. Not sure why Americans are afraid of upsetting minorities with Christmas and refer to “The holidays”. Almost every shop and store is open on Boxing day ( i wish they wouldn’t as retail staff deserve a break). Oh and as you already know, we rarely get a white Christmas.Finally we don’t all sound like jolly Cockney characters from Mary Poppins or Mancunians as portrayed in Frasier.

    1. Thank you so much for reading and leaving your ideas. I would love to know which shows your wife has recorded because I don’t know if many that are truly British here.

  11. We need an article about the difference between northern and Southern Hemisphere Christmas’. US and UK are quite similar. When you guys travel down under for Chrissy there is quite a shock. But one thing I do know Boxing Day is when the Easter hot cross buns start appearing in stores. And nothing beats a slip-n-slide with dish liquid!

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