Christmas is Britain's most popular holiday and features traditions that date back hundreds of years. Many Christmas customs that originated in Britain have been adopted in the United States.
The first-ever Christmas card was posted in England in the 1840s, and the practice soon became an established part of the build-up to Christmas. Over a billion Christmas cards are now sent every year in the United Kingdom, many of them sold in aid of charities.
Christmas decorations in general have even earlier origins. Holly, ivy and mistletoe are associated with rituals going back beyond the Dark Ages. (The custom of kissing beneath a sprig of mistletoe is derived from an ancient pagan tradition.) The Christmas tree was introduced into the royal household by Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, and popularized by Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, in the 1840s.
Mr Fezziwig's Ball, from A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens's short novel A Christmas Carol has prompted people the world over to associate Christmas with Victorian England. Originally published on 17 December 1843, the book was rapturously reviewed and became an instant success, the first 6,000 copies of its initial print-run being sold out by Christmas. Theatrical, television and movie adaptations of the book continue to be as popular in Britain as they are in the United States.
Every year since 1947, the City of Oslo in Norway has presented the City of Westminster with a large Christmas tree which stands in London's Trafalgar Square in commemoration of Anglo-Norwegian cooperation during the Second World War.
There is also a program of Christmas carols in Trafalgar Square each year.
The choir of St Martin's-in-the-Fields singing at the ceremony for lighting the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree Photo by James Jenkins
Another Christmas tree, presented by the British Christmas Tree Growers Association, stands outside the Prime Minister's residence at 10 Downing Street.
Pantomimes are popular among British children at Christmas time. These are song and dance dramatizations of well-known fairy tales that encourage audience participation.
Carols are often sung on Christmas Eve by groups of singers to their neighbors, and children hang a stocking on the fireplace or at the foot of their bed for Santa Claus (also called Father Christmas) to fill. Presents for the family are placed beneath the Christmas tree.
Christmas Day sees the opening of presents and many families attend Christmas services at church. Christmas dinner consists traditionally of a roast turkey, goose or chicken with stuffing and roast potatoes. This is followed by mince pies and Christmas pudding flaming with brandy, which might contain coins or lucky charms for children. (The pudding is usually prepared weeks beforehand and is customarily stirred by each member of the family as a wish is made.) Later in the day, a Christmas cake may be served - a rich baked fruit cake with marzipan, icing and sugar frosting.
The pulling of Christmas crackers often accompanies food on Christmas Day. Invented by a London baker in 1846, a cracker is a brightly coloured paper tube, twisted at both ends, which contains a party hat, riddle and toy or other trinket. When it is pulled by two people it gives out a crack as its contents are dispersed.
Another traditional feature of Christmas afternoon is the Queen's Christmas Message to the nation, broadcast on radio, television and the internet.
The day after Christmas Day is known in Britain as Boxing Day, which takes its name from a former custom of giving a Christmas box - a gift of money or food inside a box - to the deliverymen and tradespeople who called regularly during the year. It was also known as the Feast of St Stephen, when in olden days church alms-boxes were opened and the contents given to the poor. This tradition survives in the custom of tipping at Christmas time the milkman, postman, garbage collector and other callers who have given good service.
Strictly speaking, when Christmas Day falls on a Saturday, Boxing Day should be celebrated on the following Monday. December 26 is then called 'Christmas Sunday'. So this year Christmas can be celebrated for three days in Britain!