“The ten best things about Christmas” is entirely subjective; everyone has their own, unique, perception of an event. Even if you took a poll, the results would depend on who and how many participated and, anyway, ‘best’ is not something that can be determined by a majority vote. All that said, it is a good question to ask yourself: what are the best things about Christmas? What does Christmas mean to you?
If you’re not a fan of Christmas, please stop reading this immediately and instead read some of the hundreds of non-seasonal content on A Bit About Britain. Browse the menu, or go to the home page for inspiration.
First, some research. If you put the query “ten best things about Christmas” into a search engine and hit ‘enter’, you will find most things you would expect to see, variously ranked. You will also find a few things that may surprise you. For example, ‘ice skating’ and ‘hot chocolate’, neither of which is particularly seasonal, popped up more than once when I did this. I was especially surprised to see ‘dress up your pet’ appear on at least one list and wondered whether I had inadvertently ventured into a dark corner of the web; but I hadn’t – apparently, people really do dress their pets for Christmas. Intrigued, and a little concerned, I could not resist searching “dress your pet for Christmas” and was amazed by the number and range of results. Despite giving me some ideas for my pet crab, Claws, surely, this kind of thing demonstrates a complete disrespect for animals, verging on objectification. I would point out that if you simply search for “dress for Christmas”, the results are much more pleasant. I look forward to any comments arising from this exercise.
So, in no particular order, among the other attributes that turn up in a web search for the best things about Christmas are: the birth of Jesus; presents (giving and receiving); being with family; Christmas Eve; snow; eggnog (whatever that is); Christmas Day; Christmas Music; lights and decorations; Christmas movies; Christmas Dinner; decorating the Christmas Tree; Santa Claus; Christmas markets; chocolate; parties; mistletoe; games; a Christmas walk; carols; ghost stories; pantomime; the Queen’s speech and Christmas pullovers.
Moving on, this article can only offer some personal suggestions:
1 Christmas Magic
Putting aside the pre-Christian origins of this midwinter feast, Christmas is – the clue is in the name – a celebration of the birth of Jesus, Christ’s mass. After Easter, this is an enormously important date in the Christian calendar. However, Christmas is also marked and celebrated by people of different faiths, and none. Even if you do not believe in the Christian message, the story of the Nativity is a marvellous, mystical, legend that has endured for two thousand years. The visit of the angel, the journey to Bethlehem, the inn that is full, the birth in a cowshed, the arrival of the shepherds, the wise men following the star – these things are such a familiar part of our culture. Overlaying it all is a message of peace, love and hope. Add in other ingredients, like holly, mistletoe, Yule logs, carols, decorations and Father Christmas and you end up with an extremely powerful, wondrous, brew. What’s not to like? It is intangible; it is Christmas magic.
2 Christmas Eve
I realise that in many ways I have often preferred Christmas Eve and Boxing Day to the Day itself, which can get a little busy. Christmas Eve, though, is rather special. In my head, there is a decorated, slightly spicy-smelling home, carols playing softly in the background, a flickering fire in the grate and a sense of timeless enchantment in the air. As a child, I remember listening for Father Christmas, watching for him among twinkling stars, and waking in the darkness with strange lumps on the floor where there had previously just been a large, empty, grey sock. When my children were small, Father Christmas usually visited the lounge or dining room where, next to the cooled fireplace, there would be scattered twigs and leaves, blown in from the outside with his arrival. The furniture had been disturbed slightly; someone had definitely been in the room. The mince pie and whisky was gone and just the stub end of a carrot remained, with large teeth marks on it. And there, next to the hearth were filled, misshapen, stockings. The looks on children’s faces. How can this not be one of the best things about Christmas?
3 A Christmas Carol
I have loved Charles Dickens’ novella, ‘A Christmas Carol’, for most of my life. The story, almost as well known as the Nativity, is a warming parable of the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge, the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner” of Dickens’ wondrously skilful pen. But there is more to it than that. For a start, it is cleverly composed. It is witty. It is also subtle. Dickens gets across some enormously serious social and moral issues without losing the reader in a tub-thumping 19th century version of a Twitter rant. He simultaneously weaves in elements of the frightening supernatural as a means of getting his messages across – not, as heavier-handed authors and scriptwriters would do, merely to crudely petrify and shock. Quite frankly, anyone who doesn’t get this should be condemned to walk the earth for eternity because their spirit is not going forth in life, as every person’s should.
Click or tap here for more about A Christmas Carol. It is a lovely book. Read it aloud.
4 The sounds
The sounds of Christmas – carols, bells, naff music – are mostly unique to the time of year and that is what makes them special. Collectively, they contribute to the season, which would not be the same without them. I do accept that church bells are heard all year round, but sleigh bells generally are not. Where would Christmas be without carols? I cannot listen to ‘Once In Royal David’s City’ and all the rest without being mentally transported back to a freezing cold church hall when I was in primary school; wonderful! Most carol services in the UK are based on the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols created by Edward White Benson in 1880, which has been adapted and used all over the world. Click or tap here to read more about this and Carols from King’s College. Sadly, Christmas music is heard in places from October or earlier, which is depressing, because it diminishes its significance and is normally blasting out of rasping speakers for purely commercial reasons. BBC Radio 2, to its credit, managed to contain itself until December this year. Given the often juvenile level of political debate in the UK, I’m sure parliamentary time could easily be found for a small piece of legislation to ban Christmas music in public between January and late November.
Eleven million people watched the extraordinary Rose Ayling-Ellis win the UK’s Strictly Come Dancing 2021 competition this year. Rose was born deaf and her beautiful performances and personality have raised awareness of deafness throughout the country like no campaign ever could. At one point, she and her partner, Giovanni Pernice, danced in absolute silence; it was astonishing to watch – both lovely and a stark insight into deafness. The BBC said, “One moment of silence can help a community feel heard.” I could not mention that Christmas sounds are one of the best things about the season without also recognising that those of us who can hear them are lucky to be able to do so.
5 The smells
From one sensory experience to another, the smells of Christmas are special too, and I think collectively unique to the festive season. You can probably experience them individually throughout the year – that Christmas tree smell by wandering through a pine forest, the smell of cakes baking, food roasting and even the scent of cinnamon and other spices (maybe not frankincense and myrrh), but they only come together at Christmas. So Christmas smells are on my list of the ten best things about it – as long as you avoid those cheap chemically scented candles.
6 Trees and decorations
Minimally decorated or packed with baubles, it would not be Christmas without a tree of some sort. When I was growing up, decorations were often home-made, often made of paper. Baubles, though frequently beautiful, were manufactured of thin, highly fragile, glass that shattered easily. Lights were unreliable – if a bulb went, it took an age to track down the offending item and woe betide you if you didn’t have some spares handy. These days, lights are more reliable, safer, often battery-powered and far more plentiful. They twinkle, not merely on Christmas trees, but outside houses, pubs and restaurants. It is worth driving through residential areas just to look at them, even the tawdry over-the-top displays. Decorations in general are better quality and altogether more sparkly than they used to be. Somehow, this strikes me as more hopeful; evidence, perhaps, that we are a better-off society than hitherto.
7 Buying and giving
Even as a kid, it was great buying things for people at Christmas: Gardenia talcum powder or bath salts for mum, a leather key ring or tobacco for my dad, Evening in Paris for gran. As a teenager, I remember the thrill of being allowed to take the ‘bus into town on my own, and wandering through the shops and market stalls in search of things I thought people would like. The smells and sounds and bustle of Christmas were all around. There was something liberating about it. Even now, I actually enjoy a limited amount of Christmas shopping. Wrapping is a chore, because I am so bad at it, but it is lovely seeing people open things. I suspect most adults prefer giving to receiving, though of course I am grateful to receive gifts too.
Click or tap here for a bit about Christmas shopping – a visit to Liberty of London. Did you know the timbers used in its construction came from two 19th century Royal Navy ships? You do now.
8 The paraphernalia
Christmas cards, crackers, silly hats, food you only get at Christmas. It is only once a year; just sit back and enjoy it.
Click or tap here for more about Christmas cards (you may be surprised at how many we send) and here for a bit about the origins and custom of Christmas crackers. No, they weren’t introduced to Britain by US servicemen.
9 Christmas ale
It is quite common to see ‘special’ Christmas ales at this time of year. Most of them are OK, though many tend to be simply heavy on the alcohol – presumably aimed at those who just want to fall asleep, or hit someone. However, every now and again you come across a pub serving a really lovely draught Christmas ale, or perhaps a good bottled one, dark and malty, with a hint of fruit and a mere whiff of spice. There’s quite a good one on at The Olde Ruptured Duck at the moment – Blitzen from the Black Sheep Brewery at Masham. Of course, it is a little deer. Like a good curry, the flavours should be subtle, not lift the top of your head off. Whilst on the subject of alcohol at Christmas, a Buck’s Fizz at breakfast on Christmas morning with scrambled eggs and smoked salmon is a wonderful luxury; Christmas is pretty much the only time I will have an alcoholic drink before the evening.
10 Christmas time
If you’re lucky enough not to be working over Christmas (and a huge thank you to all that do, in the emergency services and so forth), I find it is the one time of year when it is possible to relax without worrying about all the other things you should be doing. Can true believers have a guilt-free Christmas; I’m sure they can. Anyway, this is a time of year to spend with people you really want to be with (if you’re able to choose!), watch a cheesy movie (without fretting over life slipping away), play games, sing, or whatever. Individuals and organisations often make Christmas into some kind of critical deadline. “We must decorate by Christmas”; “the project will be completed before Christmas” – and so on. Deadlines make sense and if there’s a good reason for one being the 25th December, fine; but there often is not and, often, insufficient planning has gone into achieving it anyway. So, assuming the sky has not fallen and you are not overly concerned at your upset, over-promoted, over-paid boss, switch-off and take things easy. Take some Christmas time. It is one of the best things about Christmas.
Christmas features prominently in A Bit About Britain’s High Days and Holidays, along with a dozen other notable annual occasions and an extensive list of events that normally form a part of Britain’s year. Some of this information, including an A-Z of Christmas, is also available in some form on this website.
I want to thank anyone who has popped into A Bit About Britain and stayed to read anything this year, particularly if they have left a complimentary comment. It tickles me that people come back – even the anonymous ones (we know who some of you are) – and that A Bit About Britain is read in so many places around the world. Apologies for not saying thank you, or visiting other blogs, as often as I would like. See you again soon…