Customs and traditions of Great Britain
Customs and traditions
English customs and traditions, first of all, concerns United Kingdom
political system. In Great Britain there is no written constitution, only
customs, traditions and precedents. After the English Revolution of Great
Britain is a constitutional monarchy headed by King (now Queen, Elizabeth
the second). Traditionally the Queen acts only on the advice of her
Ministers. She reigns but she does not rule.
Englishmen have traditions not only in political, but in social life. For
example, London, the capital of England, is traditionally divided into
three parts: the West End, the East end, and the City. The City is a
historical, financial and business center of London. The East End is the
district inhabited by the workers, and the West End is a fashionable
shopping and entertaining center. English people like to spend their free
time in numerous pubs where they can have a glass of beer and talk about
different things with their friends.
The English are traditional about their meals. They eat eggs and bacon with
toasts for breakfast, pudding or apple pie for dessert. Every English
family has five o'clock tea. A typical feature of an English house is a
fireplace, even when there is central heating in the house.
English people like domestic animals. Every family has a pet: a dog, a cat
or a bird.
Politeness is a characteristic feature of Englishmen. They often say "Thank
you", "Sorry", "Beg your pardon". Russian people, I think, have to learn
this good custom.
Englishmen have many traditional holidays, such as Christmas,
St.Valentine's Day, Mother's day, Easter and others.
Some English customs and traditions are famous all over the world.
Bowler hats, tea and talking about the weather, for example. From Scotland
to Cornwall, the United Kingdom is full of customs and traditions. Here
are some of them.
St. Valentine's Day roots in several different legends that have
found their way to us through the ages. One of the earliest popular symbols
of the day is Cupid, the Roman god of Love, Who is represented by the image
of a young boy with bow and arrow. Three hundred years after the death of
Jesus Christ, the Roman emperors still demanded that everyone believe in
the Roman gods. Valentine, a Christian priest, had been thrown in prison
for his teachings. On February 14, Valentine was beheaded, not only because
he was a Christian, but also because he had performed a miracle. He
supposedly cured the jailer's daughter of her blindness. The night before
he was executed, he wrote the jailer's daughter a farewell letter, signing
it, "from Your Valentine". Another legend tells us that this same
Valentine, well-loved by all, wrote notes from his jail cell to children
and friends who missed him. Whatever the odd mixture of origins, St.
Valentine's Day is now a day for sweethearts. It is the day that you show
your friend of loved one that you care. You can send candy to someone you
think is special. Or you can send "valentines" a greeting card named after
the notes that St. Valentine wrote from jail. Valentines can be
sentimental, romantic, and heartfelt. They can be funny and friendly. If
the sender is shy, valentines can be anonymous. Americans of all ages as
other people in different countries love to send and receive valentines.
Handmade valentines, created by cutting hearts out of coloured paper, show
that a lot of thought was put into making them personal. Valentines can be
heart-shaped, or have hearts, the symbol of love, on them. In elementary
schools, children make valentines, they have a small party with
refreshments. You can right a short rhyme inside the heart:
There are gold ships
And silver ships,
But no ships
Valentine cards are usually decorated with symbols of love and
friendship. These symbols were devised many centuries ago. Lace symbolises
a net for catching one's heart. If you get a Valentine with a piece of a
lace you may understand that the person who sent it must be crazy about
you. A symbol should have several meanings, so some experts maintain that
lace stands for a bridal veil. A ribbon means that the person is tired up,
while hearts, which are the most common romantic symbol, denote eternal
love. Red roses are also often used as a love emblem. Valentine's Day grows
more and more popular in many countries of the world. Some people have
already begun to celebrate it in Russia. They try to imitate European
Valentine customs and want to known more about their origin. St.
Valentine's Day is the day when boys and girls. friends and neighbours,
husbands and wives, sweethearts and lovers exchange greeting of love and
affection. It is the day to share one's loving feelings with friends and
family, but it is young men and girls who usually wait it with impatience.
This day has become traditional for many couples to become engaged. That
makes young people acknowledge St. Valentine's as the great friend and
patron of lovers.
November, 5 is Guy Fawkes’s Day.
On the 5th of November in almost every town and village in England
one can see fire burning, fireworks, cracking and lighting up the sky,
small groups of children pulling round in a home made cart, a figure that
looks something like a man but consists of an old suit of clothes, stuffed
with straw. The children sing:" Remember, remember the 5th of November; Gun
powder, treason and plot". And they ask passers-by for "a penny for the
Guy" But the children with "the Guy" are not likely to know who or what day
they are celebrating. They have done this more or less every 5th of
November since 1605. At that time James the First was on the throne. He was
hated with many people especially the Roman Catholics against whom many
sever laws had been passed. A number of Catholics chief of whom was Robert
Catesby determined to kill the King and his ministers by blowing up the
house of Parliament with gunpowder. To help them in this they got Guy
Fawker, a soldier of fortune, who would do the actual work. The day fixed
for attempt was the 5th of November, the day on which the Parliament was to
open. But one of the conspirators had several friends in the parliament and
he didn't want them to die. So he wrote a letter to Lord Monteagle begging
him to make some excuse to be absent from parliament if he valued his life.
Lord Monteagle took the letter hurrily to the King. Guards were sent at
once to examine the cellars of the house of Parliament. And there they
found Guy Fawker about to fire a trail of gunpowder. He was tortured and
hanged, Catesby was killed, resisting arrest in his own house. In memory of
that day bonfires are still lighted, fireworks shoot across the November
sky and figures of Guy Fawker are burnt in the streets.
It is certain that Christmas is celebrated all over the world.
Perhaps no other holiday has developed a set of customs and symbols. This
is the day when many people are travelling home to be with their famillies
on Christmas Day, 25th December. The Christmas story comes from bible. An
angel appeared to shepherds and told them that a Savior had been born to
Mary and Joseph in a stable in Bethlehem. Three Wise Men from the East
followed a wondrous star which led them to the baby Jesus to whome they
paid homage and presented gifts of gold, frankicense and myrrh. To people
all over the world, Christmas is a season of giving and receiving presents.
In Scandinavian and other European countries, Father Christmas, or Saint
Nicholas, comes into house at night and leaves gifts for the children.
Saint Nicholas is represented as a fidly man with a red cloak and long
white beard. He visited house and left giftes, dringing people happiness in
the coldest months of the year. Another character, the Norse God Odin, rode
on a magical flying horse across the ages to make the present day Santa
For most British families, this is the most important festival of the
year, it combines the Christian celebration or the birth of Christ with the
traditional festivities of winter. On the Sunday before Christmas many
churches hold a carol service where special hymns are sung.Sometimes carol-
singers can be heard on the streets as they collect money for charity. Most
families decorate their houses with brightly-coloured paper or holly, and
they usually have a Christmas tree in the corner or the front foom,
glittering with coloured lights and decorations. The Christmas tree was
popularized by Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, who introduced one
to the Royal Household in 1840. Since 1947, the country of Norway has
presented Britain annually with a large Christmas tree which stands in
Trafalgar Square in commemoration of Anglo-Norwegian cooperation during the
Second World War.
There are a lot of traditions connected with Christmas but perhaps
the most important one is the giving of present. Familly members wrap up
their gifts and leave them bottom of the Christmas tree to be found on
Christmas morning. Children leave sock or stocking at the end of their beds
on Christmas Eve, 24th of December, hoping that Father Christmas will come
down the chimney during the night and bring them small presents, fruit and
nuts. They are usually not disappointe! At some time on Christmas Day the
familly will sit down to a big turkey dinner followed by Christmas pudding.
Christmas dinner consists traditionally of a roast turkey, goose or chicken
with stuffing and roast potatoes. Mince pies and Christmas pudding flaming
with brandy, which might contain coins or lucky charms for children, follow
this. (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 fruitcake 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 colored
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.
26th December is also a public holiday, 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 trades people who called
regularly during the year. This tradition survives in the custom of tipping
the milkman, postman, dustmen and other callers of good service at
Christmas time. This is the time to visit friends and relatives or watch
At midnight on 31th December throughout Great Britain people
celebrate the coming of the New Year, by holding hands in a large circle
and singing the song:
Should auld acquaintance be forget,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forget?
And auld lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We'll take a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!..
New Year's Eve is a more important festival in Scotland than it is in
England, and it even has a special name. It is not clear where the word
'Hogmanay' comes from, but it is connected with the provision of food and
drink for all visitors to your home on 31th December. It was believed that
the first person to visit one's house on New Year's Day could bring good or
bad luck. Therefore, people tried to arrange for the person or their own
choice to be standing outside their houses ready to be let in the moment
midnight had come. Usually a dark-complexioned man was chosen, and never a
woman, for she would bring bad luck. The first footer was required to carry
three articles: a piece of coal to wish warmth, a piece of bread to wish
food, and a silver coin to wish wealth.
Easter is a Christian spring festival that is usually celebrated in
March or April. The name for Easter comes from a pagan fertility
celebration. The word "Easter" is named after Eastre, the Anglo-Saxon
goddess og spring. Spring is a natural time for new life and hope when
animals have their young and plants begin to grow. Christian Easter may
have purposely been celebrated in the place of a pagan festival. It is
therefore not surprising that relics of doing and beliefs not belonging th
the Christian religious should cling even to this greatest day in the
Church's year. An old-fashioned custom still alive is to get up early and
climb a hill to see the sun rising. There are numerous accounts of the
wonderful spectacle of the sun whirling round and round for joy at our
Saviour's Resurrection. So many people go outdoors on Easter morning hoping
to see the sun dance. There is also a custom of putting on something new to
go to church on Easter morning. People celebrate the holiday according to
their beliefs and their religious denominations. Christians commemorate
Good Friday as the day that Christ died and Easter Sunday as the day that
He was resurrected. Protestant settlers brought the custom of a sunrise
service, a religious gathering at dawn, to the United States.
Today on Easter Sunday, children wake up to find that the Easter
Bunny has left them baskets of candy. He has also hidden the eggs that they
decorated earlier that week. Children hunt for the eggs all around the
house. Neighborhoods and organizations hold Easter egg hunts, and the child
who first the most eggs wins a prize.
Americans celebrate the Easter bunny coming. They set out easter
baskets for their children to anticipate the easter bunnys arrival whi
leaves candy and other stuff. The Easter Bunny is a rabbit-spirit. Long
ago, he was called the "Easter Hare". Hares and rabbits have frequent
multiple births, so they became a symbol of fertility.
Christians fast during the forty days before Easter. They choose to
eat and drink only enough to feep themselves alive.
The day preceding Lent is known as Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day.
Shrove Tuesday recalls the day when people went to Church ti confess and be
shriven before Lent. But now the day is more generally connected with
relics of the traditional feasting before the fast. Shrove Tuesday is
famous for pancake calebration. There is some competition at Westminster
School: the pancakes are tossed over a bar by the cook and struggled for by
a small group of selected boys. The boy who manages to get the largest
piece is given a present. This tradition dates from 1445. In the morning
the first church bell on Orley is rung for the competitors to make
pancakes. The second ring is a signal for cooking them. The third bell set
rung for the copetitors to gather at the market square. Then the Pancake
bell is sounded and the ladies set off from the church porch, tossing their
pancakes three times as they run. Each woman must wear an apron and a hat
or scarf over her head. The winner is given a Prayer Book dy the Vicar.
Mothering Sunday is the fourth Sunday in Lent. It is customary to
vasit one's mother on that day. Mother ought to be given a present - tea,
flowers or a simnel cake. It is possible to buy the cake, they are sold in
every confectionery. But it is preferrable to make it at home. The way
Mothering Sunday is celebrated has much in common with the International
Women's Day celebration in Russia.
Good Friday is the first Friday before Easter. It is the day when all
sorts of taboos on various works are in force. Also it is a good day for
shifting beers, for sowing potatoes, peas, beans, parsley, and pruning rose
trees. Good Friday brings the once sacred cakes, the famous Hot Cross buns.
These must be spiced and the dough marked with a cross before baking.
Eggs, chickens, rabbits and flowers are all symbols of new life.
Chocolate and fruit cake covered with marzipan show that fasting is over.
Wherever Easter is celebrated, there Easter eggs are usually to be found.
In England, just as in Russia, Easter is a time for giving and receiving of
presents that traditionally take the form of an Easter egg. Easter egg is a
real hard-boiled egg dyed in bright colors or decorated with some elaborate
pattern. Coloring and decorating eggs for Easter is a very ancient custom.
Many people, however, avoid using artificial dyes and prefer to boil eggs
with the outer skin of an onion, which makes the eggs shells yellow or
brown. In fact, the color depends on the amount of onion skin added. In
ancient times they used many different natural dyes fir the purpose. The
dyes were obtained mainly from leaves, flowers and bark.
At present Easter eggs are also made of chocolate, sugar, metals,
wood, ceramics and other materials at hand. They may differ in size,
ranging from enormous to tiny, no bigger than a robin's egg. Easter Sunday
is solemnly celebrated in London. Each year the capital city of Britain
greets the spring with a spectacular Easter Parade in Battersea Park. The
great procession, or parade, begins at 3 p.m. The parade consists of many
decorated floats, entered by various organizations in and outside London.
Some of the finest bands in the country take part in the parade. At the
rear of the parade is usually the very beautiful float richly decorated
with flowers. It is called the Jersey one because the spring flowers bloom
early on the Island of Jersey.
In England, children rolled eggs down hills on Easter morning, a game
has been connected to the rolling away of the rock from Jesus Christ's tomb
then He was resurrected. British settlers brought this custom to the New
World. It consists of rolling coloured, hardboiled egg down a slope until
they are cracked and broken after whish they are eaten by their owners. In
some districts this is a competitive game, the winner being the player
whose egg remains longest undamaged, but more usually, the fun consists
simply of the rolling and eating.
Many countries seem to have had a similar custom to the British one
of making a design from the last sheaf of corn to be harvested. In Britain
a corn dolly is created by plaiting the wheat stalks to create a straw
figure. The corn dolly is kept until the Spring. This is because people
believed that the corn spirit lived in the wheat and as the wheat was
harvested, the spirit fled to the wheat which remained. By creating the
corn dolly the spirit is kept alive for the next year and the new crop.
Sometimes the corn dolly is hung up in the barn, sometimes in the
farmhouse, and sometimes in the church. In Spring the corn dolly would be
ploughed back into the soil. There are many types of corn dolly.
The story of John Barleycorn
A story to the corn dolly is to be found in the folksong John
Barleycorn. Three men swear that John Barleycorn must die. They take a
plough and bury him alive. But the Spring comes and John rises through the
soil. After a while he grows big and strong, even growing a beard, so the
three men cut him down at the knee, tie him on to a cart, beat him, strip
the flesh off his bones and grind him between two stones. But at the end it
is John Barleycorn who defeats his opponents, proving the stronger man, by
turning into beer.
In churches all over Britain there are services to thank God for the
Harvest. As part of these services local people bring baskets of fruit and
vegetables to decorate the church. The produce is then distributed to the
The word itself, "Halloween," actually has its origins in the
Catholic Church. It comes from a contracted corruption of All Hallows Eve.
November 1, "All Hollows Day" (or "All Saints Day"), is a Catholic day of
observance in honor of saints. But, in the 5th century BC, in Celtic
Ireland, summer officially ended on October 31. The holiday was called
Samhain (sow-en), the Celtic New year.
One story says that, on that day, the disembodied spirits of all
those who had died throughout the preceding year would come back in search
of living bodies to possess for the next year. It was believed to be their
only hope for the afterlife. The Celts believed all laws of space and time
were suspended during this time, allowing the spirit world to intermingle
with the living.
Naturally, the still-living did not want to be possessed. So on the
night of October 31, villagers would extinguish the fires in their homes,
to make them cold and undesirable. They would then dress up in all manner
of ghoulish costumes and noisily paraded around the neighborhood, being as
destructive as possible in order to frighten away spirits looking for
bodies to possess.
Probably a better explanation of why the Celts extinguished their
fires was not to discourage spirit possession, but so that all the Celtic
tribes could relight their fires from a common source, the Druidic fire
that was kept burning in the Middle of Ireland, at Usinach.
Some accounts tell of how the Celts would burn someone at the stake
who was thought to have already been possessed, as sort of a lesson to the
spirits. Other accounts of Celtic history debunk these stories as myth. The
Romans adopted the Celtic practices as their own. But in the first century
AD, Samhain was assimilated into celebrations of some of the other Roman
traditions that took place in October, such as their day to honor Pomona,
the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple,
which might explain the origin of our modern tradition of bobbing for
apples on Halloween. The thrust of the practices also changed over time to
become more ritualized. As belief in spirit possession waned, the practice
of dressing up like hobgoblins, ghosts, and witches took on a more
The custom of Halloween was brought to America in the 1840's by Irish
immigrants fleeing their country's potato famine. At that time, the
favorite pranks in New England included tipping over outhouses and
unhinging fence gates.
The custom of trick-or-treating is thought to have originated not
with the Irish Celts, but with a ninth-century European custom called
souling. On November 2, All Souls Day, early Christians would walk from
village to village begging for "soul cakes," made out of square pieces of
bread with currants. The more soul cakes the beggars would receive, the
more prayers they would promise to say on behalf of the dead relatives of
the donors. At the time, it was believed that the dead remained in limbo
for a time after death, and that prayer, even by strangers, could expedite
a soul's passage to heaven.
The Jack-o-lantern custom probably comes from Irish folklore. As the
tale is told, a man named Jack, who was notorious as a drunkard and
trickster, tricked Satan into climbing a tree. Jack then carved an image of
a cross in the tree's trunk, trapping the devil up the tree. Jack made a
deal with the devil that, if he would never tempt him again, he would
promise to let him down the tree.
According to the folk tale, after Jack died, he was denied entrance
to Heaven because of his evil ways, but he was also denied access to Hell
because he had tricked the devil. Instead, the devil gave him a single
ember to light his way through the frigid darkness. The ember was placed
inside a hollowed-out turnip to keep it glowing longer.
The Irish used turnips as their "Jack's lanterns" originally. But
when the immigrants came to America, they found that pumpkins were far more
plentiful than turnips. So the Jack-O-Lantern in America was a hollowed-out
pumpkin, lit with an ember.
So, although some pagan groups, cults, and Satanists may have adopted
Halloween as their favorite "holiday," the day itself did not grow out of
evil practices. It grew out of the rituals of Celts celebrating a new year,
and out of Medieval prayer rituals of Europeans. And today, even many
churches have Halloween parties or pumpkin carving events for the kids.
After all, the day itself is only as evil as one cares to make it.
Fire has always played an important part in Halloween. Fire was very
important to the Celts as it was to all early people. In the old days
people lit bonfires to ward away evil spirits and in some places they used
to jump over the fire to bring good luck. Now we light candles in pumpkin
Halloween is also a good time to find out the future. Want to find
out who you will marry? Here are two ways you might try to find out:
- Apple-bobbing - Float a number of apples in a bowl of water, and try to
catch one using only your teeth. When you have caught one, peel it in one
unbroken strip, and throw the strip of peel over your left shoulder. The
letter the peel forms is the initial of your future husband or wife.
- Nut-cracking - Place two nuts (such as conkers) on a fire. Give the nuts
the names of two possible lovers and the one that cracks first will be the
There are several unusual traditions:
"Wrong side of the bed"
When people are bad tempered we say that they must have got out of
bed on the wrong side. Originally, it was meant quiet literally. People
believe that the way they rose in the morning affected their behavior
throughout the day. The wrong side of the bed was the left side. The left
always having been linked with evil.
"Blowing out the candles"
The custom of having candles on birthday cakes goes back to the
ancient Greeks. Worshippers of Artemis, goddess of the moon and hunting,
used to place honey cakes on the altars of her temples on her birthday. The
cakes were round like the full moon and lit with tapers. This custom was
next recorded in the middle ages when German peasants lit tapers on
birthday cakes, the number lit indicating the person's age, plus an extra
one to represent the light of life. From earliest days burning tapers had
been endowed with mystical significance and it was believed that when blown
out they had the power to grant a secret wish and ensure a happy year