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British Holidays and Celebrations

A/N: On a previous blog wrote a whole series of posts on British life, explained for American fiction writers. As today is a bank holiday, it seemed the perfect opportunity to bring the one on 'holidays and celebrations' back from the [virtual] dead.

The Fic Writer's Guide To Britain

The people of the UK celebrate all manner of religious, cultural, and completely random holidays and observances. This post will concentrate on nationally (or near enough nationally) recognised holidays. The kind you get time off work for, or have to complete projects for at school. After the calendar of events, there is a section on life cycle celebrations - birthdays, weddings, funerals, etc.

A note on bank holidays: Bank holidays are public holidays, so called because the banks shut for the day. Although there is no automatic right to time off work on bank holidays, schools will be closed along with large swathes of non-essential services. Public transport will run reduced services, and many employers will offer employees time-and-half or double time (i.e. increased pay) or a day in lieu as compensation for working a bank holiday.

To keep confusion to a minimum I have not included Isle of Man bank holidays, but you can check out the full list HERE. (The Isle of Man is a self-governing British Crown Dependency in the Irish Sea, with a population of about 85,000.)

31st December - New Year’s Eve. 

New Year's Eve is the night for going out to parties with friends or, if you've had more than enough of them over the rest of the year, sitting at home watching rubbish like Best of [x] countdown shows and Hootenanny with Jools Holland on the TV. People all over the country tune in to watch Big Ben strike 12, and people singing Auld Lang Syne at Hogmany (New Year) celebrations in Scotland.

1st January - New Year’s Day (Bank Holiday). 

The day for nursing hangovers.

2nd January - Bank Holiday in Scotland. 

Scottish hangovers are not like their southern counterparts.

25th January - St Dwynwen’s Day (Wales). 

Dwynwen was the beautiful daughter of Brychan Brycheiniog, the legendary 5th century king of Breconshire, whose heart was broken when her father refused to allow her to marry her beloved. (The non-schoolkid friendly version recounts that her heart was actually broken when Maelon, the beloved, raped her after she rejected his amorous advances.) Upset, she ran into a forest where an angel granted her the wish that God should meet the hopes and dreams of all true lovers. Although nowhere near as big a deal as Valentine’s Day, St Dwynwen is becoming more popular year on year as the card industry realises there is money to be made.

14th February - Valentine’s Day. 

The British have been celebrating Valentine’s Day since Chaucer’s time, and the holiday was an especial favourite of the sentimental Victorians. Today it is primarily a commercial event, with men in particular expected to buy flowers, chocolates and expensive gifts for their wives, fiancees and girlfriends.

1st March - St David’s Day (Wales). 

St David is the patron saint of Wales, and he has been the subject of annual observance in Wales since the eighteenth century. In some parts of Wales celebratory parades are held, and everyone working in public life is expected to wear a daffodil or leek badge to mark the occasion. It’s mostly a day for the kids however, and primary schools will hold mini Eisteddfodau (welsh festival of literature, music and performance) and allow pupils to wear Welsh fancy dress. This will cover various aspects of Welsh culture, such as rugby players, miners, dragons, and, most commonly, traditional Welsh ladies in costumes of the kind dreamed up by Lady Llanover in the late 19th century.

The day before Lent begins - Shrove Tuesday / Pancake Day. 

Britain is, in the words of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, a post-Christian country. A lot of our culture can be traced back to Christian practice, but the actual religious aspects of it are largely forgotten or simply not cared about. This is especially true in the case of Shrove Tuesday. Pancake Day, as it is better known, is the day for eating pancakes. Not the use-up-the-scraps kind of olden days, or the kind that are served on American breakfast plates, but the crêpe kind, typically served with sugar and lemon juice.

17th March - St Patrick’s Day (Northern Ireland). 

St Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, and his feast day has been observed since as far back as the 9th century. Carnival parades and community celebrations take place across Northern Ireland. It is widely regarded as a non-political occasion, although controversy and protest can arise over the use of the Irish language, the flying of the Tricolour flag, etc.

Fourth Sunday in Lent - Mothering Sunday. 

The date aside, Mothering Sunday AKA Mother's Day has been a nationwide observance since the 1950s, and is no different to Mother's Day in other English speaking countries.

The Friday before Easter Sunday - Good Friday (Bank Holiday). 

It has a religious basis, obviously, but for most people it’s just a welcome day off work.

Easter Sunday. 

So this was the day Jesus was resurrected from death. In modern times it’s one of the biggest boom periods for the confectionery industry, with the Easter Bunny helping to organise children’s easter egg hunts and delivering chocolate eggs wrapped in shiny foil. One of the best loved Easter treats is the Cadbury’s Creme Egg. These are small chocolate eggs filled with yellow and white fondant, mimicking the albumen and yolk of a real egg. The ‘how do you eat yours’ advertising campaign was first launched in 1985 and remains closely associated with it in the popular imagination.

The Monday after Easter Sunday - Easter Monday (Bank Holiday except in Scotland). 

Completes the long Easter weekend.

23rd April - St George’s Day (England). 

Once a huge feast day up there with Christmas, the day for England's patron saint has been in decline since the 18th century. Traditional English entertainment might be laid on for the occasion, like morris dancing or Punch and Judy shows, but the day is often met with general indifference.

First Monday in May - Early May Bank Holiday. 

This is designed to loosely coincide with May 1st, or May Day. May Day encompasses all that Olde England stuff TV producers love so much. Village fetes, morris dancing, dancing around the Maypole, May Queens, fertility rites, etc. All that fun was the reason the Puritans were so keen to ban it back in the 1650s. It was reinstated at the restoration of King Charles II in 1660, and traditional festivities still live on across the country.

Last Monday in May - Spring Bank Holiday. 

Third Sunday in June - Father’s Day. 

Originally an American concept, Father’s Day really began to take off in the UK during the mid to late 70s. People make an effort to visit their dad to deliver cards, chocolates, alcohol or other gifts deemed suitable by that year’s advertising campaign.

12th July - The Twelfth (Northern Ireland). 

The Battle of the Boyne was fought in 1690 between Catholic and Protestant claimants to the English, Scottish and Irish thrones. Today it is celebrated annually as a public holiday in Northern Ireland. Over the years The Twelfth has been closely associated with sectarian violence, as Catholics and Irish Nationalists clashed with the celebrating Ulster Protestant Orange Order which has strong ties to Unionism. The situation has improved in recent times, but The Twelfth remains a sensitive date in the Northern Irish calendar.

First Monday in August - Summer Bank Holiday (Scotland). 

Last Monday in August - August Bank Holiday (except Scotland). 

31st October - Halloween. 

Although its roots have a long history in the UK, Halloween in its modern guise is very much an American import. It has to compete with the long standing bonfire night celebration a few days later, and the reluctance of the British public to buy in sweets (i.e. candy) and answer the door to strangers. ‘Tricks’ are a fairly unusual occurrence, as the vast majority of Trick or Treaters are under the age of 10 and accompanied by their parents. Trick or Treating itself only really became a common phenomenon in the 1990s at any rate, stolen from US horror films. Although Halloween parties are becoming ever more common, it is worth noting that it is still rare to see children dressed as anything other than horror characters for Halloween - it's all about the spooky and the creepy here.

5th November - Bonfire Night. 

Remember, remember the fifth of November Gunpowder, treason and plot. I see no reason, why gunpowder treason Should ever be forgot. Bonfire Night AKA Firework Night AKA Guy Fawkes' Night celebrates the capture and execution of Guy Fawkes for a failed, treasonous attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament and assassinate King James I. For some people the attraction, conversely, is that Guy Fawkes almost succeeded in killing the King and deserves to be hailed for it. The holiday is open to all in that respect. Traditionally children would build a Guy, an effigy of the man himself, from old clothes, straw and the like, and sit with it outside shops pestering adults to give them a ‘penny for the guy’. The Guy would later be burned on a bonfire. This has fallen out of favour in recent years for a number of obvious reasons. The bonfire remains however, along with the firework displays. It is the busiest night of the year for the fire brigade, you can read their advice for the night HERE.

Second Sunday in November - Remembrance Sunday. 

This is the Sunday closest to November 11th, Armistice Day - i.e. the anniversary of the end of WW1. It is observed annually with parades and wreath laying ceremonies at war memorials across the country to remember the men and women who gave their lives in times of war. Members of the public might - and anyone working in public life basically must - wear a poppy on the day and probably the week leading up to Remembrance Sunday. You can pick the plastic kind up in most shops, where they are sold to raise money for the British Legion.

30th November - St Andrews Day (Bank holiday in Scotland). 

St Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland, and his feast day has been a bank holiday there since 2006. It is celebrated with traditional Scottish food and culture, and schools will host special events like country dancing, ceilidhs and bagpipe playing. 

24th December - Christmas Eve. 

Christmas is observed by most of the country - at least on a secular, commercial basis - and is one of the highlights of the year, particularly for children. In the run up to Christmas the advertising industry will be running themselves ragged convincing the population they need a new everything, and schools will be gluing glitter on all manner of handmade cards and ornaments, and putting on a Christmas play for parents. The nativity remains popular in primary schools, but the sky's the limit at secondary level. Pantomimes are a popular destination for children in the run up to Christmas, as is Father Christmas' grotto at the local shopping centre. On Christmas Eve children leave out a mince pie for Father Christmas, a carrot for Rudolph, and a stocking for Father Christmas to fill with sweets and 'stocking fillers'. Bad children, of course, can only expect a lump of coal on Christmas morning. 

25th December - Christmas Day (Bank Holiday). 

Christmas Day kicks off with the opening of presents. The noisier and the higher number of batteries needed, the better, as far as children are concerned. You can find a handy guide to the UK's must have Christmas presents of yesteryear HERE. Next up is the long wait for Christmas Dinner. Back in Victorian days the most popular Christmas roast was goose. Today the Turkey is the bird of choice, although it is a generally accepted British truism that nobody particularly likes roast turkey. The turkey is typically served with stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, roast potatoes, carrots, parsnips, brussels sprouts, cauliflower and pigs in blankets (sausage wrapped in bacon). Crackers are pulled, bad jokes are read out, and paper hats are put on. Dessert takes the form of Christmas pudding with custard or brandy butter. Dinner is generally served with copious amounts of alcohol, to help disguise the overcooked food and the fraught nerves of whoever has had to prepare it.

Suitably stuffed, the family retires to the front room to watch Christmas Day TV, graze on the Christmas chocolates, and nap. The Queen delivers her annual Christmas message to the nation, relatively few of whom are actually paying attention, followed by family films and Christmas specials of popular TV shows. For a more in depth overview of the British Christmas, tvtropes has a useful notes page on it HERE.

26th December, or first working day after Christmas - Boxing Day (Bank Holiday). 

Traditionally this was the day when servants and tradesmen would receive gifts from their bosses, employers and customers. (This was the day to tip your milkman, postman, etc.) Today it is a secular holiday and is mostly notable for being the British shopping equivalent of the US ‘Black Friday’.

Birthdays and Related. 

Birthdays are great for children and teenagers, not so great for everyone else. Customs are not substantially different from any other western country. The 'big' birthdays are:

16 - Not in the MTV 'Sweet Sixteen' sense, but because you are now a grown up in many respects. 16 is the school leaving age in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It's also the age at which you can legally gamble, join the armed forces, leave home without your parents' permission, get married (with your parents' permission), and have sex. Not necessarily in that order.

18 - You are now officially an adult. You can vote or even stand as an electoral candidate, buy and drink alcohol and cigarettes, get a tattoo, own your own house, buy fireworks, own a crossbow, etc. Sadly, most of these things will require money you do not possess. (Note: You can drive at age 17.) 

21 - Traditionally the age where you got the 'key to the door', but these days 18 is the age more associated with plastic keys stuck on cards. Today 21 is the age at which you can legally adopt a child, or get an airline transport pilot's licence. Yeah.

40 - Life begins! In June 2014 Steve McDonald, a popular character from long running ITV soap Coronation Street, was given a pair of slippers and a coffee table to mark his 40th birthday. This should give you some idea of the priorities we expect 40-year-olds to have here in the UK.

If you reach 100, you will receive a telegram from the reigning monarch to mark the occasion.

Before you're born, your mother might be thrown a baby shower by her friends. This is one of the latest trends to cross the Atlantic, according to the Daily Mail, although the custom is by no means universal in the UK.

The other birth related celebration, at least traditionally, was the christening. After the church service, the function room of the local pub or community hall would be hired out and a buffet laid on. Christenings are on the decline these days, but some people have secular naming ceremonies and the like in their place.

Weddings and Related. 

The stag do, known as a Bachelor Party in the US, was traditionally organised by the best man and held the night before the wedding, with the groom’s friends getting the groom grossly inebriated and left in some humiliating position, probably after being 'treated' to a stripper. Today they will often be a weekend event, with a minibus full of grossly inebriated men off to get more drunk and visit various sex establishments. As sex equality entered the radar of ever more people, the hen night first began to become popular in the 1980s. Why should gross inebriation and humiliation by a male only affair, after all? Some women will go for more upmarket events like spa weekends or high tea, but the typical hen night remains a night out on the town wearing L-plates and a necklace made of plastic penises. Bridal showers exist only as an American import and, though growing in popularity, are not a typical part of wedding planning.

With all that single revelry out the way, on to the wedding itself. You can get married in church, at a register office or any other licensed premises. For the legal requirements, go HERE. The ceremony itself pales in significance to the wedding reception, though few weddings manage the kind of glitz and bling seen among the Irish Traveller community in Channel 4 reality show Big Fat Gypsy Weddings. The reception is where the best man delivers his speech, the wedding cake is cut, and the happy couple shuffles their way through the first dance. For more info, click HERE for a handy A-Z of British wedding traditions and etiquette. (Note: same-sex marriage was introduced in England, Wales and Scotland in 2014.)

Bolton born comedian, Peter Kay, does a classic stand up routine about the typical UK wedding reception, commenting on everything from the buffet ('vol au vents, chicken legs, cheesecake'), to all the relatives you only have the misfortune of interacting with at weddings ('Uncle Knobhead, every family has one').

Once the reception is over, it's time for the Honeymoon. Traditionally an exciting week at a seaside resort like Bognor Regis, these days couples prefer the more exotic destinations of Thailand or the Maldives. Providing the Honeymoon hasn't resulted in an application for divorce, a whole lifetime of married bliss stretches out ahead of the newlyweds. Potentially. The traditional names for anniversaries (paper, crystal, etc) differ between the UK and the US, Wiki has a side by side list HERE. If you reach your diamond - 60th - wedding anniversary you can apply to receive a telegram from the reigning monarch in recognition.

Funerals and Related. 

Sadly all who are born must one day die, and the typical goodbye consists of the funeral. You can read up on the legal bits and bobs surrounding them HERE. Traditionally the dead were buried in Britain, with the first official cremation taking place in 1885. Only two years earlier neo-druid and Welsh eccentric, Dr William Price, was almost killed himself by an angry mob when he attempted to cremate the body of his dead son. The Cremation Act of 1902 established the legality of crematoria, and today over 70% of bodies are cremated.

Another traditional practice which has seen a steep decline in the UK is the vigil or wake (though it remains relatively common in Northern Ireland). Open caskets are rare in the UK, and as a nation we tend to be very squeamish about having any contact with the dead, to the extent that many prefer not to visit the deceased at the funeral home but to 'remember them as they were'. The body is usually taken directly from the funeral home to the religious building / crematorium, with close friends or relatives acting as pallbearers. In fandom terms, the UK has no direct equivalent of Six Feet Under for a dramatised view of the life of funeral directors, but you could try ITV comedy drama, William and Mary, which features a romance between an undertaker and a midwife.

After the funeral service, guests are invited back to the house or a hired function room for what we call the wake. This generally involves a buffet and a chance to reminisce about the deceased, and to offer support to those left behind. The main purpose of many local newspapers is to keep the older generation informed of upcoming funerals - as my nan says, at her age they make up the backbone of her social life.


Sometimes the government will grant an extra bank holiday to mark national events. For example, in 2012 an extra bank holiday was granted in June to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. In 2011 there was an extra bank holiday so the nation could celebrate the Royal Wedding. Although such moves incite criticism from Republicans (i.e. anti-royalists, not the American political kind!), most people are only concerned with the possibility of a day off work.

Other occasions can become a kind of informal public holiday - the UK reaching sporting finals in tennis, football (i.e. soccer) or rugby, for example. There are also national events which, although not a holiday or celebration in the recognised sense of the word, still bring people together. E.g. Red Nose Day is held every other year for Comic Relief and inspires people across the country to get involved with money raising events, or at least watch the spectacle on the TV.

Summer Holidays.

Summer, especially the school summer holidays (late July through to the end of August), is the traditional time to go on holiday in the UK. Through until the mid 20th century the working classes tended to take their holiday during Wakes Week or another week agreed on by employers. The factory or mine would run quiet for the week, closed for maintenance, while the workers traveled en masse to the nearest seaside resort. In those days there was literally no escape from your neighbours. 

Although foreign holidays are commonplace these days, building on the package holiday to Spain trend that swept the nation in the 1970s, many people still choose to holiday within the UK - in spite of the almost 100% chance of rain. Read on for the main types of UK holiday.

Donald and Jacqueline from ITV sitcom Benidorm
Open minded swingers Jacqueline and Donald are characters from popular ITV sitcom Benidorm, which shows the modern package holiday to Spain in all its glory.

The Camping Holiday. You might be going to stay at a well maintained campsite near the seaside (to be fair, wherever you are in the UK you aren't that far from the sea!), or you might be going to get back to nature on the side of a mountain. The better off will forego the tent in favour of a campervan or caravan (i.e. trailer) - though they don't tend to be on the same kind of scale as those seen in US movies.

Related to the camping holiday, is the summer music festival. The best known is Glastonbury which was first held in 1970, but other popular festivals include Download (rock), Creamfields (dance), and Reading (various).

The Guest House Holiday. There are thousands upon thousands of B&Bs (Bed and Breakfast) and guest houses around the UK. They are particularly common at seaside resorts, once offering accommodation to all those visiting workers during Wakes Week. Even if we aren't staying in a B&B, as a nation we're still fascinated with them if the proliferation of TV shows such as The Hotel Inspector is anything to go by. For more info on the prices, etc, check out a B&B guide like THIS ONE.

The camping and guest house holidays are likely to be taken at the seaside, and the seaside holiday is the quintessential British summer holiday. It's full of its own traditions like walking along the pier, spending all your parents' money at the amusement arcade, stuffing your face with candyfloss, ice cream and sticks of rock, and dads refusing to offer any concession to the heat and chaos of the beach other than rolling up their trouser legs slightly and knotting a handkerchief over their head. Another must is the saucy seaside postcard, click HERE for a selection. 

Children ride donkeys on the beach at Porthcawl, the seaside resort of my own childhood. In the background you can see Coney Beach Pleasure Park, now renowned as one of the most dangerous amusement parks in Britain.

The Holiday Camp Holiday. After the war the British public seemed reluctant to give up the regimented ways of military life and holiday camps, with their set meal times and relentless programme of activities, became big business. Butlins opened their first camp in 1936, offering 'a week's holiday for a week's wages'. By the 1960s Butlins had 10 camps, offering early morning wake-up calls of the Hi-de-Hi! variety, and non stop entertainment from their frontline staff, known as Redcoats. Rival Pontins was founded in 1946, and at their height they had 30 camps. You can read about some of the smaller holiday camp companies HERE. Although their popularity is nothing like it was at their peak in the 1950s and 60s, they remain a big part of the UK holiday scene.

The Adventure Holiday. Biking, hiking, white water rafting, and all manner of other activities that don't interest people who feel holidays ought to be about relaxation. Firms like Center Parcs specialise in offering this kind of holiday. The more adventurous seaside holiday generally takes the form of surfing - HERE is a handy guide to surfing in the UK.

The Posh Holiday. Spa hotels, expensive hotels, city breaks in hotels. Essentially people staying in nice hotels.


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