What is Christmas all about?

26 November 2021


What is Christmas in the UK all about?  It can be a bit disorientating if you’re away from home and not prepared. So, here’s our UK Christmas survival guide for international students…

What is Christmas all about?

Christmas is the time of year when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.  You can find out more about Christianity and Christmas on the archived BBC website. In multicultural Britain Christmas is celebrated by many faiths and people of no faith in different ways. 

Christmas Carols

Much music is associated with Christmas.  Local churches sing carols in the weeks before Christmas and there are often special evening events with music and songs. On Christmas eve, churches hold services over midnight.  Your institution may hold a carol service that you could join regardless of your own faith.  Listen out for choirs singing in public places.

Find out what’s happening at your school, college or university

When the Christmas holiday starts, schools, colleges and universities can be quiet during the Christmas period as many UK students travel home to be with their families.  But lots of institutions organise special events and activities for international students, including visits to local attractions, Christmas markets, carol services, pantomimes and festive shows. If you’re staying in the UK for the Christmas holiday, don’t miss out on the chance to experience some of the UK’s customs and traditions - find out what’s going on where you are and join in the fun!

What’s open at Christmas?

On Christmas Eve (24 December) most shops will be open but some may close early. Some tourist attractions will be open but many will be closed. Public transport will run during the day but most services will stop in the evening.

Christmas Day (25 December) is a public holiday and almost everything will be closed! Some small shops may open for a short time in the day, pubs and bars may open for a few hours around lunchtime, many restaurants will be open (but you may struggle if you don’t have a booking), and there will be no public transport.

Boxing Day (26 December) is also a public holiday but everything will come back to life and most shops will be open, many starting their seasonal sales. There will be public transport but some services may be limited. Some tourist attractions will stay closed but many will be open. The nation will resume its obsession with football and thousands of fans will attend matches up and down the country.

What do people do on Christmas Day?

Lots of families celebrate Christmas with their own customs and traditions and many Christians start the day by going to church. Typically people exchange gifts, enjoy a festive drink, open crackers (filled with small toys, a paper hat, and a written joke), and eat a big Christmas dinner with some or all of the following: roasted turkey (or goose), roast potatoes, root vegetables such as carrots and parsnips, Brussels sprouts (love them or hate them!), bread sauce, and ‘pigs in blankets’ (sausages wrapped in bacon).  After this a short sleep on the sofa is often required to help digest all the food, and the evening is spent playing a board game or watching Christmas shows on the television.  Many families also watch the Queen deliver her annual Christmas Day speech.

Five festive foods to try

Mince pies

Small sweet pies filled with fruit such as currants and raisins, fruit peel and spices. The filling is called mincemeat (not to be confused with minced meat...).

Great with: sherry.  Just ask Father Christmas (Santa Claus). Traditionally, on Christmas Eve families leave mince pies and a glass of sherry for Father Christmas who visits people’s homes overnight to deliver gifts and presents.

Christmas cake

A rich fruit cake coated with marzipan and icing.

Great with: believe it or not, cheese. In Yorkshire, fruit cake is often eaten with cheese.

Christmas pudding

A rich fruit pudding cooked by boiling.

Great with: fire and brandy butter. Traditionally, Christmas puddings are splashed with alcohol such as brandy, set on fire, and served with brandy butter.

Stilton cheese

A strong cheese with blue veins - only made in Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire but available everywhere.

Great with: port. Stilton is often enjoyed with a glass of port at Christmas.


A cold dessert made with layers of sponge cake, custard, jelly and cream.

Great with: a soft drink.  The sponge cake is often soaked in lots of sherry making it quite alcoholic!

Happy Christmas, everybody!