8 Very British Christmas tradtions

BY Laura Dean-Osgood

1st Jan 2015 Travel

8 Very British Christmas tradtions

These charming festive customs prove there’s more to a British Christmas than just turkey and trees. Do you have any quirky traditions near you?

Porthcawl Christmas swim

South Wales 

Porthcawl Christmas Swim

As you sip a glass of bubbly this Christmas Day, raise a toast to the swimmers braving the Bristol Channel for their annual chilly dip.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Porthcawl’s Christmas swim, which sees a huge crowd gather to watch hundreds of swimmers splash into the sea on the south coast of Wales. Many come to brave the freezing temperatures, and lots of them wear fancy dress to raise money for charity. In recent times, the water has ranged between -10C in 2010 to 11C a year later—when, as the swim’s chairwoman Nicola Willis says, “There were more people in the sea than most summer bank holidays.”

Of course, it’s not just the water that entrants must contend with—there’s also a half-mile dash to the edge and back when the tide is low. With all this in mind, will you join in?

Visit christmasswim.org for details


Firemen and fishermen football match


Firemen and Fishermen football match, Scarborough

Every year since 1893, Scarborough’s South Bay beach has hosted a football match between the fishermen and firemen of the town. The game takes place on Boxing Day morning, and there’s only one rule that matters: “You must wear a top hat,” says captain and organiser Billy Blades. “Anything goes—you can kick, push, gouge. But if that top hat comes off, you get a free kick against you.”

The game was originally set up to help raise funds for the families of the five fishermen who perished aboard the Eveyln & Maud during a storm in November 1893.
“They raised £11/9/6d, which was a lot, and it all went to the widows and orphans,” says Billy. “We’ve continued it ever since.” The “firemen” of the original game were the men who stoked the fires on the steam trawlers. “They kept warm while the others were catching fish in the cold, so there was plenty of rivalry between the teams,” says Billy. The sides now consist of fishermen and those who want to take part in the well-loved tradition. These days, it collects funds to help local older people over the winter months.

Visit fishermenandfiremen.co.uk for details


Black Santa sit out, Belfast Cathedral


Black Santa Sit Out, Belfast Cathedral

The steps of stunning Belfast cathedral have become the site of a ritual that’s raised millions of pounds for charity since it began 38 years ago. Each year, the cathedral’s dean takes to the steps for his annual “sit out”, collecting donations for local causes. 

The charity vigil, which lasts several days in the run up to Christmas, was started by Dean Sammy Crooks in 1976, who was concerned with how funds were being directed to costly maintenance work rather than helping others. He decided to sit in front of the cathedral asking for donations—and it worked.

Dressed in a traditional black cloak, he became known as Black Santa, and the custom has been maintained by the subsequent deans of the cathedral every year since.

Visit belfastcathedral.org for details


Christmas Day concert

Eastbourne, East Sussex

Joyful singing and cheer reverberate on Eastbourne’s popular promenade every Christmas morning, at a concert that dates back to 1935. The festive ensembles, held at the town’s grand old bandstand, have formed part of the Christmas schedule ever since the beautiful domed structure was first built.

The concert attracts thousands of visitors, who fill the middle and upper balconies to sing carols together with the Eastbourne Silver Band—a long-established concert troop. The event serves as a perfect activity to share
with family, friends, locals and visitors. 
“These concerts have such a great atmosphere,” says councillor Carolyn Heaps. “They’re very popular as a pre-dinner delight.”

Like many bandstands around the country, Eastbourne’s has an illustrious history. The semi-circle structure replaced an iron bandstand from 1882 known as the Bird Cage. The first concerts attracted over 10,000 people, and today it still draws big crowds—running around 170 shows throughout the year, including on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day.


Pudding ride


A relatively new fixture in the festive calendar, this Christmas-morning bike ride takes in the sights of London on one of the few days it’s free of commuters and double-decker buses. Matthew Hilton, owner of MiCycle in Islington, north London, has been running the ride for four years.
“We start at Tower Bridge and weave our way over all the bridges,” says Matthew. “We take it gently, as we’re quite a mixed bunch of cyclists. And we often bump into other cycle groups who are doing the same thing, which is nice.” Once the work’s been done, everyone is invited back to the shop for hot mince pies and mulled wine
“It’s a great way to start Christmas day,” claims Matthew. Though it’s free to take part, riders are invited to make a donation, big or small—all of which goes to charity.

Visit micycle.org.uk for details


River of light parade


The residents of Caerphilly, South Wales, mark the beginning of Christmas with the spectacular River of Light parade—now in its 14th year. The parade draws thousands to watch as children proudly display the lanterns they’ve crafted in the workshops held in the run up to the event. 

“We have people of all ages coming to the workshops,” says artist Andy O’Rourke. “Some families come back year after year and are now getting quite expert at making their lanterns.”

The parade is praised for engendering community spirit, and includes samba in the streets and a grand fireworks display that closes the event at Caerphilly Castle.

Visit caerphilly.gov.uk for details


Barrel racing

Grantchester, Cambridge

Barrel Race Granchester Cambridge

A challenge between locals back in 1960 started the rather obscure tradition of barrel racing that’s still very much alive today. Teams from Grantchester and surrounding villages compete by rolling their barrels along the 500-yard course in a relay. Though the custom lost steam in the mid-Seventies, it was resurrected in 2004 and continues to be a popular fixture in the town’s festivities—taking place every Boxing Day. 

“It’s a fantastic tradition and we need to keep it alive,” says local Sarah Dampier. “Everyone gets involved and the organiser does a great job.”

Visit grantchester.org.uk for details


Pagham pram race

West Sussex 

Pagham Pram Race, West Sussex

It was over a drink one night in 1946 that a group of locals decided they wanted to raise money for local charities in Pagham. 

The pram race, which sees pairs of competitors complete a course as quickly as possible (one in a pram and one pushing), attracts hundreds of entrants. The rules are simple: you must stop at each of the three pubs along the way for a pint. And though it’s not compulsory, fancy dress is taken very seriously by some. 
“We’ve had life-size Lego men,” says Andrew Goodwill, treasurer of the Pram Race organisation. “And one year we were even visited by Roman soldiers, who insisted on marching the entire course.”

Pagham pram race present day

“The race is entrenched in local history,” Andrew continues, “and it’s all about raising money for local causes. But it does get quite competitive. Some teams compete the course in under 30 minutes—and that’s including the three pints!”

Visit paghampramrace.com for details

Tell us about your Christmas traditions—big or small, simple or eccentric—by emailing readersletters@readersdigest.co.uk

Read more articles by Laura Dean-Osgood here