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100 Questions Answered: Customs and Traditions (Q9-Q19)

Q9. Does Britain have a National Day?

British Coat of Arms

National Days in Britain are not celebrated to the same extent as National Days in countries like France or America.

Scotlands National Day is St. Andrews Day (30 November), which has now largely been overshadowed by Burns Night. St.Andrew, one of Christs twelve apostles, is the patron saint of Scotland. Some of his bones are said to have been brought to what is now St.Andrews in Fife during the 4th century. Since medieval times the X-shaped saltire cross upon which St.Andrew was supposedly crucified has been the Scottish national symbol.


St. Davids Day (1 March) is the national day of Wales. St.David (c.520-588), the patron saint of Wales, was the founder and first abbot-bishop of Menevia, now St.Davids in Dyfed, South Wales. The day is commemorated by the wearing of daffodils or leeks by patriotic Welsh people. Both plants are traditionally regarded as the national emblems of Wales.

Englands national day is St.Georges Day (23 April). St.George is the patron saint of England. A story that first appeared in the 6th century tells that St.George rescued a hapless maid by slaying a fearsome fire-breathing dragon! The saints name was shouted as a battle cry by English knights who fought beneath the red-cross banner of St.George during the Hundred Years War (1338-1453). This is immortalised in Shakespeares play Henry V in the lines:

"I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The games afoot:
Follow your spirit; and, upon this charge
Cry "God for Harry! England and Saint George!""

Today the red cross of St.George still flies above every English parish church to mark the saints day.

St.Patricks Day (17th March) is an official Bank Holiday in Northern Ireland. The work of St.Patrick (c.389-c.461) was a vital factor in the spread of Christianity in Ireland. Born in Britain, he was carried off by pirates, and spent six years in slavery before escaping and training as a missionary. The day is marked by the wearing of shamrocks (a clover-like plant), the national badge of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Q10. How do the British celebrate traditional and religious holidays?

Christmas Day

Christmas paper

In Britain, Christmas Day is normally spent at home, with the family, and it is regarded as a celebration of the family and its continuity. Preparations start well in advance, with the sending of Christmas cards and installation of a decorated Christmas tree in a prominent place in the home. Although it is now a firmly established tradition, the Christmas tree was first popularised by Queen Victorias husband, Prince Albert, who introduced the custom from his native Germany in 1840.

Some houses are decorated with evergreens (plants which do not lose their leaves in winter); a wreath of holly on the front door and garlands of holly, ivy and fir indoors. Bunches of mistletoe are often hung above doorways - any couple passing underneath must exchange kisses! Traditional food is prepared: sweet mince pies, a rich Christmas cake and the Christmas pudding. Everyone has their own favourite recipe, but theyre all packed full of spices, nuts, dried fruit and brandy.

Presents are bought and wrapped, and traditionally placed under the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. Christmas is both a secular and a religious holiday, and many families like to attend a midnight service at church on Christmas Eve, or celebrate Christmas in church on Christmas morning.

The excitement begins for children on Christmas Eve, when they hang up their stockings (an old sock or, more ambitiously, pillow cases) around the fireplace or at the foot of the bed for Father Christmas to fill with presents. The English Father Christmas or Santa Claus is first recorded in his traditional red and white outfit in a woodcut of 1653, but the story of Santa arriving in his reindeer-drawn sleigh and descending down the chimney to fill childrens stockings with presents derives from the USA.

Practically everyone sits down to a Christmas dinner in the early afternoon of Christmas Day, traditionally roast turkey, but some families prefer goose or roast beef. The turkey is followed by the Christmas pudding, brought to the table flaming hot. Brandy is poured over the pudding, then lit. The day ends with everyone relaxing, watching television or playing guessing-games like charades.

Boxing Day

Boxing Day (26 December) is so-called because its a time when tradespeople receive a "Christmas Box" - some money in appreciation of the work theyve carried out all year.

Traditionally a time for visiting family and friends and indulging in more feasting, Boxing Day is a popular day for football matches and other sporting fixtures.

The day is a public holiday, so shops and banks are closed. More recently, some shops have broken with tradition and now open on Boxing Day to encourage shoppers who cant wait to spend their Christmas money!

New Year

New Year is often launched with a party - either at home with family and friends or a gathering in the local pubs and clubs. Merrymaking begins on New Years Eve and builds up to midnight. The stroke of midnight is the cue for much cheering, hooting, whistling, kissing and the drinking of toasts.

Tradition has it that the first person over the threshold on New Years Day will dictate the luck brought to the household in the coming year. This is known as First Footing. At midnight on 31 December, particularly in Scotland and northern England, "first footers" (traditionally a tall, dark, good-looking man) step over the threshold bringing the New Years Luck. The first footer usually brings a piece of coal, a loaf and a bottle of whisky. On entering he must place the fuel on the fire, put the loaf on the table and pour a glass for the head of the house, all normally without speaking or being spoken to until he wishes everyone "A Happy New Year". He must, of course, enter by the front door and leave by the back.

In Wales the back door is opened to release the Old Year at the first stroke of midnight. It is then locked up to "keep the luck in" and at the last stroke the New Year is let in at the front door.

In Scotland the New Year remains the greatest of all annual festivals. Called "Hogmanay" (a word whose meaning has never been satisfactorily established), its marked by an evening of drinking and merrymaking, culminating at the stroke of midnight when huge gatherings of people at Edinburghs Tron Kirk and Glasgows George Square greet the New Year by linking arms and singing "Auld Lang Syne".


Halloween carved pumpkin

Halloween (31 October) and its associations with witches and ghosts derives from the Celtic Old Years Night - the night of all witches, when spirits were said to walk the earth. Witches and supernatural beings are still remembered all over Britain, when bands of children roam the streets in ghoulish costumes, carrying Halloween lanterns - pumpkins hollowed out with a ghostly face cut into one side, which glows when a candle is placed inside.

In recent years the custom of "trick or treating" has gained in popularity. Although we commonly associate this practice with America, the custom originated in England as "Mischief Night" when children declared one "lawless night" of unpunished pranks (usually May Day eve or Halloween).

Halloween parties (usually for children) include games such as apple bobbing, where apples are either floated in water or hung by a string. The object of the game is for the players to put their hands behind their back and try to seize an apple with their teeth alone.


Easter day is named after the Saxon goddess of spring, Eostre, whose feast took place at the spring equinox. Easter is now the spring feast of the Christian church, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus. It falls on a Sunday between 22 March and 25 April, according to the church calendar.

Traditionally Easter eggs, dyed and decorated or made of chocolate, are given as presents symbolising new life and the coming of spring.

Egg rolling competitions take place in northern Britain on Easter Monday; hard-boiled eggs are rolled down a slope, with the winner being - according to local preference - the one which rolls the furthest, survives the most rolls, or is successfully aimed between two pegs! The best publicised event takes place at Avenham Park in Preston, Lancashire.

Easter parades are also part of the Easter tradition, with those taking part wearing Easter bonnets or hats, traditionally decorated with spring flowers and ribbons.

Q11. What and when are "bank" holidays?

Many public holidays in Britain are known as bank holidays - so called because these are days on which banks are legally closed. Most fall on a Monday.

In England and Wales there are six bank holidays: New Years Day, Easter Monday, May Day (not necessarily 1 May), Spring and Late Summer Holidays at the end of May and August respectively, and Boxing Day. There are also two common law holidays on Good Friday and Christmas Day.

In Scotland there are nine public holidays: New Years Day, January 2, Good Friday, Easter Monday, May Day (not necessarily 1 May), Spring and Summer Holidays at the end of May and the beginning of August respectively, Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

In Northern Ireland there are seven bank holidays: New Years Day, St. Patricks Day (17 March), Easter Monday, May Day (not necessarily 1 May), Spring and Late Summer Holidays at the end of May and August respectively, and Boxing Day. There are also two common law holidays on Good Friday and Christmas Day and a public holiday on the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne (12 July).

snoozing man

There are holidays in lieu of those public holidays which fall at weekends. Shops, museums and other public attractions, such as historic houses and sports centres, may close on certain public holidays, particularly Christmas Day. As this varies, it is advisable to check with the individual establishment beforehand.

Q12. What is Pancake Day?

Pancake day or "Shrove Tuesday" (the Tuesday which falls 41 days before Easter) is the eve of the Lenten fast. On this day in earlier times all Christians made their compulsory confessions or "shrifts" from which the name "Shrove Tuesday" derives, and took their last opportunity to eat up all the rich foods prohibited during Lent. Thus all eggs, butter and fat remaining in the house were made into pancakes, hence the festivals usual nickname of Pancake Day.

Though the strict observance of Lent is now rare, everyone enjoys eating the customary pancakes and some regions celebrate the day with pancake races. The oldest and most famous is held at Olney in Buckinghamshire. The race is run over 415 yards (about 380 metres) by women over sixteen, wearing a cap and apron. They must "toss" their pancake (flip it over in the frying pan) at least three times during the race. The winner receives a kiss from the Pancake Bell Ringer - church bells were traditionally rung to remind parishioners to come to confession - and a prayer book from the vicar!

Q13. What is Guy Fawkes Night?

Guy Fawkes poster

In 1605 Guy Fawkes, a Roman Catholic, and his fellow conspirators attempted to blow up King James I and the Houses of Parliament, as they disagreed with the Kings Protestant policies. They succeeded in storing some 30 barrels of gunpowder in a cellar under the Houses of Parliament, but before Parliament opened on November 5th, the "gunpowder plot", as it has come to be known, was discovered. Guy Fawkes and his colleagues were executed for treason.

Since then, the 5th of November has been celebrated in England by the burning on bonfires of stuffed figures of Guy Fawkes, usually accompanied by firework displays. These may be large organised events open to members of the public, or smaller, private gatherings of family and friends held in peoples gardens.

"Guy Fawkes Night" is also known as "Bonfire Night" or "Firework Night". In the days leading up to the 5th of November children traditionally take their home-made Guys out onto the streets of their town or village and ask passers-by for "a penny for the Guy". This money is supposedly used as a contribution towards their fireworks.

Q14. What is the significance of the poppy and when is it worn?

Poppy flower

The poppy is traditionally worn on Remembrance Day in memory of service personnel who lost their lives in the First and Second World Wars and subsequent conflicts like the Falklands War and the Gulf War.

The red poppies represent the poppies that grew in the cornfields of Flanders in the First World War where many thousands of soldiers lost their lives. The paper poppies that are worn today are made by ex-service personnel and are sold by representatives of the Royal British Legion, an organisation of ex-servicemen and women.

Remembrance Day falls on the nearest Sunday to 11 November - the day peace was declared. The day is commemorated by church services around the country and a parade of ex-service personnel in Londons Whitehall. Wreaths of poppies are left at the Cenotaph, a war memorial in Whitehall, built after the First World War.

By tradition, at 11:00 am on Remembrance Sunday a two minute silence is observed at the Cenotaph and elsewhere in the country to honour those who lost their lives.

Q15. What are Britains national flowers?

The national flower of England is the rose. The flower has been adopted as Englands emblem since the time of the Wars of the Roses - civil wars (1455-1485) between the royal house of Lancaster (whose emblem was a red rose) and the royal house of York (whose emblem was a white rose). The Yorkist regime ended with the defeat of King Richard III by the future Henry VII at Bosworth on 22 August 1485, and the two roses were united into the Tudor rose (a red rose with a white centre) by Henry VII when he married Elizabeth of York.

The national flower of Northern Ireland is the shamrock, a three-leaved plant similar to clover which is said to have been used by St.Patrick to illustrate the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

The Scottish national flower is the thistle, a prickly-leaved purple flower which was first used in the 15th century as a symbol of defence.

The three flowers - rose, thistle and shamrock - are often displayed beneath the shield on the Royal Coat of Arms.

The national flower of Wales is usually considered to be the daffodil, which is traditionally worn on St.Davids Day. However, the humble leek is also considered to be a traditional emblem of Wales, possibly because its colours, white over green, echo the ancient Welsh standard.

Q16. Where can I find out about British folk songs and folk tales?

Numerous books have been written about British folk tales, and most libraries in Britain stock a selection of books on both local and national folklore. Alternatively, contact:

The English Folk Dance and Song Society
Cecil Sharp House, 2 Regents Park Road, London NW1 7AY
Tel.: +44 (0) 171 485 2206 Fax: +44 (0) 171 284 0523

The English Folk Dance and Song Society have an extensive library, open to the public (please telephone for details).

A further valuable source of information is the library of the:

Folklore Society, University College
Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT
Tel.: +44 (0) 171 387 5894

Access to the library is by a day pass issued to visitors, or by membership of the Society. Please write for details.

Q17. What are Britains national costumes?


Singer Manifacturing Co. 1894 postcard

Although England is a country rich in folklore and traditions, it has no definitive "national" costume. The most well-known folk costumes are those of the Morris dancers. They can be seen in many country villages during the summer months performing folk dances that once held ritualistic and magical meanings associated with the awakening of the earth.

The costume varies from team to team, but basically consists of white trousers, a white shirt, a pad of bells worn around the calf of the leg, and a hat made of felt or straw, decorated with ribbons and flowers. The bells and ribbons are said to banish harm and bring fertility. Morris dancing was originally an all-male tradition, but now some teams feature women dancers too.


Singer Manifacturing Co. 1894 postcard

Perhaps the most famous national costume in Britain is the Scottish kilt with its distinctive tartan pattern. The kilt is a length of woollen cloth, pleated except for sections at each end. The kilt is worn around the waist, with the pleats at the back and the ends crossed over at the front and secured with a pin.

Each Scottish Clan or family has its own distinctive tartan pattern, made up of different colours, and an official register of tartans is maintained by the Scottish Tartans Society in Perthshire. Contact:

Scottish Tartans Society, Port-Na-Craig, Pitlochry, PH16 5ND,
Tel.: +44 (0) 179 647 4079 or 135 072 8849
Email research.enquiries@perth.almac.co.uk

The kilt forms part of the traditional Highland dress, worn by Scottish clansmen and Scottish regiments. In addition to the kilt, a plaid or tartan cloak is worn over one shoulder, and a goatskin pouch or sporran is worn at the front of the kilt. Sometimes tartan trousers or trews are worn instead of a kilt. Women do not have their own distinctive national dress in Scotland, although tartan fabrics are widely used in clothing, and the kilt is also worn.


Singer Manifacturing Co. 1894 postcard

The national costume of Wales is based on the peasant costume of the 18th and 19th centuries. Because Wales was isolated geographically from the rest of Britain, many of the individual traits of costume and materials were retained in Welsh dress long after they had died out elsewhere.

Unlike Scotland, the distinctive folk costume of Wales was worn by the women, consisting of a long gown (betgwn) or skirt, worn with a petticoat (pais - the favoured colour was scarlet) and topped with a shawl folded diagonally to form a triangle and draped around the shoulders, with one corner hanging down and two others pinned in front. Aprons were universally worn, sometimes simple, sometimes decorated with colourful embroidery.

The most distinctive part of the costume was the tall black "Welsh hat" or "beaver hat", thought to have originated in France at the end of the 18th century. The hats had a tall crown, cylindrical or conical in shape with a wide brim, and were usually trimmed with a band of silk or crêpe.

Northern Ireland

Early Irish dress, based on Gaelic and Norse costumes, consisted of check trews for men, worn with a fringed cloak or mantle, or a short tunic for both men and women, worn with a fringed cloak. This style of dressing was prohibited in the 16th century under sumptuary laws, passed to suppress the distinctive Irish dress and so overcome Irish reluctance to become part of England. In particular, the wearing of the fringed cloak was forbidden, as was the wearing of trews or any saffron-coloured garment (saffron yellow was an important feature of Irish costume).

Although a strong tradition of wearing folk costume does not survive in Northern Ireland today, folk music and folk dancing are very important.

Q18. What is Burns Night and how is it celebrated?

Commemorating the birthday of the Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759 -1796), Burns Night is a patriotic festival celebrated on 25 January, wherever Scots gather together.

First commemorated by the "Burns Clubs" soon after the poets death, the evening begins with traditional food, often with a menu written in the poets Lallans (Lowlands Scots) dialect and sometimes in rhyme. This may include such delicacies as "Powsowdie" (sheeps head broth); Cabbie law (dried cod with horseradish and egg sauce) and Finnan toasties (smoked haddock). But pride of place goes to the haggis - minced mutton, offal, oatmeal and spices boiled in a sheeps stomach!

The meal ends with multifarious toasts, followed by patriotic and sentimental speeches, Scottish dancing and performances of Burns narrative poems, especially "Tam o Shanter" and concluding with everybody linking arms and singing the most famous of them all, "Auld Lang Syne".

The words of "auld lang syne" which means literally old long since, or "long ago", are:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to min?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days o auld Lang syne?
For auld Lang syne, my dear,
For auld Lang syne,
Well take a cup o kindness yet
For auld Lang syne!

Roughly, the verses mean:

Should old friends be forgotten,
and never brought to mind (remembered)?
Should old friends be forgotten,
and days of long ago.
For (the sake of) long ago, my dear,
for (the sake of) long ago,
Well drink a toast
for the sake of long ago!

Q19. What are the most common superstitions in Britain?

There are many superstitions in Britain, but one of the most widely-held is that it is unlucky to walk under a ladder - even if it means stepping off the pavement into a busy street!

If you must pass under a ladder you can avoid bad luck by crossing your fingers and keeping them crossed until youve seen a dog. Alternatively, you must lick your finger and make a cross on the toe of your shoe, and not look again at the shoe until the mark has dried.

Another common superstition is that it is unlucky to open an umbrella in the house - it will either bring misfortune to the person that opened it or to the household. Anyone opening an umbrella in fine weather is unpopular, as it inevitably brings rain!

The number 13 is said to be unlucky for some, and when the 13th day of the month falls on a Friday, anyone wishing to avoid an inauspicious event had better stay indoors.

The worst misfortune that can befall you is incurred by breaking a mirror, as it brings seven years of bad luck! The superstition is supposed to have originated in ancient times, when mirrors were considered to be tools of the gods.

Black cats are generally considered lucky in Britain, even though they are associated with witchcraft - a witchs animal-familiar is usually a black cat. It is especially lucky if a black cat crosses your path - although in America the exact opposite belief prevails.

Finally, a commonly-held superstition is that of touching wood for luck. This measure is most often taken if you think you have said something that is tempting fate, such as "my car has never broken down - touch wood!"

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